Working with a NGO: why I did it, what I learned, the pros and cons

Categories Indonesia

Prior to signing up for an expedition with Barefoot Conservation, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful with my travels that would positively benefit me and help other individuals in some part of the world. Additionally, I wanted to find an organization in a part of the world where I could do some scuba diving.  I also wanted to learn more about Eco tourism and possibly use my English teaching skills.  I have had an interest in scuba diving from the first time I scuba dove in a pool when I was nine years old and I recently decided that I wanted to explore that hobby (scuba diving) a little more seriously (I’d be lying if I told you that prior to my experience with Barefoot Conservation I wasn’t still holding onto a childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist).  I am also interested in Eco tourism and still have ideas of starting my own Eco resort someday.  Additionally, I just spent thirteen months in Korea teaching English so if that is a skill that others desire to have, I would love to help them learn.

When I found Barefoot Conservation online and began emailing with the program director, I knew I was onto something that coupled my interests and skills into one comprehensive program.  Barefoot Conservation is based in Raja Ampat, Indonesia which is arguably home to the best scuba diving in the entire world.  As it was initially explained to me, Barefoot Conservation has a marine science program in place, and the organization is also engaged in community work that includes an English education program as well as a component that focuses on helping the locals to run an Eco resort.

Based on the information that I was given about Barefoot Conservation, I thought I found the perfect way to blend my interests into one fruitful experience so I pulled the trigger and signed up.  Although I ended up having a great time and learning a ton, there were definitely a few pros, cons, and lessons learned that I would like to highlight.

I will start with the cons.  Sometimes people over promise and under deliver, that’s never a positive thing.  Although Barefoot Conservation has a terrific science program and the staff was incredibly knowledgeable, the community work and Eco resort project that had been previously mentioned to me were seemingly nonexistent.  From the time I set foot on the island where Barefoot Conservation is based, I sensed some tension between the organization itself and the locals.  As I understand it, the director of Barefoot Conservation hashed out a deal with the family who owns the piece of land where Barefoot is located a while back that enabled Barefoot Conservation to rent out some bungalow space long term.  As the story goes, when the deal with the islanders and Barefoot Conservation was initially settled upon, the director of Barefoot Conservation promised to the village that he would institute an English education program, certify all of the local scuba guides to the dive master level, and help build some extra facilities for the Eco resort run by the local family.  Without going into too much further detail, the promises made to the community from Barefoot have not been fulfilled and this has resulted in the organization’s soon to be expulsion from the island (once the Papuans say they want you off their land, you’re gone).  Luckily, Barefoot is a pretty mobile operation and they have a great science program so I am confident they will find another island in Raja Ampat to continue their marine biology work.  I am in no way discrediting the staff at Barefoot and their expertise, I am just highlighting some of the mistakes that have been made and hopefully there is something to gain from those mishaps for Barefoot Conservation going forward.  Long story short, I saw firsthand how some NGO’s can seriously fail by going into a place like Papua and not delivering upon the promises made to the people they are trying to help…local people take those promises seriously and if an organization fails to deliver it is not a good deal.  Language barriers and cultural differences could also certainly be a factor in the aforementioned debacle.

As I mentioned though, Barefoot Conservation is nowhere near a completely disfunctional outfit; the staff members are all extremely knowledgable and their science program seems to be very legitimate.  Personally, I learned an enormous amount about our planet’s marine environment and I am certain that the marine research performed by Barefoot Conservation has a positive impact on the overall marine conservation within Raja Ampat.  Additionally, I became I much better scuba diver through obtaining my Advanced Open Water certification and I made new friends from all over the world.  I also didn’t let the hard feelings between Barefoot and the locals get in my way and interacted happily and often with the islanders.  Furthermore, even though I didn’t get to participate in the operation of the Eco resort directly,  I learned a lot about the boutique hospitality business and all that is required to run an Eco lodge operation successfully.

Overall, although I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to help out in the community a bit more, I am satisfied with the last thirty days I spent in West Papua.  I was able to live out a childhood dream, perhaps eliminate a couple dreams that I had been hanging onto, and get a little more clarity in my life moving forward.

One thought on “Working with a NGO: why I did it, what I learned, the pros and cons

  1. I love this post and agree that life in Indonesia, and especially Papua, must be navigated with cultural and language sensitivity. They’ve been through a lot and tend to mistrust outsiders. The International-mindedness and focus on marine life is a highlight of this blog. If more people were scuba divers, more people would also be ecologically-minded and kinder to the oceans.:) Thanks for the post!

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