This blog is part of a series detailing the events of my recent trip to Uganda. If this is the first you’ve read of the journey, then backtracking to part one and part two and part three and part four of this series will help put these events into perspective. I realize that’s a lot of reading, but I promise it’s worth it. If you’re feeling weary, then you’ll be pleased to know that this is the very last blog in this series! Picking up where I left off…
My teenage daughter and I were originally placed at God’s Grace Orphanage/ God’s Grace Childcare Center in Kampala, Uganda during the month of June 2013. We had signed up for a short stint of orphanage work through International Volunteer Headquarters/ International Volunteer HQ/ IVHQ. Plagued by the things I saw during that time, I returned to Uganda in September 2013, independent of IVHQ. During that visit, the orphanage was shuttered by Ministry officials.
When I returned home from Uganda at the conclusion of this most recent trip, I was exhausted and deeply disillusioned with IVHQ. I was frustrated at their support and continued partnership with James Nadiope/ Rev. Jim Nadiope/ Prince James Kange Nadiope of International Volunteer Network/ IVN, the incountry partner selected by IVHQ to manage all their Ugandan programs. Jim Nadiope has:
• Repeatedly chosen placements which violate the IVHQ Responsible Volunteer Travel Policy
• Required volunteers to sign contractual agreements at orientation which prohibit them from speaking negatively about their experiences
• Placed his volunteers in positions which compromised their safety
• Been inattentive to the needs and concerns of his volunteers
• Been unnecessarily harsh with his local staff
• Attempted to intimidate those who disagree with him or criticize his program
The internet is littered with blogs and reviews, (predating IVHQ and going all the way back to Jim’s African Child Foundation in 2005) which question his trustworthiness and transparency.
After a series of robust discussions with Daniel Radcliffe (IVHQ’s executive director) and the filing of a flurry of complaints about Jim Nadiope’s conduct from past and present volunteers over the last few weeks, IVHQ has wisely decided to end their partnership with James Nadiope and the International Volunteer Network. Daniel wrote me this week to say that the Uganda program has been temporarily suspended while senior staff visit Uganda to resolve these issues and identify a new partner with which to move forward.
While I understand and appreciate IVHQ’s initial commitment to their partnership, I’m relieved that they have listened seriously to the concerns of their volunteers, taken their feedback under advisement and investigated the claims. That’s the duty of every responsible “volunteer abroad” organization and I’m pleased with the recent actions undertaken by IVHQ corporate in New Zealand. While I certainly wish the oversight of the Uganda program had been more stringent, they’re doing the right thing in the end and that is to be applauded. I recognize and respect the additional manpower and diminished profits this transition will necessitate, which is all the more reason it is to be applauded.
My concerns about short-term “voluntourism” and the inadvertent damage it might do to local communities remains. However, I am encouraged by an announcement from IVHQ this week, signaling the beginning of a new initiative they’re calling “Responsible Volunteering Research.” From their blog:
“Hi, I’m Ben Brown and IVHQ has recently brought me on as an independent Social Responsibility Advisor. Over the next two months, I’m going to be conducting some research to try and understand the social impact of IVHQ’s volunteer programs. I’m going to be visiting projects in India and Cambodia to learn about the long term positive impacts that they are having in local communities. I also want to know how IVHQ’s Responsible Volunteer Travel Policies are understood and adhered by volunteers and staff on the ground, and I’m keen to ask local people who are not involved in the projects what they think about them.”
I wish Ben all the best and pray that he’ll objectively approach the task and drill deep to understand the long term impacts these programs have on indigenous communities. In the meantime…
If your heart is set on volunteering in a foreign orphanage, may I humbly suggest these resources?
1. The shortlist of World Responsible Tourism Awards nominees reveal a plethora of resources for responsible volunteer travel, including the lovely people at Responsible Travel and People & Places UK.
2. Here are some great suggestions from Rage Against the Minivan:
• Consider supporting an already-established orphanage that works towards permanency.
• Consider supporting foster-care programs in third-world countries, or orphanages that run a family model.
• Consider supporting a ministry that rehomes children like the Rileys in Uganda.
The following are my suggestions should you feel compelled to dust off your passport, pack your bags and board a plane:
a) Beware of any agency that’s willing to assign you to an orphanage program (or any other program, for that matter) without knowing your qualifications. Are you a parent? A social worker? A teacher? A therapist? Do you have any experience working with children? In America, we wouldn’t dream of letting just anyone waltz in as a trusted volunteer in our orphanage and foster care systems. The same should be true for foreign systems as well. I’d consider it a red flag if the referring agency isn’t scrutinizing you and ensuring that your skills match the placement.
b) Consider staying for a minimum of 4 weeks (and preferably longer). As callous as it sounds, I don’t think any good can result from one or two week orphanage placements. If you can only travel for a short stint, consider a placement which doesn’t involve children. There are lots of fantastic volunteer opps out there that are better-suited to short-term travel.
c) You should refuse to work with any organization which doesn’t require a criminal background check. Legitimate organizations who are interested in the protection of children (and not just the pursuit of your dollar) will insist upon these background checks. This is a tragic example of what can happen when this vital step is excluded from the process.
d) Ask the referring organization to name your placement before you head overseas. It’s common practice to keep volunteers in the dark until they arrive incountry to ensure that they can’t research the legitimacy or the needs of the organization they’ll be working alongside. The result? Volunteers are often ill-prepared and mismatched. This strategy only serves the volunteer organizations: by keeping volunteers in the dark until they’ve arrived on foreign soil, the companies sending them can ensure that volunteers “do not have too high expectations” (actual quote from an email written by the CEO of a prominent voluntourism company, explaining- in part- why they don’t reveal placements before travel). Shudder.
Once you know where you’re headed, ask these questions:
1. Under what circumstances do children come to live at this facility?
2. Is the orphanage legally registered with the appropriate authorities within the home country?
3. Does the orphanage have a child protection policy?
4. What is their policy for resettling orphans, either with extended family or with adopted families?
5. Are visitors allowed to just drop in and visit children without having their backgrounds checked?
e) Research your referring organization before heading overseas. Ask an abundance of questions. Google the referring organization’s name, the incountry partner’s name and the name of your placement. Read reviews. Not just the ones on the first page, go waaaaaay back to page 10 of those Google results and see what the Internets are saying about them.
And with that, I lay this saga to bed- at least on this blog. Sadly, God’s Grace Orphanage has resumed operations in Uganda. Not legally and not with the blessing of the Ministry that’s charged with overseeing them, but Maria Kiwumulo seems to care little about the law. I will continue to work on behalf of the GGO kids, but I promise not to make Lucky Break readers wade through those posts.
Deep gratitude to: Paige, Sofia, Jon, Jennie, Caroline, Robert, Savannah, Chloe, Rachael (x2!), Sophie, Lauren, Marilyn, Michele, Mollie, Connor, Nash, Dipika, Jacalyn and Georgia- IVHQ volunteers whom I had the pleasure of personally working alongside at GGO, each of whom embodied the spirit of compassion and had the courage to stand strong for the children of God’s Grace Orphanage. Special thanks to my driver Dauda for his wisdom and protection while I was in Uganda. I will be eternally grateful to my dear friend Robert, who single-handedly gives me hope for Uganda and has always been ready with an open home and a willing ear and who has put himself in harm’s way to see that the GGO kids are safe. A tip of the hat to Elijah and James of the UPF for my security detail. Fred Onduri (Commissioner of the Ministry of Gender, Labour & Social Development), Angella Rubarema (Deputy Head of the OVC National Implementation Unit at the Ministry) and Mark Riley (Alternative Care Consultant at the Ministry) are to be applauded for their courage on behalf of the vulnerable children of Uganda.
Do I still love Uganda? Absolutely. Honest Ugandans are some of the best people on earth: warm, gracious, and kind. Will I be returning to Uganda? You bet. I came to this East African nation years before I ever learned of God’s Grace and Maria Kiwumulo and I will continue to return it for many years to come. This blog isn’t intended to talk you out of going… quite the contrary, I believe that a journey to Africa will be one of the richest experiences of your life. But I am pleading with you to go smart. Go with your eyes wide open. Consider the impact that your decisions will have on the local population. Take their needs into consideration, analyze the situation from all angles and ensure that your movements and expenditures have their best interest (rather than your resume bling or Facebook photo album) at heart. And for the love of God, please thoroughly investigate those you chose to partner with.
The children of God’s Grace will continue to be close in my thoughts. I pray for their safety and I pray for their mental peace. Most of all, I pray that they will be filled with hope for something better. Please consider joining me in those prayers…
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead