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 Social Affairs 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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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