Nepal, orphanages and XL-voluntourism: Conor Grennan's 'Little Princes' and the complexities of development

The groundbreaking contribution of this post is, that the good old saying not to judge a book by its cover now needs refinement. When I read One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal I became almost immediately sceptical about Conor Grennan's book Little Princes. When you notice that the book is about Nepal, orphans, volunteering, orphans and a young American man finding his true calling you may want to roll your eyes, but the 119 positive reviews on are a good indication that people like the story and this kind of DIY development that combines having a great time, helping ‘the children’ of Nepal and returning home to marry a beautiful woman (you met through volunteering). Oh, and an NGO was founded along the way, too...
But there are some more serious reasons why I read the book and am going to write a review about it. First, there’s my own academic interest in Nepal, more precisely how ‘development’ has been depicted over the years and decades and seeing whether and how some stereotypes, facts and ideas persist or change. Second, there is my more general interest in the lifeworlds of transnational aidworkers and the stories they tell from Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere. Third, there is my scepticism when it comes to DIY aid and volunteering/voluntourism.
In short, I read the book because I care about the complexities of development, its paradoxical questions and its emergence as a lifestyle. Little Princes is mostly about the third aspect under the guise of ‘helping orphans’.

On the beaten track: Taking a year off and arriving in Thamel
The first chapter fails to create some form of critical self-reflections by describing how Conor arrived in Kathmandu as a part of a trip around the world that would have a three month stop-over in an orphanage Nepal, mainly to use the story to chat up girls in Bangkok and elsewhere on the subsequent trip. Alas, like many foreigners before Nepal and its mountains prove to be too enticing and even though he ‘had no idea what to teach’ the children (p.33), pedagogical experience or any form of qualification he decides to ‘do something’ about the plight of children in Kathmandu – certainly with good intentions. I liked the story at the beginning how he tries to introduce the concept of ‘recycling’ to the orphanage, although a little local knowledge would have told him that garbage collectors go through rubbish anyway and have amazing ways of separating stuff and making a very modest livelihood out of it. This could have been an entry point to introduce the complexities of the caste system, poverty and opportunities to the reader, but he generally does want us to feel confused or challenged about the place. Nepal is poor, absolutely beautiful and somehow orphanages are part of a bigger political economy that involves orphans, abandoned children and trafficking of domestic workers, but, man, once you have watched that sunrise over the silent mountain you cannot help but to think that this is paradise. But the true motivator are the children –particularly seven children from the remote Humla district that he needs to rescue from an evil trafficker who lured them away from their parents under the false pretence that they would be safe from potential Maoist recruitment efforts that took place in the rural areas during the violent conflict. The quest is laid out: Travel through the remotest part of Nepal and find those parents to tell them their children are alive and well!

Interlude: Setting up your NGO so people can give you money in ‘blind faith’
Setting up a non-profit organisation because ‘the real motivations were those 7 children’ should make any third sector professional happy who hates pie-in-the-sky lofty mission statements. But seriously, this is what that author is doing to support his own orphanage so he can help more children. Having only consulted a few other expatriate orphanage managers, his organisation in set up in the US and people start to give money ‘in blind faith’, because none of the usual governance arrangements is in place. I mean, seriously, what kind of cold-hearted person would not give generously to the children in Nepal?!

The impatient foreigner: Why does everything take so freakin’ long in Nepal??
The reader does not get to know many Nepalis in Kathmandu except for an overwhelmed child welfare manager of the government and the evil child trafficker. When one of ‘his’ princes shows up as a domestic worker of a local politician he get impatient and angry at the welfare bureaucrat for getting the child. Now. ‘This is Nepal – we don’t have solutions like you’ (p.103) the bureaucrat explains and the reader is left wondering whether this is an indication of inferiority or an acknowledgement of genuinely different ways of getting things done. In the end all of the children are rescued and our hero is ready for the final part: His journey to Humla to find himself find the families of the little princes.

‘I felt [...] unqualified to be doing this job. But there was nobody else to do it’
The remote Western district of Humla has been struggling for some time and food insecurity has been a big problem for years. It was also affected by the Maoist conflict and has always been remote and poor. One of the tricky things with development is that things are not only more complicated than they seem, but that moral judgement has to be exercised carefully. The stories from Humla are difficult and although I am no expert on this region my feeling is that the tales of guilty fathers, crying mothers, forgiveness and gratefulness have religious undertones based on the author’s Christian beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with it, but questions remain as to how this framework resembles the reality of marginal communities that are threatened/affected by climate change and on the verge of disappearance. I do not know the answer, but I also do not think that speaking to a French expat who converted to Buddhism and knows the region well will give you the complete picture. As much as I am critical about the ‘aid industry’ I am surprised that Conor does not seem to be in contact with any organisation throughout his journey.

Building capacity: One French expat-run orphanage at the time
In the end, the author returns to his native US to marry and build a family and to become a frequent visitor of Nepal and ‘his orphanage’. He also left his legacy in good hands with another expat and throughout the book I do not recall occasions where capacity was built and Nepalis could learn from him. His wife is a devout Christian, his orphanage co-manager becomes a Buddhist and his NGO manager is also a converted Buddhist and towards the end of the book there are very ‘New Age’-type reflections on progress, time and religion.

My criticism is not about an uplifting tale of giving children a better future or second chance - that’s part of development and ‘good news stories’ and how small things matter have been around for a while, too. I also do not mind a bit of travel romanticism and promotion of Nepal as a touristic destination – quite the opposite: It is a fantastic place so got and see for yourself! But unfortunately the book sustains and even promotes outdated and flawed development ideas of how foreigners can help the poor Nepalis. Why does a three month internship have to turn into setting up your own NGO? Why does visiting have to turn in voluntourism? Eugene Mihaly was most likely the first Western researcher to engage with international aid in the country and he offers first insights into the country in his book that was published in 1965; indeed his observations also seem to have aged well. When it comes to role of international aid, the Nepal he visited in the late 1950s does not seem to be very different from today’s accounts:
Nepal’s experience with economic assistance offers a valuable source for answers to the question that aid has raised. Thrust into prominence by its strategic position in the Himalayan vastness separating India and China, Nepal has attracted unusual attention from aid donors. If Nepal differs significantly from other recipients, it is in the fact that it has received aid from so many sources. Among the donors who have assisted the kingdom are the United States, India, China, the Soviet Union, Israel, Switzerland, West Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United Nations and its agencies, and the Ford Foundation. Nepal is also relatively small, so that a large number of aid programmes operate within a limited area. The country lends itself especially well to an analysis of the problems and impact of aid. [...] In sum, Nepal, though it has its own very distinct character, is a microcosm of the challenges and difficulties that the major aid-giving countries face everywhere. (pp. 4-5).
Mihaly’s historical and political analysis of the early years of international development is interesting and in his final part, which covers the period from 1959 to 1962, his cautionary conclusions about economic aid seem particularly relevant to the future of Nepal and its engagement with aid:
The lesson of Nepal would seem to be this: in a nation that is politically and otherwise unprepared for change and therefore for economic development, economic aid is an instrument of extremely limited utility. [...] At the time a competitive escalation in quantities of aid may merely lead donors deeper into the morass of aid administration, with results, as has been seen, that can be positively detrimental to the donors’ interests. [...] Furthermore, in a country unprepared for change, aid that attempts to advance more fundamental political objectives – such as bringing about political stability for furthering the cause of representative government – invariably faces the risk – even the probability – of defeat. [...] The donor nations must temper their ambitions, foregoing immediate return for very long-term benefit. (pp. 186-188).
Even if a concrete project may seem like a better idea than engaging with macro development, I would like to see more critical engagement with the history and challenges in Nepal before another orphanage will be set up and another NGO fundraiser for 'the children of Nepal' will take place.
But most importantly: Be open and honest about your motifs and if your engagement only helps to sustain the aid industry maybe there are better organisations and locations where you can ‘do good’ during your sabbatical.

Mihaly, Eugene Bramer. Foreign Aid and Politics in Nepal. A Case Study. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.


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