Leadership Network members'
360-degree view of Bangladesh

Philanthropic Kiwis have been able to tour aid projects they support in far-flung corners of Bangladesh, thanks to a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation and some DIY cardboard virtual reality headsets.
A group of mostly children standing at the entrance to a refugee camp in Bangladesh

A welcoming party at Leda Refugee Camp

It was the brainchild of Leadership Network members Christey West and Jo de Burca, the founders of Just Peoples, an international non-profit connecting donors to grassroots projects across Asia and Africa providing effective localised solutions to poverty.

Equipped with a simple 360-degree camera on a selfie stick, the pair have provided project supporters the opportunity to visit the largest slum in Dhaka, a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh and a workshop at an urban high school, virtually anyway.

Jo says the goal wasn’t to produce a polished film.

“It was more like: ‘Can we use this technology in a low-cost, budget way to give a really authentic experience of literally walking beside us.’”

Back home, $5 cardboard headsets were sent out to 50 Just Peoples’ fans.

“You fold them yourself and stick your phone into them…It’s like a budget VR (Virtual Reality) headset.

“It was a really cool way for us to engage our supporters.”

Connecting donors to beneficiaries is what sets Just Peoples apart from other, bigger charities, and VR is able to help them achieve that, Christey says.

“It just brings the issues to life and then people feel more compelled to collaborate with our partners in reducing poverty in those communities rather than just the traditional ‘I’m rich, you’re poor, here’s my money, good luck to you’.

“We want to break down the walls that currently exist between rich and poor and just bring it to a human level – we’re all just people.”

Jo filling a cup from a brand new filter in Korail slum

Jo trying clean water from a brand new filter in Korail slum

One supporter, of Christchurch, was moved to tears after her virtual journey, watching a project she’d funded in action, Christey says.

“She said it was like being there and made her truly understand the impact her donation was having on the ground.”

Using Skype calls and online messaging, Christey and Jo have managed to build relationships with local Bangladeshi partners from their respective homes in Tokyo and Melbourne, but the Asia New Zealand travel grant put them both in-country for the first time.

Just Peoples sends 100 percent of project donations through to projects – nothing is diverted to cover overheads or salaries.

“For us to get the grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, that’s phenomenal for us. It’s not just a nice to have,” Jo says.

On their Bangladesh itinerary: one-on-ones with would-be local partners, a workshop with 15 social entrepreneurs, and visits to established Just Peoples’ aid projects.

They were welcomed into homes in a Rohingya refugee camp, where funds raised help deliver food bags to families in need and a local partner introduced them to a sewing skills training course she’d set up to empower Rohingya women.

Next, they tagged along to a workshop on puberty and menstrual health care, held at a high school by another local partner, working to destigmatise periods.

Then, a visit to Korail Slum in Dhaka to see in action the work of a local social enterprise and new Just Peoples’ partner installing water filters in schools to provide fresh drinking water to students and their families.

FIrst-hand experience means the pair are able to better sell their projects to potential funders.

“We’re talking from personal experience and not just parroting what our partners say, which is more compelling to other people,” says Christey.

“It takes us to the next level in helping us to understand what they’re doing and then communicate that.”

Already, it’s paid off, with more financial support mustered for Just Peoples’ Bangladeshi projects since their return.

Jo looking out the window of a cab at a boy on the street

Being on the ground has also deepened Christey and Jo’s relationships with their local partners.

“I feel like our partners there have become friends now,” Christey says.

Plus, the pair have gained a richer appreciation for Bangladeshi culture, moving beyond travel-warning-generated perceptions.

From the get-go, they were made to feel incredibly welcome, they say.

“It was just the most hospitable country,” Jo says.

“Our local partners were telling stories of refugees crossing the border from Myanmer, having these horrendous journeys and then they’d be welcomed into the homes of fishing-village families, who live hand-to-mouth themselves.

“They were welcoming these people with open arms, just because they are amazing humans. We just felt that at every level of our trip.”