A Guide to Volunteering in Cambodia

Many volunteers want to work with children
Many volunteers want to work with children | © igorovsyannykov / Pixabay

Every year thousands of well-meaning travellers head to Cambodia on voluntourism trips. Each is armed with the same aim: to play their part in helping elevate the country and its people from poverty. However, often more damage is done than good. Here’s our guide to volunteering in Cambodia.

It’s an all too common tale in Cambodia. Travellers land in the country and become overwhelmed by the poverty, the child beggars, the slums. Armed with good intentions, they decide they want to do their bit to help and sign up to spend a few days at one of the swathe of volunteer schemes operating throughout the Kingdom.

Many volunteers in Cambodia want to work with kids

In Cambodia, development has become a lucrative business and this rise in demand for volunteering has led to it becoming a fully-fledged industry. And the most popular sector that kind-hearted travellers want to dive straight into is working with children, which has led to an outcry from some leading NGOs–especially towards orphanage tourism, which is rife in Cambodia.

The dangers of voluntourism?

Voluntourism is a buzzword that has been bandied about for the last decade, triggering a raging debate over the detrimental long-term effects it can hold.

Volunteering abroad can come in many forms, from holiday-makers spending a few days at a school or orphanage, or a couple of weeks building a well or wall of a school, to several months or years in longer-term placements.

“The growing practise of sending young people abroad to volunteer is setting us up for failure,” said Daniela Papai, founder of educational NGO PEPY, at her TEDX talk, ‘What’s Wrong with Volunteer Travel?’ “I think a lot of volunteer travel offers a short-term solution for complex problems.”

Daniela was one of the hordes who liked to do her bit while travelling, volunteering several times over six years in Cambodia. Fuelled by her efforts, in 2005 she decided to set up a school in the country, where education is lacking in many rural areas and poverty-stricken communities.

Her aim was to focus on education, the environment and health, and she set about fundraising to bring her dreams to reality.

“I thought the best way to improve education was by building a school,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about the environment or health, and nothing about Cambodian education, but I had the funds and I was so excited to see the school being built … I arrived and realised schools don’t teach, people do.”

She spent the next six years in Cambodia researching, learning and probing the best ways to help forge positive change in the long-term before finally launching her venture. “I realised a lot of things I had been doing. I had been encouraged to do in the past [during voluntourism projects] and this sometimes comes with more harm than good.”

What to watch out for

The surge in voluntourism in the last decade has come coupled with a swathe of negative press. Many NGOs in Cambodia no longer offer short-term volunteer placements, arguing no effective work can be carried out in less than three months, after all, you can’t solve the country’s problems in a week.

While there are still many organisations offering the chance to build a well or help contribute to building a school for a week–for often a substantial fee–again, be wary and ask yourself some questions.

Many volunteers want to teach in schools, despite not having qualifications

Who is profiting off these high charges? How will the school operate when it opens? Who will benefit from the well? Are you taking away much-needed employment from locals, who have the skills to do the work that is making you feel good?

It is highly advisable to avoid any organisation charging to volunteer with children, and those who don’t request background checks. Which leads us onto the next activity that too many tourists innocently engage in: orphanage tourism.

Orphanage tourism

Spending the afternoon traipsing round an orphanage, watching students perform for the crowds, playing with kids, or spending a few days teaching a few phrases of English remains a popular activity for many visitors to Cambodia.

Often, they’ll be shown a leaking roof that needs fixing, books that need buying for students and various other problems that need financial funding. You decide where your money goes.

Apart from the swindling of dollars, the protection of the children remains the primary concern–and this is questionable when strangers are allowed contact with kids without any checks. Imagine waltzing into an orphanage back home and being given free rein.

More worryingly, a UNICEF study revealed almost three quarters of “orphans” have one living parent. And while the number of orphans in the country has declined in the last decade, orphanages have more than doubled.

In response, UNICEF Australia urged volunteers and tourists visiting the country to steer clear of orphanages. In a post on its website, it said: “These types of tours exploit children and their families for the financial gain of the organisers and can lead to further exploitation”.

NGO Friends International has also launched several campaigns advocating against orphanage tourism, aiming to educate unwitting tourists and show how they are perpetuating the problem.

International Communications Coordinator James Sutherland, said: “Visiting orphanages is supporting a flawed system that is unnecessarily separating children from their families and causing them trauma.”

He added: “Many orphanages are simply not providing acceptable childcare, certainly not if they are allowing access to the public or to untrained volunteers, and most children in this system have living parents and could be supported to stay with them.”

Is it possible to volunteer ethically?

Yes, it is, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, which is, after all, what volunteering is supposed to be all about. As mentioned above, many organisations offer placements, usually between three months and two years.

And there is desperate need for certain skillsets, so that niche job you have really can contribute to Cambodia’s future.

In America, the Peace Corps run several programmes. In the UK, Voluntary Service Overseas sends long-term volunteers to work on its projects in the country, and Australians can check out Australian Volunteers International. New Zealand offers a Volunteer Service Abroad programme, and the UN operates its own projects.

For those who simply can’t volunteer for longer periods of time, Daniela recommends booking on an educational tour rather than volunteering. She has developed a series of responsible and educational trips in the form of PEPY Tours. Here, visitors can enjoy a range of experiences in Cambodia while learning about the country’s development and issues the country is facing, by exploring the themes of social enterprise, service and global citizenship.

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