The risk from parasites is high in Nepal — Head lice. Leeches. Giardiasis. Hookworm. Global Volunteer Network.
I Make Post-Placement Contact with Global Volunteer Network – New Zealand
Back from Nepal on December first, 2013, I am eager to inform Global Volunteer Network, about irregularities I noted during my two months stay. It was Global Volunteer Network who’d brokered my placement at Shining Stars Childrens Home in Nepal, at a cost to me of $2,200 US. (Travel not included!).
Erin, Global Volunteer Network’s CEO, and her subordinate, Fiona, are my contacts. I let them know first off that their advertisement claiming 24/7 volunteer support is false advertising. I hadn’t suffered particularly from having no support. Although the office tasked with providing support to volunteers was closed during the 10 days holiday (I arrived in the village at festival time), although the children’s home internet connection was not working and my Nokia — serviceable throughout Europe — could not pick up a signal in the Kathmandu Valley, although I was a little concerned that my family might worry about me after a week of no FB updates, in spite of all this, I was fine. I am old, resourceful, and have a strong constitution.
But Erin (I said) think of an eighteen year old volunteer! Someone that young might have freaked out to find himself in a Nepal village, living with a family with no English, in a work placement where the only adult English speaker, the house manager, was gone for the festival’s duration. How would that young person manage if they came down with (for example) a parasitic infection? And there is the question of the false advertising, I added.
I had started to worry about parasites. I’d learned, by perusing the shiny Global Volunteer Network site, the one with the broadly smiling Colin Salisbury, and the Bill Gates recommendation, that my ‘volunteer program fee’, was used to finance my Nepal experience, my food, lodging in the village, one night’s stay in a Kathmandu guest house (though I and another volunteer didn’t get this, We’d to pay the hotel ourselves) and a cab from the airport on arrival, and the all-important (but conspicuously absent) 24/7 volunteer support, and ‘training’. I knew that these costs could not possibly amount to $2,200 but I assumed that I was making a charitable donation and my program fee would help support the children’s home and the local community, I supposed a small percentage would go to the care and feeding of GVN’s corporate entity. I am happy to see my money flowing in those directions.
Where did my money actually go? Well here’s the thing about parasites. They are sneaky little buggers. The Colins and the Erins of this world appear benign. They shake hands with you and your hands look clean but make no mistake you have been touched with something corrupt, and it’s already feeding on you. You don’t actually see what they are doing. They hide in the seams.
So I wouldn’t have minded if my money had gone to feeding the kids in the home. I’d have been happy.
Chapter II Oliver Asks for More
One day I was in the ‘treatment room’ (a small room with a box or two of band aids, a couple of bunks, and a bottle of dettol, and a height chart, and scale). One of the boys, age 16 years, stood on the scale and announced to me that he weighed 48 kg (105 lbs). He stood 167 cm (5’ 5″) tall. I am a slightly-built older woman. I stand 156 cm ( 5’ 1”) tall. I told Harry that he couldn’t possibly be that light. I checked. He did indeed clock in at 48 kg. To prove that the scales must be broken I stood on the scale. I weighed in at a little over 50 kg (112 lbs). Yes. That’s what I weigh. The scales were working; How could a post-adolescent male, four inches taller than I, weigh less than I? But I had been noticing the kids seemed too thin, especially the older boys. I remember my kids as teenagers. They could hoover up the fridge contents in ten minutes and still be hungry.
One of my jobs at the home was to help dish out the twice daily Nepal staple of dal bhat. Each child was given a huge mound of white rice and a ladle of watery lentil soup. Added to this was a good tablespoon of vegetables. In addition, a snack was served early morning and late afternoon — wheat flour biscuits maybe, and sometimes a small glass of milk. At dal bhat the boys would come up for seconds. There was usually enough to give seconds of white rice. There was sometimes enough to give seconds of dal. There was rarely enough to give seconds of vegetables. Some of the boys came up for a third helping of white rice. We’re really scraping the pot at this point and sometimes there is not a grain left to scrape. During the festivals the strict regime is relaxed. For example meat is served: two chickens between 28 – 30 people, and the children would get a piece of fruit, I mean ‘a piece’, not a whole fruit.
I overlapped with a number of other volunteers (oh yes, the money rolls in.) A young American volunteer, at the house manager’s request, did heights/ weights for the resident children and charted same. In the ‘treatment room’ we found a height and weight chart from 2010. A fourth year medical student volunteer from Australia – examined the data and was convinced the children were losing weight. She photographed the charts. On her return home during her post-placement contact she offered her opinion on the height and weight issue also on other issues relating to substandard care of the children. She was soundly rebuffed by Erin and company, had a residency ahead of her, and knew I’d pick up the baton on my return home.
I firstly took up the issue with Miryam, one of the westerners based in Kathmandu. Hers is the job of supporting volunteers. Along with her superior, Kate, she provides case management services for the kids. Makes sure they are OK. Visit the home once a month.
I believe Kate represents Global Volunteer Network in Nepal. I never got a straight answer about her role, function or who she actually reports to. (I digress and I fear irritating my audience. Please bear with me. I am still on the trail of the parasites, Colin, Erin and, yes, let’s add Kate, maybe Fiona too, the ‘program specialist’ . She works at Global Volunteer Network in New Zealand. I expect she is paid for her work).
I talked to Miryam, Kate’s underling — I know this is confusing. Kate and Miryam are based in Nepal. They live in Kathmandu. Kate, as well as working for Global Volunteer Network, runs a business – Himalayan expeditions. She advertises her business at the VSN Shining Stars Childrens Home. One can buy postcard adverts for her business and some of the profits! from the sale of the cards go to Shining Stars! I would call this conflict of interest, but this is Global Volunteer Network and the ethics of parasites.
Miryam, (I said) some of the children seem to be underweight and even hungry. Miryam gave me a lecture of how legumes and rice combined make protein. Miryam, I said, I know all of this but here’s the thing: some of the children seem to be underweight and hungry. No, she said. That’s not true. Some of them seem to have eyesight problems I said. I notice when I write on the white board a number of them have to approach very close to take notes. No. Miryam said. That’s not true. I wondered, I said, if the eye sight problem is a consequence of poor nutrition. No. Miryam said.
One of the girls at the home was being treated with water. She’d been complaining for months of feeling of feeling tired and dizzy. She was diagnosed by Kate’s team as suffering from dehydration. This is illness that is easily treated. She had to drink water. She took a long walk with me one day. I noticed she had to pee twice as often as I. (I’m the elder, our positions should have been reversed. She wasn’t drinking more water than I was). I asked the house manager if she might perhaps see a doctor for blood tests. He took her to the local clinic where she was prescribed antibiotics. Her primary diagnosis was not dehydration. She was found to have a chronic untreated infection.
So at my first conference, (skype), with Erin and Fiona, (Colin would have been at his two martini lunch. He’d have been tucking into his New Zealand lamb) I related all of the above, and more. I tried to help them make a link between payments to them from folk like me, and a Nepal home where kids go hungry. The two things linked in my mind.
Now I know that 50% of kids in Nepal don’t get enough to eat. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. But wouldn’t you expect children living in a home funded by a respected charity, a charity that brokers the placement of volunteers, and takes a hefty fee from them, to land in the advantaged group? In the healthy 50%? We would all agree that these children can’t be kitted out in a way that makes them stand out too much from their disadvantaged peers, but we would expect children in a home under the auspice of Global Volunteer Network to be fed properly and to have shoes without holes, shoes that do not need to be repaired with layers of cardboard. We would expect a charity that receives large ‘volunteer program fees’ to direct some of these funds to making sure the children are fed.
That’s what I told Erin and Fiona on the skype call.
Chapter III I call in my consultants
The minutiae of the email correspondence between Global Volunteer Network and myself (following the first skype conference) apropos of nothing. Months go by. Some pretty useless budget information, an opportunity for Erin, CEO to chide me for my ignorance about how Global Volunteer Network and its subsidiaries really work, futile attempts on my part to communicate my concerns about the children. I tell them I don’t care about the volunteer support part, sure there is false advertising, yes they need to provide what they say they’ll provide, but let’s just look after the kids here. There are issues beyond just feeding the kids, there are discharge planning issues, there are privacy issues, there are issues to do with clothing, shoes, soap, toothpaste, feminine protection for one child (with heavy flow) for whom rags are insufficient to ensure her comfort and dignity. But food. At least get them fed.
I am fortunate in having a friend with a master’s degree in nursing. She’s an academic, a woman who has worked in third world countries, with children, a health-care professional with an interest in nutrition. She charted the children’s heights and weights on the appropriate instrument and was convinced there was cause for concern. But, just to be sure, she elicited the assistance of a pediatrician she had worked with at some point. This doctor currently works in underdeveloped countries. His assignment is to teach health care professionals in these countries about childhood nutrition. He took the data and charted it. He did some additional research to ensure the findings would reflect the situation in Nepal. This information was then directed to Erin and Fiona. A dietitian came on board too and provided additional analyses. There follows a quote from one of the health specialists:
Here are the growth charts of the four children whose growth is very poor and who need to be reviewed by a paediatrician. Each one has crossed two or more centile lines. All of them have poor growth in height as well as weight, and therefore each of them may have a chronic illness, or inadequate nutrition, or both.”
Here is a second quote from another health specialist:
If these children were in this country we would be concerned to get them seen urgently by a senior experienced paediatrician to find the cause of their very poor growth, and to ensure that there are no child protection issues involved.
Erin began her response to the experts’ advice with these words: ‘Whilst not a health care professional, I am of the opinion…’ (By truncating the quote, and omitting the consultant’s exasperated response to Erin’s show of ignorance, I spare Erin further embarrassment).
At some point during the long correspondence. and as time passed, I recalled that the nature of the parasite is to exploit the host, not help it, and realized that Colin and Erin have no genuine desire to help anyone other than themselves. This is an organization that has forgotten its mission, if it ever had one, their energy is directed towards self-preservation maybe towards personal status, financial rewards. You might think that is a harsh thing to say, and it is hard for me to write it of another human being, but one question I asked Global Volunteer Network was this: if your children were hungry would it take three months for you to feed them? I never did get an answer.
What I got was an assurance that since I had made a serious accusation Global Volunteer Network would see that Kate and company had an opportunity to respond. I would hear back ‘in due course’. I pointed out that you do not ask a body that has been shown to need investigation to investigate itself. I think this might have been a new concept for Global Volunteer Network. My eyewitness accounts could now be set up to be refuted. Why? I have no vested interest. I have no motive for interfering other than I don’t like to see neglected children. The consultants worked for no fee only out of concern for children that they saw as neglected.
For those of you hungry for detail, I and some other volunteers did a little sleuthing. Host families are paid 180 rupees a day for providing dal bhat and a bed to a volunteer. 180 rupees is about £1 or $1.70. The indigenous house manager is paid $100 per month. If any one is interested in the budget allocated for food I can include it. I have the information. It is not that the manager gets paid too little, I’m not sure if he should be getting a little more or not, it is again the puny expense of running the home that I want people to know about, the low cost of keeping the free labour that a volunteer provides, while GVS is doing God knows what with the large income derived from volunteer program fees.
I’ve used parasitic behavior as a metaphor for the modus operandi of Global Volunteer Network. But let me be clear. It is not that I have been eaten by the parasite, it is not my $2,200 expenditure that I am bemoaning here, rather it is that Global Volunteer Network is a parasite on the back of impoverished communities and vulnerable children. They are stealing resources meant for the needy.
Chapter IV I am stapled, collated, shredded and trashed
After three months my patience wears thin. Last week I posted some critiques of Global Volunteer Network on volunteer evaluation sites. Global Volunteer Network was quick to post a rebuttal. Out of respect for the limit of your patience I will not regurgitate it here.
Except for a couple of points:
Erin, the signatory of the rebuttal, stated that the height and weight charts we used were out of date; that the most current height and weight charts were kept locked in the Kathmandu for privacy reasons. This is a lie. And Erin knew that the most recent chart had been completed at the home by a volunteer. The house manager had asked her to do this. Erin knew this because I told her. The part about the children’s privacy is also a complete crock! I can’t understand why she would set herself up to be caught out in a lies. The rebuttal also mentioned that Global Volunteer Network was ‘saddened’ that I had gone public while the review was underway and I had thus jeopardized the program funding, the children etc etc.
If I were ever to steal from children, (I won’t, I’ll leave that to Global Volunteer Network), but if I did I would never have Erin as my accomplice. She’d let the cat out the bag.
I wrote to Global Volunteer Network a couple of days ago pointing out that the rebuttal contained bare-faced lies. I received an email this morning stating that since the government in Nepal were closing the children’s home Global Volunteer Network had decided a review was unnecessary.
Global Volunteer Network runs this scheme in Vietnam and Africa, Thailand too I think. Visit their site. Have a look. Ask them before you pay where exactly your Volunteer Program fee will go.
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