Ever since Angkor Wat became one of the world’s largest growing tourist hot spots, the concept of “voluntourism” has skyrocketed in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap where I live and work. One might think the more volunteers the better, but that’s not always the case, and especially not here. Corruption in Cambodia exists in far more than one way, and one of the big problems is groups claiming to be an NGO in order to attract tourists, volunteers, and their money. Orphanages, and entities that falsely claim the title, are the biggest problem specifically. Siem Reap Province has hundreds – literally, hundreds – of “orphanages,” but most of the children are not orphans. Many families who cannot support their children leave them to be cared for by one of these groups, but worse, I have been told it is just as common for the fraudulent NGOs to coerce poor families into selling or renting their children to them. This article is from November, but still brings up many good points, both about the orphanage scams and other points about voluntourism that are relevant far beyond Cambodia’s borders.


I will share a few of the good lines if you haven’t looked:

“The harsh truth is that ‘voluntourism’ is more about the self-fulfilment of westerners than the needs of developing nations. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a world in which Madonna thinks it is fine to take children from African families.”

“Too many travellers carry a naively romantic idea of doing good alongside their luggage. Unfortunately, they are led by their hearts and not their heads and unknowingly support environments that may be abusive to children.”

“The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer. But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of voluntourism is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help.”

So, what do you think voluntourism should look like? What’s appropriate – and especially in a ‘developing’ country that has so many groups trafficking through on community-service, missionary, or what have you trips. When I meet new Cambodian people and tell them a bit about what I am doing, I am nearly always thanked, and more than once, for coming to Cambodia and volunteering here. I really haven’t any local people who do not genuinely seem to care about the future development of the country; and the question about the balance between local and “imported” skills and help is always a present one.

As the quotes suggest, it is not always easy to figure out what to do with volunteers. There is an organization here called ConCERT  whose tagline is “helping you help.” In their ideal world, all volunteer placements in Siem Reap would go through them (oops). Many people talk about volunteers in Siem Reap as having the “hug a child” syndrome, referring to the fact that many people want to just come and play with kids. I’ll leave you to figure out how this is more hurtful than helpful to Cambodian youth, families, and NGO staff who need to facilitate it all.

A facebook message chain in a group that I am turned into a series of conversations around these issues (I don’t want to harp on the power of social media, but I have learned SO many things about this city, the people that live here, and other opportunities through facebook while here. My experience would not have been the same without it!). The original objective of these conversations has been to talk about options for individuals or groups who want to volunteer for a day or two. When I worked at Americana last year, our simple solution tended to be some kind of physical/manual labor; be it trash pick up, painting, shredding, etc. When this was suggested, however, the answer is more complicated for Cambodia. Manual labor would take away a job of a Cambodian whose responsibility the task original was. It’s not so simple that this person would just do something else, the likelier result would be a dismissal from work – obviously not the outcome we are looking for.

So what does responsible volunteering look like? When people inquire specifically about what I am doing here at WRC, I tend to get either surprised responses or praises. People tend to be surprised that a) I am not teaching English, b) I do not have any client contact at all, and c) I came here to work on a computer all day? Others, who are more atuned to creating sustainable social change, tell me that what I am doing is great. I’ve shared the philosophy of the Clinton School fieldwork program with a few folks recently and the responses are always positive. So, Class 7 through 100+, Cambodia would love to have you 🙂