Disclosure: this article does not aim to deter people from volunteering overseas. It does, however, set out to bring to light some of the detrimental outcomes that some travellers unwittingly perpetuate when they participate in volunteering experiences, orphanage tourism in particular. It is vital to research a volunteer experience, to use intuition and a moral compass to determine whether your visit is beneficial for the locals.
Cambodia, a country renowned for its friendly culture and incredible temples, has seen a major tourism increase over the last few years. Travellers are enticed by an array of experiences including the country’s rich culture of tradition and history – and when that gets too much, there is the cheap beer and food and parties that go all night. For a lot of travellers, Cambodia offers what we, as ‘the privileged white’ are told we should experience as a rite of passage. But, behind the glossy façade of cultural performances, temple tours, outdoor bars and market tours is a growing industry where children’s lives are put on display and orphanages – children’s homes – are visited like human zoos.
Volunteering is marketed as a selfless experience, one that it is said to be ‘making a difference,’ and contributing to ‘fixing’ the global issue of children living in poverty. ‘Voluntourism’ mostly involves payment by tourists to participate in projects in developing countries. Whilst voluntourism undoubtedly has positive aspects – intercultural exchange, keeping legitimate organisations afloat, the input of skilled labour, and a once in a lifetime experience – the negatives of orphanage tourism far outweigh the benefits.
According to UNICEF Cambodia, the amount of recorded institutions in Cambodia rose by 92% from 2014 – 2016. It is not without coincidence that this rise is matched with the extreme growth of foreign tourists in the country, and children living in orphanages are key tourist attractions. ‘Orphanage tours’ are often money-spinners for those organising them and are run off foreign volunteers and dollars.
The report With the Best Intentions researched by UNICEF and The Royal Cambodian Government found that most children in Cambodian orphanages were not orphans, and that most orphanages were inadequate in providing care or protection to the children. The rate of orphanage growth is alarming when paired with the statistics of children with one or both living parents: only 28 per cent have lost both parents.
Volunteers are told they can save the world and make a difference, skills or experience optional. A lot of voluntourists are gap-year students who put on the ‘volunteer hat’ and are not skilled in the role they are there to do. Voluntourism experiences may be as short as one week and often the voluntourist is the primary caretaker of children during this time. This is extremely damaging, as children living outside the family unit typically have complex needs and require specialist staff. For the sake of a child learning to form normal attachments and bonding, the continuity of a caregiver is extremely important.
The Childsafe Network, a global organisation to protect children against abuse, states that, “where possible, a constant caregiver should be appointed to attend the child’s daily needs which will promote consistency and secure attachments to caregivers. Orphanages that rely on foreign volunteers as their key staff undermine children’s needs for developing long term and meaningful relationships.” Voluntourists also displace local workers who could be employed in their position. UTas student Annie completed a volunteer placement in a Cambodian orphanage and paid $4000 for the experience. On her return, Annie said she was “unsure whether they had displaced a teacher in the orphanage in order to render her position available.”
Many orphanages have not implemented child-protection policies. Without these policies and if tourists are not supervised whilst visiting, there is the very real potential of abuse. It is simple to enter many orphanages – all one has to do is pay a fee to visit or volunteer with the children. Shockingly, many allow children to go out on day trips with paying tourists. Without a child-protection policy there is no vetting system in place to ensure the children are safe. Those who run corrupt orphanages keep the buildings in disrepair and the children bedraggled to invoke a feeling of pity from volunteer tourists. Jake Stalker, founder of One Step, One Life, an Australian organisation employing Cambodian teaching staff to educate children in Siem Reap province, says, “there is a threat of children appearing too rich.” This false portrait of living conditions keeps sympathies buoyant from volunteers and the cash flowing which in turn keeps their fraudulent business afloat. Despite money pouring in from sympathetic and gullible tourists, none of the funds advance the people that the money is donated to go towards: the children.
The orphanage industry in Cambodia is complex. Families are pressured into giving up their children with the promise of a better future for them. UNICEF states that a child should always stay with a member of the family unit, as this allows children to remain connected to their cultural and family roots. All too often, children are separated from their families, which aside from being extremely distressing, has the potential to cause severe long-term issues. Many children from broken families or slum communities already have psychological issues, and forming attachments to volunteers who leave after a short stint is not in the child’s interest.
As well as being a catalyst for issues for children, voluntourism poses the risk of dependency and disrupting the local economy. If locals witness aid, assistance and funds being consistently provided, it promotes a reliance on outsiders to deliver their needs, preventing communities from becoming self-sufficient. This is not just an issue in Cambodia; it spans widely throughout developing countries and contributes to larger societal issues. The issues range from the prominence of beggars staying on streets because of tourists donating money, unsustainable projects staying afloat only until the volunteer leaves, and on a wider scale, whole communities expecting handouts because that’s all they know. The alternative to this is community’s themselves determining whether they want volunteers ‘helping’ them or being supported in mobilising their own assets to create the changes they want and need.
It is glaringly obvious how much developing countries are othered by Western culture. The endless array of marketing, advertising and discussion around ‘making a difference’ promotes and reinforces the idea of ‘otherness’: the idea that developing societies have not reached the level of maturity they need to be on the same level as Western society. Humanitarian Douchery, a website dedicated to revealing the ‘darker side’ of voluntourism, sums this up quite well by describing this profit-driven industry as turning aid and social change into a commodity, “social justice and equality are not things that can simply be bought, and it is crucial that volunteers understand this before they commit to a trip.
Tourists wouldn’t embark on a day trip to visit an orphanage in their own country, so it is quite perplexing as to why they would do it in the developing world. An orphanage is meant to be a child’s home where they grow, learn, and play. Children are not animals and their home should not be treated as a human zoo. They should not be treated as props for Facebook pictures or used as performers to generate money for those running the network of corrupt organisations.
The rise of voluntourism in Cambodian orphanages is something that urgently needs to be addressed and awareness raised, on an international scale. If voluntourists research an organisation, its legitimacy and the potential impact of their visit, there is less potential for the perpetuation of these negative issues. Children need to live stable lives with continued and unrestricted access to education, care, and safety. They should be able to live their childhoods without being forced to sing, dance, act, or beg for any of their fundamental needs. Every day a child spends in an orphanage is one day too many. It denies him or her a life in a family and the opportunity to grow up to be a healthy and happy individual.
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