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Cambodia Asks If 'Voluntourism' Aids Or Exploits The Needy

Young do-gooders flock to Cambodian orphanages to volunteer, sometimes paying for the privilege. But child advocates worry if these visitors are more harmful than helpful.

An orphanage in Siem Reap
An orphanage in Siem Reap
Kate Bartlett

SIEM REAP — Frederick is trying to teach a restless group of Cambodian children the alphabet in English. But the kids are more interested in glitzy decals, a gift from a tourist who visited their orphanage.

"I was here in Siem Reap, came to the orphanage and got this job on the spot," says Frederick, a 24-year-old backpacker. "I wanted work as a volunteer. And I wanted to teach children who otherwise get no education."

Frederick has neither a university degree nor a teacher's certificate. The Swede is a so-called "voluntourist," someone who spends their vacation time engaged in volunteer work.

The orphanages of Siem Reap, near the world-famous temple of Angkor Wat, are favorites of students from rich countries, many of whom seek to spend their summer holidays calming their consciences by doing some good.

But in the opinion of the child welfare organization Friends International, these helpers cause more harm than good. "They mean well, but they're supporting institutions that are very deficient," says spokesman James Sutherland. Nobody checks their qualifications or provides training, he says.

In a 2011 study, UNICEF also warned of the dangers that this "orphanage tourism" could pose to children. With its campaign "Children Are Not Tourist Attractions," Friends International is trying to raise awareness about the issue. Posters show tourists photographing children as if they were zoo animals.

Another aspect of the issue is that many of the supposed orphans aren't actually orphans. In the orphanage where Frederick works, for example, only two of the 25 children are actual orphans. Mom Savorn, the woman who runs the home, openly acknowldeges this, but she says the children come from a poor village and that the orphanage is their only chance for proper nourishment and some education.

UNICEF claims that orphanage life damages the physical and psychological development of children and exposes them to many dangers. The Cambodian government also regards orphanages as a last resort.

According to the Cambodian Ministry of SocialAffairs and UNICEF, some 12,000 children lived in 269 orphanages around the country in 2010, but only 23% of them were actually without a living parent. Cambodia, which has been victimized by conflicts for decades, is home to 550,000 children who are missing one or both parents. The country's population is around 15 million.

Paying to play

Twenty-year-old Sara from Portugal has been living in the same orphanage where Frederick works for two months, and she defends the volunteer system. She believes that "the children can have a better life here." The kids are scrawny but relatively well-dressed. The dormitories are wretched. In the boy's dorm, which is cobbled together from corrugated iron and wood, 16 children sleep on mattresses without sheets. The summer heat is oppressive, but there is no ventilation.

Sara and Frederick aren't paying anyone for having been placed in their positions, but there are many Internet sites offering similar volunteer jobs — in exchange for thousands of dollars. "In Cambodia, there's constant complaining about corruption," says Mom Savorn. "I can't take money from my volunteers."

Australian student Emma paid one organization $3,000 so that she could spend several weeks volunteering at an orphanage. She regrets that now, she says. "It makes me sick to have been a part of that. I have the feeling that the children were exploited so I could have my volunteer experience." It's wrong, she says, to cash in on the need some people have to help others, she says.

Savorn says her orphanage costs her about $2,000 a month to run, which is mostly finances from visitor donations, all of which are welcome. "Many people also send donations after their visit," she says. Acodo, another orphanage in Siam Reap, raises money with its daily "Charity Show" in which "performances, music and dance by the wonderful children" are advertised.

The kids Frederick works with seem to like him very much. Does he worry that they will suffer when he leaves? "That’s why I’m staying one or two months," he says. "Some people stay only a week. What good is that going to do?"

For the volunteers, today it's the orphanage, and tomorrow it's the beach. Friends International says these abrupt comings and goings by volunteers are a serious problem for the children. "The disturbances from these short-term bonds can lead to difficulties in forging bonds later on," Sutherland says.

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