‘Voluntourism’ not the answer to Cambodia’s problems

As an Australian development professional who has worked in Cambodia for the last 4.5 years, it despairs me that local community news outlets continue to ‘hype’ up and glorify efforts by local school groups or individuals in their endeavours to ‘save Cambodian children’ by working in an orphanage or build houses to ‘help the poor and vulnerable’ (or indeed people in any other less developed countries).

These stints are usually characterised by short term (usually two weeks or less) volunteering (or voluntouring) trips to a less developed country like Cambodia and the proclamation that ‘lives have changed’ after the trip. I find it especially offensive to the global development effort that this has now turned into a form of ‘competition’ between rival high schools in Australia as your article pointed out: ‘not to be outdone, Mullumbimby High students are now raising money for what they hope will be two more homes…’

Local schools are competing to waste money to send a group of young, unskilled high school students to Cambodia to build houses that many Cambodian tradespeople can build at a fraction of the cost? This is Western narcissistic waste at its worst. Basic math would suggest the students and staff in the photo published with the article would have spent over $30,000 to come to Cambodia to build two $4,000 houses, meanwhile denying talented but often just-as-poor Cambodian tradespeople the opportunity and income to engage in these projects.

No one seems to be interested in asking the local ‘beneficiaries’ whether wooden-frame housing at a cost of $4,000 when they will most likely be making less than $1 a day is really the most suitable aid for them at this present moment.

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’.

By writing glowing articles full of praise on these efforts, the newspaper outlets are contributing to make irresponsible voluntourism the ‘cool’ thing everyone wants to do.

The ultimate question for me always comes back to, ‘How would you feel if a bunch of Cambodian kids come to your backyard in Byron Bay and start teaching in your orphanages and building housing for the poor?’ If you would feel uneasy about that, why would you think it’s ok for Australian youths to do that elsewhere?

Billy Chia-Lung Tai, Sheidow Park, SA

Independent human right consultant and former human rights advisor in projects funded by AusAid and DFAT

2 responses to “‘Voluntourism’ not the answer to Cambodia’s problems”

  1. Mark Smith says:

    In response to Billy …

    You should note the 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 indicated in the article.

    Byron Bay HS tours of Cambodia include considerable learnings about the very issues you raise, and more. I have personally visited Cambodia five times over the past 3 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 4th 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 are 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 NGO’s 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
    Rel. Principal
    Byron Bay HS

  2. A McF says:

    Brilliant. It makes sense and shows up the fault in the thinking. Of course some “do-gooding” teachers do miss out on a trip or three.Let’s hope this can get some national coverage and eventually find its way to the minister for education.

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