Dilemmas of volunteering

2014-07-09 00:00

A young Swedish volunteer is trying to get a gaggle of unruly Cambodian children to repeat the English alphabet, but they are much more interested in playing with the sparkly stickers they just received from a visiting tourist.

The lesson, in an outdoor classroom a few kilometres away from Cambodia’s main tourist magnet, Angkor Wat, is being given by one of the many young volunteers who spend their summer vacations in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“I was here in Siem Reap, so I just walked in and got a position. I was looking for somewhere to volunteer and teach children who can’t get an education,” says Fredrick, a friendly 24-year-old backpacker who has been teaching at the orphanage for one week.

Like many other so-called “voluntourists,” Fredrick has no university degree or teaching experience. Siam Reap’s “orphanages” also often attract Western university students who arrive during what is low season for visitors, with the aim of doing something altruistic.

But Friends International, a leading child-protection group, warns that voluntourists do more harm than good. “Although they mean well, they’re fundamentally supporting flawed institutions,” says James Sutherland, the organisation’s communications officer.

Advertisements for Friends’ campaign, displayed on the backs of tuk-tuks and on leaflets, say: “Children are not tourist attractions”, showing an image of Westerners photographing Cambodian children in an enclosure, like animals in a zoo. The group points to a lack of background checks on the volunteers and inadequate training as reasons why the practice should be stopped. In addition, Sutherland says, most of the children are not orphans at all, just children from poor families.

At Fredrick’s orphanage, called the Children and Development Organisation (CDO), founder and director Mom Savorn readily admits that of the 25 children in her care, only two are actually parentless. However, she stresses, they come from a poor village and her orphanage offers them an opportunity to receive food and education.

Sutherland believes this approach is “breaking families apart”. “We firmly believe that family-based care is the best alternative,” he says.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs agrees that residential care should be a “last resort”. A study by the ministry in 2012, conducted alongside Unicef, found there were 269 orphanages in Cambodia and that only 23% of the almost 12 000 children in them were real orphans.

The children at CDO are relatively well-dressed but scrawny, and their dormitories are squalid. The boys’ dorm, made from corrugated iron and wood, sleeps 16, the mattresses have no sheets and there is no fan. Sara (21), from Portugal, recently finished a degree in business and has been working at CDO for two months. “I know some people don’t understand why we bring the children here when they have families”, she said, but “they can have a better life here”.

The orphanage costs about $2 000 (R21 514,70) per month to operate, Savorn says, and receives funding from outside organisations and visitors. “My funds come mainly from visitors.”

While Sara and Fredrick are not paying for their experience, many websites that organise similar placements charge thousands of dollars for the favour, a practice Savorn does not follow.

Emma, a university student from Sydney, Australia, paid Projects Abroad about $3 000 to volunteer for a few weeks at an orphanage in Siem Reap in 2012. She now regrets doing so. “When I got home I learnt more about the tourism trade there, and it made me feel sick to think I was involved in that,” she says. “In a way it did feel like the children were exploited for my ‘experience’. They prey on the fact that some people want to help and get involved,” she says.

Savorn makes no apology for wanting to draw people into the orphanage. The orphanage is only able to keep going through donations from tourists, she says.

A billboard at a nearby orphanage called Acodo advertises a daily “charity show”, with “performance, music, and songs by the vulnerable children”.

CDO has five European volunteers, including Sara and Fredrick. Asked if he’s worried how his leaving will affect the children who seem very attached to him, the Swede says that is why he will stay for one or two months. “Some people just come for a week,” he says.

“Why do that?”

 — Sapa-DPA

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