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