Brigid Travels

Updates from The Road

Sri Lanka - Follow up from i-to-i [2005]


In some of the previous posts, I talked about how we all thought i-to-i was looking pretty shady. After arriving home, I wrote to the US and UK coordinators to clarify. Here's the content of our exchanges. I feel better about them, but some of the folks that stayed in Sri Lanka continued having logistics problems, especially in trying to switch assignments.


July 25 (excerpt from Brigid to Susanna and Melanie): ... But I do have some questions about i-to-i, as do the rest of my placement-mates. We all have the best of intentions, but it seemed to us that the project was sorely underfunded and not very well organized. If our activities were a bit more organized, with a long term plan in mind, we all felt it would have been a much more productive placement. We also had some situations where there was not enough equipment for us to use (rakes, shovels) and some of sub-par quality. Even materials for teaching English, or toys for the camps had to be purchased by the team members.

I am very aware of cultural sensitivity, and I do not want to give the impression that I (we) were trying to imposed our culture on the situation. We do understand that the government is moving very slowly and until they do their thing much of the rebuilding cannot occur. We do understand that we cannot give things or money to individuals. But there is so much we could have done given a bit more organization, planning and funding, so much more to be done for the community at large/in common.

We brought these points up to the in country coordinator, who visited us this past Wed. He said we are the first group to bring up these concerns, and that it is all out of his control. He said he cannot talk about money details. But he did say that he only gets $1000 per month for transportation for the project, and everything we do needs to cost no money. This does not make any sense to us. How could he get no more money considering all the money we all paid to go to the placement?

He mentioned that he put together a budget asking for that amount of money a long time ago when they were just doing beach cleanup, and now it is impossible to change. That also makes no sense to me, as the project itself has changed.

We also mentioned that most, if not all, of the trash did not look like tsunami leavings, but rather regular beach trash. He admitted that it was in fact normal monsoon season beach trash because the tsunami rubble in the area has already been cleared. He said maybe in the next few weeks, part of the group would be moved down the coast to where there was still tsunami rubble to be cleared. So we were not, in fact, doing tsunami cleanup and the project is mislabled.

And what is probably the biggest black mark, we found out later that every single group has brought up these points to him. The fact that he acted like it was all new is an insult to our intelligence and our desire to help make the future groups more effective. We did expect to see corruption and greed, but in the Sri Lankan govenrnment, not in i-to-i.

I am fully aware that i-to-i is a profit-making entity, and that is fine with all concerned if the profit margins are reasonable. But according to my calculations, profits from the 20 people in the placement were on the order of 85% of the fees (assuming $15/night per person, $1000/month for truck, $4000 for coordination and staffing). That seems like i-to-i is taking advantage of people's good will and willingness to help. ...


July 29 (excerpt from Susanna to Brigid and Melanie): ... When the Tsunami Relief project first began, it was funded by i-to-i and sufficient equipment was purchased to assist with the work involved. Monthly donations have been made to the project from the Helping Hand Foundation (i-to-i's charity arm) and there is still more funding available for this project. If we are notified by our in-country team that more funding is required for equipment etc., we will transfer more funds over to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, many of the items that have been used or purchased by previous groups have been stolen or misplaced, and that may be the reason why there was not enough equipment. Volunteers should most certainly not be purchasing items of equipment for the community and should not be made to feel like they should have to.

The future plan for the Tsunami Relief project is to continue the work with the equipment that has already been purchased, but not to continue with the funding once it has run out. We have found that the money going to the communities has changed the relationship of the volunteers to the community members and they are more interested in what they can get rather than how they can be helped. Our in-country team have told us that they do not want volunteers to give money to the project or to individuals in the community, and in fact they do not really want any more funding from the Helping Hand Foundation. We are aware that the communities have become too reliant on volunteer money and we would prefer to wean them off these donations and concentrate on providing help rather than funding, which was the original aim of this project. This is being stressed in the orientation, so that all volunteers are aware when they arrive that they should not be making financial contributions to the communities.

The funding that we will be sending through to Sri Lanka in the future will be for long-term projects and, depending on government approval, we will be building permanent centres for the communities. Unfortunately we cannot help everywhere, but through the Helping Hand Foundation we aim to provide structured and well-thought-out donations. The work that is being done by i-to-i volunteers is beneficial to the local communities because it improves their outlook in terms of cleaning the environment, entertainment and education, as opposed to financial aid.

I have attached a document which explains how volunteers' placement fees are distributed (this is also available to all volunteers in the Guide to Volunteering in Sri Lanka, p. 20-21) (content: 1/3=administration and training costs; 1/3 recruitment and project development costs; 1/3 in-country support, including donation to Helping Hand foundation). As you will see, your fee covers a whole host of expenses that make your volunteer experience possible, and our profits are minimal. The profits that we do make go back into the business, in terms of developing new projects, destinations and products. As explained above, we generally do not make financial donations directly to the projects because we do not want to encourage financial dependency on volunteer money. Unfortunately, a lot of corruption can exist in developing countries, and if we were to give a financial donation for each volunteer we could not guarantee that the money was going directly to benefit the projects and not into someone's back pocket.

You mention that you had a discussion with your in-country coordinator regarding the funding for the Tsunami Relief project and also nature of the clean-up activities. I presume you are talking about Harinda, who supervises the Tsunami Relief project for i-to-i. Harinda does receive finances from i-to-i for transportation etc., but he is not responsible for managing the funding of the Tsunami Relief work. This is probably why he was unable to discuss in detail the funding of the project with the volunteers. I am not sure why Harindra said that he had not had similar discussions with previous groups of volunteers, but Sri Lankans typically avoid conflict and therefore he may have tried to avoid the issue rather than entering into a confrontation with a group of volunteers.

I have recently been made aware that there is not so much to do in Kalutara in terms of beach clearance, as our volunteers have now been working there for several months and much of the work has been done. You are correct in thinking that we are moving down to Galle in the near future, and dividing the group in two so that half can continue the community work in Kalutara. I believe that in Galle there is more beach clearance work to do. However, I would say that part of the role of volunteers is to improve the appearance of the environment of affected communities, and to educate them about long-term conservation issues. Part of this may be clearing up general beach trash and encouraging the communities to use bins rather than dumping rubbish in unsafe areas.

I do not believe the Tsunami Relief project is mislabled, as it is not called "Beach Clearance" or "Tsunami Clean-up" - it is called "Sri Lanka Tsunami Relief work". When we originally started this project, we did call it "Sri Lanka Beach Clearance Challenge", but we advised volunteers at a later stage that we were changing it to a Community Development project because the activities now involved community work as well as beach cleaning activities. I have recently sent the Tsunami Relief project information and web copy to the team in Sri Lanka so that they can review the information and if there are any inaccuracies in terms of the activities listed, we will change it accordingly. ...


August 8 (excerpt from Brigid to Susanna and Melanie): ... By the way, the contact I was referring to was not Harinda (who I think is doing a good job), but the older gentleman that did the initial orientation, and then came and visited the last Wed. I'm not sure of his name or role but he said he was an i-to-i representative in Sri Lanka.

I guess we didn't realize the project is being phased out - we were under the impression people would be there for the long haul.

So one of our main concerns was that there was really no long term planning... and knowing now that the project will be phasing out, I think it is even more of a concern. Your comment that i-to-i is looking for this type of opportunity is encouraging, but are there any plans for Kalutara specifically?

The teams (and especially the longer term volunteers) are trying to establish a rapport with the local community. This would be for things like the teaching at the community center and visiting the camps, ignoring for the moment the one-off cleanup and tree/sign installation. The project in general has now established a pattern of being there so that the locals now expect the services to continue. Do you know if there are any plans to get permanent resources or at least let the community know when things will change?

I am concerned that the locals were very resistant to accepting the Westerners but as I was leaving they were getting more comfortable. And once they are completely comfortable and start relying on that situation, it may be pulled out from under them.

As far as the volunteers buying things, we were definitely told not to buy anything for any individuals, but as people saw the need for supplies or things that could be shared at the camps they did willingly buy things that would make their 'job' or teaching or comforting easier - books, crayons, makeup, beads, etc.

I can definitely appreciate that there may be a disconnect between volunteer expectations/impressions, i-to-i assumptions and the reality of the team running the projects, especially in developing countries. I guess it really would have helped us to have the context of the local team... not just what were expected to do for the 2 weeks, but more of the long term plans for the effort. Thinking back, I guess they did try to do that at the intial orientation, but it just didn't mesh with our experiences. ...


August 9 (excerpt from Susanna to Brigid and Melanie): ... At the moment, we are planning to continue the same kind of work in Kalutara until the end of this year. We have also just started to do similar work in Galle. Our long-term plan (i.e. from the beginning of next year onwards) would be to establish more permanent, sustainable projects such as work in community centres and schools, rather than the kind of "relief" work we have been doing so far, the need for which is finite. We are certainly not going to be abandoning the areas we have been working in, particularly because (as you have noted) it takes a long time to gain the trust and acceptance of the locals, but the type of work we will be doing will evolve into something different. Already we are finding that there is less and less beach clearance and rebuilding to do, and the focus has shifted to more long-term types of assistance such as teaching English. It makes sense to redefine the project as a long-term venture in the next few months, as the needs of the communities change. ...