By: Sarah Stone
This week, we interviewed Camille van Neer, founder of AMAIDI. Based in India, AMAIDI partners with NGOs worldwide to facilitate volunteer and internship opportunities for global travelers. This is only the tip of the iceberg with AMAIDI; I encourage you to visit their website to learn about AMAIDI’s mission and vision as they relate to responsible tourism, financial investment, and much more.
Camille is one of the most fascinating, dedicated people I’ve had the opportunity to work with; his reach is global, and he tirelessly endeavors not only to improve the sustainable travel industry, but also to encourage individuals, companies, and nonprofits to actively do some good in the world.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where did you grow up? What brought you to India?
My name is Camille van Neer, I’m 52 years old, married with Jansi from India and father to our twins Arjuna and Barati (9). Born in the Netherlands, I grew up in the south and after attending elementary, high and secondary school studied psychology and political science.
Finding my studies too theoretical, I switched over to teacher training college and after graduation worked as a teacher. Later I became a principal of a small public school in the village I lived when I was young. I became interested in both things spiritual and worldly matters, especially international relations and the struggle for an equitable world by communities worldwide. I have been the leader of a left-wing political youth organization that gave me my first exposure to leading a large movement.
I heard about India for the first time in the eighties, after having traveled Europe and North-Africa (Egypt). I visited South-India for the first time in 1990 and have been coming back there ever since. I lived in India in 1992-1993 (in the International Township of Auroville), 1996-2001 (Pondicherry, former French colonial coastal town, some 10km south of Auroville) and from 2006 onward till date, first in Pondicherry and now in Chennai, South-India’s biggest city with 4.5 million inhabitants.
I earn my daily bread working in a pre-press KPO company. In 2006, shortly after my last arrival in India, I founded AMAIDI with an aim to support local communities through adding temporary human resources (volunteers and interns) helping them in their work. What started as a one-man show in South-India, has grown over the years to a global organization with some 75 people working-to-make-it-work across four continents.
What are you reading right now? Or, what’s one film you never get tired of watching?
I find very little time to sit and read a book, but I am an ardent reader of blogs (about international development and poverty alleviation). As for a film, the most recent one was ‘Kung-fu Panda’, which I am looking forward seeing again. And again. Lots of wisdom there, for all of us. A must-see, really!
What are some of your favorite websites?
What drew you to the volunteer travel world? Is your reason for staying different from what initially interested you?
To be honest, I first wanted to be in India, a country I had come to love ever since I set foot on it in 1990. And when I found myself coming to India for the third time, this time to stay, I was thinking to myself: “So now what?”
I had a single contact in the Netherlands that promised me to send some people over who could then stay in my home and from there explore India. Those first “homestay guests” pointed out to me that they were interested in the work I had just taken up as a program director of an NGO in Cuddalore, called Bless, who would later become my first project partner receiving the first 20 or so volunteers.
Guests traveled with me in the jeep to Bless and started to work in various departments (livelihood, craft, microfinance, women development and IT). What had started as a “homestay arrangement,” became a “volunteer facilitation center,” which was called AMAIDI, which means “silence” or “peace,” as we lived in a peaceful dead-end road close to a palmgrove and had renamed our home, turned into a guest house, “AMAIDI Guest House.” The house is still there, but we sold it two years ago before embarking on a long journey with my family through India and post-that settling down first in Bangalore and now in Chennai.
Can you tell us what the AMAIDI team does today?
As for what my team does, it’s several teams actually that we work with or work through rather: AMAIDI is like an inverted pyramid, with at the top-base our Local Teams taking care of the volunteers and interns’ every need post-arrival in the country they work in.
Supporting them are our Country Teams in the capitals of the 15 countries we work in; these Country Teams are coached by our Continental Desks for Africa, Asia and the Americas who in turn are guided by AMAIDI Management Team of which I am the Managing Director/CEO.
Side by side with the Local Teams, our Volunteer Coordinators in the Country Teams work tirelessly to ensure that the volunteers and interns are getting connected with a project that needs them and that makes sense looking at their CVs and other requirements; they take care of all the information that every volunteer needs pre-departure and stays in the loop when the volunteer has started working in Africa, Asia or the Americas as a trusted friend, in case needed.
What is your proudest accomplishment so far with AMAIDI?
I am proud that AMAIDI has been recognized by the European Commission through its Youth-in-Action program as a partner for their sponsored volunteer exchange programs.
As a result AMAIDI Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Nepal and El Salvador will be sending local volunteers to Europe and partner organizations in Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, Spain, Latvia and Italy will sending their volunteers to our destinations just mentioned. This brings us one step closer to our vision of a world where human and financial resource flow freely from place of plenty to places of scarcity to help supporting local communities in their struggle for sustainable development and self-reliance.
What’s next for AMAIDI?
Next will be the development of the other two pillars that uphold the roof of the AMAIDI house: responsible tourism and social impact investing. We’re busy getting teams together that will finally coordinate with our Country- and Local Teams to implement the vision behind it.
ABOUT YOUR TRAVELS
Who have been some of the most influential people in your travels?
The people that I was with during my four months’ travel through India, and the people I met and stayed with during the same trip. Who opened their houses, living and bedrooms to share these with perfect strangers (that we were to them).
And the most amazing fact was that we made contact with these people through Facebook, every time it was time to wrap up on our present location somewhere in India, I took to Facebook sourcing out a few contact “on the way ahead.” And it worked! TravelingByFacebook!
What has been your absolute favorite moment on your travels?
Our entering the Kashmir Valley, near Srinagar, where earlier violence had marked the city and kept away all tourists since the ‘uprising’ in the valley started with the kidnapping of six foreign travelers and the death of five of them. I also enjoyed being in North-East India, especially in Nagaland, bordering Myanmar.
What’s the most important lesson you learned while traveling?
It was exciting and exhilarating to realize that peace in areas that had seen much violence (like Kashmir and Nagaland) is brokered by first conquering the fear within and then reaching out to people saying, “Hello, how are you. Could I get to know you a bit better?” and really meaning it.
At Frayed Passport, one of our founding mantras is “Transform your world through travel.” How has travel helped you transform your world?
That would probably be for the world to judge, but what I reckon is that what meeting people did to me (remembering their every word, still), I might have realized with them too. Knowing that, is enough to justify my trips.
Where are you off to next?
Well, if you would have asked, “Where would you like to go now?” I would have had a good answer, but now I can only say: my daily work is waiting for me, as being a family man, my responsibility always points back at my wife and kids. Taking care of their needs is my highest aim. But AMAIDI definitely adds flavor to a daily life where “doing good” is paired with “doing Good.” Every day.