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July 20, 2024

Criticism of Cambodian student volunteers misguided

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In response to the letter ‘Voluntourism’ not the answer to Cambodia’s problems

You should note the original article is information about a fundraising event in Australia to support an NGO operating in Cambodia. This activity is demonstrable of our school communities not simply spending a week or two in Cambodia and then forgetting about the place.

Byron Bay High is proud to be working in this space on an ongoing basis, developing and maintaining relationships so our efforts really hit the mark to support people with great need. We are especially pleased that Sinn, the Khmer director of VBC is able to make a reciprocal visit to us in Byron Bay.

I would also like to clarify that the event is a collaboration, not competition. Mullumbimby High School does not attend Cambodia excursions. However, they have kindly offered to support Byron Bay High School efforts to support VBC between excursions. I must also clarify I am Rel. Principal at Byron Bay, not Mullumbimby as originally indicated in the article.

Byron Bay High School tours of Cambodia include considerable learnings about the very issues you raise, and more. I have personally visited Cambodia five times over the past three years, twice with school groups. On the first occasion we did work in an orphanage and that experience was not a positive one. This inspired me to learn more, rather than disengage.

The article makes no mention of childcare, teaching or orphanages. I am unsure why you would jump to the conclusion that we are supporting such activities? The issues you raise are very real and quite complex. I feel your response is made without any effort whatsoever to become informed about the specific details of our activities. Given this I would like to raise a few counter points to the generalisations your communication has applied to our work.

Volunteer Building Cambodia (VBC) employ a significant number of Khmer builders, the NGO is owned and operated by a Khmer couple. As volunteers we assist the Khmer builders who are paid a fair wage for their work. We fund the building of the house. One Australian man is employed by the organisation as a volunteer coordinator. He has academic qualifications in social work and lives and works in Siem Reap full time. He is an inspirational model to the young people we bring to Cambodia. VBC consults with village chiefs and the beneficiary families to ensure the shelter provided is appropriately distributed. Ongoing support from the Khmer social worker employed by VBC also contributes significantly to the project providing sustained benefits to the families involved.

We are in no way directly working in childcare organisations, and certainly not any orphanages, which you correctly identify as very damaging to local communities, wherever they operate in the world. There is now a plethora of media and other source information available about the negative impact of orphanages in Cambodia and throughout the developing world. The media is not sleeping on this issue.

Cambodian Childens Trust in Battambang set up by Tara Winkler (see ABC TV Australian Story -The House of Tara.) is a place we visit and support on our excursions. We learn the story of this very inspiring young Australian who is making a massive positive contribution in this space. This NGO has a strict controls and restrictions around engagement with local children or their other clients. In January 2016 the staff on the Cambodia excursion donated blood in Phnom Penh hospital and then handed the donor cards to VOICE, an NGO supporting displaced community in the Lakeside district of the city. We visit a range of other NGO’s that are making a very positive contribution. The excursion is well researched and every effort is made to ensure our footprint is positive for the local communities we visit.

Our visit also takes in a day at Angkor High School (Government School, Siem Reap). Byron Bay Students experience a day attending classes paired with local students. This engagement is a very significant cultural exchange for all of the young people involved. Byron Bay HS hopes to one day be able to offer a reciprocal visit with our sister school in Cambodia.

I will proudly continue to visit Cambodia and support community development. I am writing this response from the back of a truck in Cambodia after handing over the keys to the 77th house VBC have built, and the fourth I have been personally involved in. I can assure you the family who just received this gift appreciate it very much. As do the Khmer people employed in the process.

It is true we could just send $30,000 over to Cambodia and let Khmer people get on with the job of community development. However, a significant purpose of Byron Bay High School trips to Cambodia is also about educating young Australians to be aware of the very issues you raise. It is my sincere hope that through this activity the young people who attend the excursion become more responsible global citizens, particularly when they visit the developing world as adults. The money we spend in Cambodia does flow into the local economy; this is good for many of the Khmer people who provide us services such as accommodation, tours, shopping and food.

I am not an expert in this field. However, through ongoing engagement I am learning more every time. I would encourage any school or individual considering participating in voluntary work in the developing world to do their homework and tread carefully. There are many ethical ways to engage. Many quality NGOs are operating in Cambodia and throughout the developing world, and they seek many different types of direct and indirect support.

Billy, it is important to have a critical eye, but also an open mind. I sincerely hope your comments do not dissuade people from engaging in ethical community development.

Mark Smith, relieving principal, Byron Bay High School


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  1. Firstly I would like to thank Mr Mark Smith in his letter detailing and outlining the extensive process in which the school went through in researching and ultimating choosing what project their students should engage in. It is commendable that the school is putting in so much effort in doing their research and making sure that the activities they are engaging in is a ethical one.

    I would also agree with Mr Smith that a lot of the comments I made in my original letter were very ‘generic’ in nature and did not necessarily reflect the true nature of their activities. Having said that, the original article was extremely broad in nature, it was difficult for me to come to a different conclusion about what the schools were engaging in. After years of almost weekly notification of another western school trip to Cambodia has ‘change the lives of poor Cambodians and our students’ from my Google News subscription, I hope you can appreciate my frustration at the style that the original article was written in. If you can’t report something properly, then perhaps it is not worth reporting at all is what I would say to the news outlet. My comments below are more generic in nature on Western voluntourism as a whole and not related to the specific activities of Byron Bay High School.

    Often time when I do engage with Western schools about this issue, their final defence always come down to how this is ultimately about “educating young Australians to be aware of the very issues you raise..[and they] become more responsible global citizens, particularly when they visit the developing world as adults.” I am unwavering in my original comment that Although I wholeheartedly agree this is indeed a fantastic goal and objective to achieve in these trips, is involving vulnerable poor families of Cambodia (and other parts of the developing world) the only way we can achieve this in Western Schools? Further, the ‘glorification’ of the ‘Western Saviour’ ideals sits very uneasy with me whenever I talk to young people who are engaging in these activities.

    As to the comment: “I sincerely hope your comments do not dissuade people from engaging in ethical community development”… Well, actually I AM hoping my comments WILL dissuade people from diving head first into ‘ethical community development activities’… Given the rapid rise of popularity of voluntourism projects and through well established research, we know it is IMPOSSIBLE for ALL community development activities to be ethically designed and implemented; and almost NO ONE will ever knowingly engage in community development activity that they know is unethical (I have that much faith in humankind at least)… So the questions must be how many of these ‘ethical’ development projects are actually ethical? I happen to agree with most of the projects Mr Smith mentioned in his response, the point here is really to encourage everyone who is thinking about getting involved with their version of ‘ethical project’ to think and rethink about what they are doing.

  2. I have had much involvement with VBC over the last year, during which we were living in Siem Reap. I know Sinn well and the builders he employees. I agree there are many, many issues with voluntourism but not all NGOs are fraudulent, unethical or predatory. VBC is an outstanding organisation trying to do amazing things for people in need. The process to help these people is long and many checks are done to ensure the right people are receiving help.
    I do think it is an incredible learning experience for young Australians to really see how others live, to appreciate what they have and to realise there are ways they can make a positive contribution to others. The families they build houses for are incredibly poor. Their living conditions are basic. Most don’t have electricity. There is no plumbing or running water. Many share a well. Hearing about this is one thing. Seeing it for yourself is a totally different experience and really gives a greater understanding. It is an incredibly humbling experience.
    I do think people need to be more aware when they get involved with volunteering projects. I think they need to do a lot of research and they need to realise that sometimes they don’t have the necessary skills to physically contribute to an organisation. But when they do find a worthy organisation and a means of contributing they should be applauded for what they are doing.
    Congratulations to the Byron Bay school and students for getting involved in VBC and for encouraging a greater understanding of the world, different cultures and the economic, social and climatic challenges facing others.

  3. I don’t normally respond to these, but this one is very close to me and whilst I understand part of what Mr Tai was getting at but I feel it inappropriate to try and tarnish the efforts of both Byron Bay High and VBC by associating it with something that is unrelated to either of them.
    I have been working with VBC since they started and prior to that worked with the founder and his wife 3 years before that, and the work they are doing is as ethical as could be.
    As for the comment:
    “I am not denying this is a fantastic opportunity for learning and self improvement for these youths but I am urging educators, parents and newspaper journalists to think seriously about whether they should be educating their youth cloaked in these ‘feel-good’ volunteer schemes and whether it is appropriate to ‘use’ the poor and vulnerable people in less developed countries for your personal ‘development’.” Seriously? The reactions and attitudes of not just students but adults that come back from these trips is in some cases life changing, and something that I would hope the Education department took notice.
    I work for a MNC and part of the companies DNA is to give back to the community, under it’s 1-1-1 policy. I agree do the research before you engage with the NGO’s or be part of a project, but that is common sense. And there should be more companies and educators and journalists that are promoting this same philosophy, and maybe we should be focusing on banding together (educators, companies & journalists) and creating a list of ethical ventures and shaming the not so ethical.
    Finally to the comment “the ‘glorification’ of the ‘Western Saviour’”, again in my experiences this is so far from the truth as most of them come back not looking for “glorification” but more how can they do more.


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