Mannam Volunteer Association faces criticism from foreign residents

Yonhap News, South Korea/October 28, 2012 

By Curtis File

Seoul -- When Tom Traubert replied to a Facebook ad for the Daegu branch of Mannam Volunteer Association in the fall of 2011, he was looking to give back to the Korean community.

"I have a long history of volunteerism and work with non-profit organizations," said the 31-year-old English teacher, who asked to use his Internet pseudonym. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to continue with that while I live in Korea." But it didn't take long before he started to feel that something was amiss.

Though Mannam bills itself as the embodying the "spirit of pure volunteerism" according to its official web site, Traubert says that just three of the many events organized by the Daegu branch in his year-long stint with the organization qualified as volunteering. The rest, he said, were promotional events in the hopes of recruiting more foreign residents.

"As time went by, I became more and more aware of how the only skill or resource they wanted from me was that I was a foreigner, willing to wear a Mannam T-shirt and interested in bringing in more foreigners to the organization," he said.

A blog post by Laura Oxenreiter, another former Mannam organizer from Daegu, echoed these sentiments.

 "Probably the beginning of my real doubts was when Mannam organized a 'Natural Disaster Walk' in Daegu. The non-Korean organizers gave some input, but then weren't actually involved in the preparations," she wrote. "In the end, the attendees just walked around a park while being filmed most of the day. A lot of people who'd attended left in the middle of the day, because they were so frustrated by the obsession with pictures and the lack of any constructive work."

Traubert and Oxenreiter weren't the only ones to second-guess Mannam's intentions. "The Daegu branch is a shell of its former self," said Traubert. "Of the 40 or 50 foreigners I worked with in the past year, maybe half a dozen still bother with Mannam."

Mannam did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting information about its membership numbers.

Not everyone agrees with the sentiments of volunteers like Traubert and Oxenreiter.

"With Mannam, I've met people that I would never have dreamt of meeting," said a 24 year-old Mannam representative and English teacher from Capetown who asked that her name be withheld after giving an interview. "People from just every culture, every nation, have somehow met on this little continent somewhere far off in the east, and they have pulled together to really make a difference in the community here." As a volunteer who has been with Mannam International since its inception, she says the positive experiences she's had far outweigh any negatives.

"We did quite a big event where we did an open cafe event with cultural performances and a teddy bear fundraiser," she said. "After that we went to an orphanage and we donated all that stuff to them. The kids went nuts."

But not all the charities they have worked for are happy with the organization.

On April 7 this year, Mannam held a concert fundraiser for Al Noor, a predominantly Muslim orphanage in South Africa that works with children infected with HIV. Nearly five months after the event had taken place, Al Noor still didn't know Mannam had thrown the event for them and they hadn't received any money.  

"We only heard about this because we were contacted by media and an anonymous source about it," said Amina Madiea, the orphanage's director. She says Mannam offered several reasons as to why Mannam hadn't contacted Al Noor about the event.   

"They said it was because there were rumors going around that we were doing something bad," she said, referring to allegations that Al Noor has since been cleared of. "But those rumors didn't surface until July, well after they had put the event on." When Mannam handed Al Noor the money on Sept. 29, more than 5 months after the April charity event, the story had slightly changed.

"They came with other people from South Korea and handed us 10,000 ZAR (about 1.27 million won)," said Madiea. "They said they did not tell us in advance because they did not want to put our hopes high in case the event became a flop."

According to Madiea, Justin Pienaar, a representative from Mannam South Africa, was present to deliver an apology along with the money raised at the fundraiser. However, no official statements have been issued about it to members of Mannam in South Korea to clear the matter up.

 "Oversights are bound to happen and this was purely an oversight on our part," said the Mannam representative who insisted her name be withheld. An initial offer to view receipts and financial records for the charity event fundraisers was later declined. Requests for further information from Mannam officials were also refused.

Mannam has also received criticism for its ties to Shinchonji, a Christian group that has been accused of being cult-like by the media and members of other Christian denominations. Shinchonji's leader, Lee Man Hee, is the honorary chairperson of Mannam.

While Mannam has maintained that the two organizations are entirely separate entities that operate on entirely separate mandates, they have been accused of being deceptive about the closeness of their relationship. In September, the two organizations held a joint sporting event marketed under several different names, including the Shinchonji National Olympiad, the 6th World Peace Festival of the Restoration of Light, and the International Day of Mannam. After the event, the blogosphere lit up with expats who felt they had been deceived.

"They did not reveal what was going to happen at this event," said Corey Brown in a video blog detailing his account of the event. "It was kind of offensive to have a lot of foreigners be brought into something thinking that it was this international, intercultural thing, to then forcing us to watch this spectacle of Shinchonji." Message boards and blogs filled with similar accounts.

Prior to the event, Mannam released a statement to its members. "We would like to apologize for not handling the situation better or expediting the explanation to solve this situation sooner," read the statement signed by Lisa Baik, a Mannam International coordinator. "Initially, our failure to disclose the full details of our relationship with Shinchonji church was to protect our quickly growing volunteer group from baseless accusations... due to the intolerant climate of the society."

An official response has not yet been issued following the event and Mannam International has declined further comment and has not returned emails inquiring about it. For the time being, the whole experience has left volunteers like Traubert and Oxenreiter feeling disenfranchised.

"I had a lot of hope for this organization when I first started, and at the end was disappointed," wrote Oxenreiter. "More than that, I lost a social group... and it's sad to see the bad in people."

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