Cooking classes, cultural performances, massages, orphanage visits, adventure, festivals – this is the complete list of things to do in Siem Reap, as per the city’s Wikitravel page. Over the years, orphanage visits have seemingly become part of the Cambodian travel experience. As the popularity of visiting and volunteering at orphanages continues to rise, so does the controversy surrounding it.
Some say it is an excellent way to make a positive contribution to the country. Others fear that well–meaning voluntourists may be doing more harm than good.
The Orphanage Boom
Earlier this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that while the number of Cambodian orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has rapidly increased. UNICEF says that the number of orphanages jumped from 153 to 269 in the past five years. Only 21 of those are run by the state; the rest are privately operated.
Perhaps even more troubling, UNICEF says that of the nearly 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages today, only 28 percent have lost both parents. If nearly three out of four of these “orphans” have at least one surviving parent, why are they living in orphanages?
While parental illness, disability, abuse and desertion account for a portion of these situations, the International Organisation for Adolescents (IOFA) and Friends International say that extreme poverty is behind most of these cases. Friends International says that parents are sending their children to orphanages believing they will have better access to food, shelter and an education. That decision, which may initially have been intended to be temporary, morphs into permanence.
Days after these findings were announced, the Cambodian government launched an investigation into the country’s orphanage system. Some fear that the orphanage boom is a product of Cambodia’s increasing tourism trade and the influx of tourist dollars that comes with it.
Might the Children Be Better Off?
When poverty is this severe, the question is often asked, might the children be better off in institutional care rather than with parents who are unable to support them?
International studies have shown that children are better off in a family than in an institution. Many countries worldwide have moved to de-institutionalise childcare in favour of foster care programmes and community-based support. Orphanages, says UNICEF, should be the last resort.
Tessa Boudrie, a qualified social worker who has spent the past ten years helping street children and sex workers in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, agrees that the family unit is the best environment for a child. She says that research shows it’s cheaper to care for children in a family unit than in an orphanage.
‘A development dollar is better spent on helping families to create a sustainable livelihood. If that means you actually have to look beyond the family and into the community, because the whole community is facing the same difficulties, then that is where the development dollar should go,” says Tessa.
Research recently conducted by IOFA found that young adults who left orphanages experienced a variety of problems, including damaged or severed family connections, homelessness, exploitation, trafficking and drug abuse. Its findings, IOFA says, challenge the widespread belief that institutional care is better for children from poor families.
Tessa says it is naïve to believe that removing a child from the family unit will solve the underlying problems. “It is short-term thinking and definitively not in the best interests of the child and family.”
The Rise of Orphanage Tourism
Volunteer placement organisations, universities and hotels promote orphanage tourism to travellers as a way that they can “make a difference” while having experiences that are “rewarding” and “life-changing”. Volunteers are told that they can sing songs, draw pictures, paint, play, teach English and wash the kids, while being a “role model” who can “build [the children’s] confidence and hope in life”.
UNICEF says that the trend in orphanage tourism is borne from the best of intentions. Whether travellers spend an afternoon or a few weeks at orphanages, these short-term volunteers donate time and money with the aim of helping the children of Cambodia. The desire to lend a helping hand is gaining traction in everyone from backpackers and gap-year students to luxury travellers.
Majella Skansebakken, a Singapore expat and entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable work for Cambodia orphanages for over ten years, says that the enthusiasm to volunteer is a positive thing.
“Cambodia is still a country very much in need of help. In fact, most orphanages are crying out for help,” say Majella. “I do, however, oppose people seeing an orphanage as a tourist destination where they pat a child on the head, take a photograph, then walk away.”
Concerns About Short-term Orphanage Tourism
While some orphanages have stringent child protection policies and structured volunteer programmes in place, NGOs worry that those with open door policies may not have the best interests of the children in mind. Concerns include:
Ineffective volunteer work
Reading, playing with and hugging the children may make a tremendous impact on the volunteer, but does little to support the needs of the children. Aid workers report situations where volunteers perform work that is unnecessary, such as teaching “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to children that have recited it hundreds of times before.
Though the goal is to help, volunteers sometimes confuse the impact that they are feeling with that which they are making. Emphasis is placed on the volunteer’s emotional response, rather than the effectiveness of the help itself. One volunteer summed up his experience by saying:
“The kids at the orphanage changed my life completely. I can honestly say I am a different person. The 14 days I was at the orphanage taught me so much…Just having been able to make a difference by working at the orphanage and to share my time with [the children] was so incredibly rewarding. It was one of the most genuine experiences of my life.”
Tessa noted the difficulty in attracting tourists towards responsible volunteer projects when the feel-good factor of working with children is so strong.
Emotional loss from revolving door of volunteers
UNICEF is concerned about the emotional loss that the children may feel from exposure to a revolving door of volunteers. Donor educator Saundra Schimmelpfennig writes about the trend of “hug-an-orphan vacations” on her blog Good Intentions are Not Enough. She says that that although volunteers feel that interacting with orphans is a great way to give back, it can have harmful effects.
“While at the orphanage, most volunteers seek to build emotional bonds with the children so they can feel they made a difference. Though well intended, this leads to a never-ending round of abandonment,” says Saundra.
Tessa agrees, noting that most short-term volunteers lack experience in dealing with institutionalised children. “No child benefits from spending intimate time with a total stranger, especially those who are uneducated in social work and education.”
She says that the effect of a continuous stream of foreign volunteers is usually traumatising in the long run. “When I arrived in Asia ten years ago, I vowed never to work with a target group directly. I didn’t want to take a job away from a local, I don’t know the local culture and language, and my work is temporary. Instead, I offer my knowledge and skills to other social workers, which affects not just one child, but a much larger group of children in the end.”
Exposure to child predators
Earlier this year, the British owner of the Cambodian Orphan Fund, Nicholas Griffin, was sent to prison in Cambodia for sexually abusing several minor boys in his care. According to the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, he ran “a number of orphanages in a tourist hotspot” in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases involving sexual abuse by directors of private orphanages.
Orphanages with open door volunteer policies may unwittingly expose children to predators. In a recent interview, Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood executive who gave up his career to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund, cited safety as one reason why his organisation requires at least a one-month commitment from all volunteers. “We have to protect the children both emotionally and physically…We require police reports in advance and references. It’s not worth the time for the volunteer or CCF to go through that for a couple of days.”
As the children’s home, an orphanage must also protect their privacy rights. Voluntourists often take photos of themselves with the children, some of which turn up on Facebook and personal blogs. “Most orphanages have adopted a policy whereby the children’s privacy is paramount. I have never taken photos of children on holidays in London, so I am definitely confused by people doing this in Cambodia,” says Majella.
Exploitation by unscrupulous orphanages
NGOs in Cambodia report that some orphanages’ primary focus is to take advantage of Cambodia’s voluntourism boom.
“Volunteers come with money. In some cases, you have to pay to volunteer; in other cases, people donate after their time is up. Volunteering can be a lucrative, income-generating activity for orphanages,” says Tessa.
Friends International has discovered cases where unethical orphanages have recruited and even paid parents to give their children away. In other cases, children are rented for a short stay. The children are used to tug at the heartstrings of tourists and volunteers, who are compelled to open up their hearts and wallets to help.
“Orphanages that keep kids in squalor can attract far more funding,” says Daniela Papi, a long-time resident of Siem Reap and founder of an organisation focusing on youth education in rural Cambodia.
Saundra agrees. “The best way to keep [foreign] donations rolling in is to keep the children at a substandard level, so that any volunteer or donor showing up will see with their own eyes how critical it is to donate to the orphanage,” she says. “A portion of these funds may be put into caring for the children, while large percentages could easily be pocketed for personal profit with few the wiser.”
Daniela describes watching children being paraded around Siem Reap’s bar areas late at night. “They play music, hand out fliers and ask people to visit their orphanage. Countless travellers clap for the little performers, handing $20 bills to their ‘caretakers’ and promising to visit their orphanage during the week.”
“Sometimes, doing good can cause harm, and the practice of visiting orphanages which you have not properly vetted, and which have not properly vetted you, can be a harmful practice,” she says.
What You Can Do
With an estimated one-third of Cambodian children living below the poverty line, there is no doubt that help is needed. Before you visit or volunteer at an orphanage, consider the following:
DO your research. Ask local educators and NGOS about reputable organisations that are helping orphaned Cambodian children. Look for one that is legally registered and employs an active family reunification programme.
DON’T go to any orphanage that actively solicits tourists.
“People always ask me, ‘What is a good orphanage I can visit today?’ My answer is always – any orphanage that lets you visit today, unplanned, is likely not a good orphanage.” – Daniela Papi
DON’T work with the children directly. Instead, assist the permanent staff; this keeps the locals in charge and minimises attachment issues.
DO sign on for a long-term project. Choose a placement where you are supervised and working within a long-term curriculum.
DO bring special skills. Medical specialists, teachers and human rights educators are often needed.
DON’T volunteer at any organisation that doesn’t ask for a CV, references and police reports in advance. The more that is demanded, the greater chance that the children are being protected.
DO ask to speak to a volunteer who came before you.
DON’T post photos of children online. The orphanage is the children’s home, and their privacy should be respected.
DON’T hand over large volunteer placement fees (which can top US$1,000) without ensuring that a portion is passed directly to the organisation.
DO donate goods in kind. Ask the organisation, rather than a tuk tuk or taxi driver, about their needs. A common scam involves exorbitant charges for rice on the advice of a profiteering driver.
“While bubbles and balloons are great, there may be a greater need for milk, rice, fruit and vegetables. Phone the organisation before you arrive.” – Majella Skansebakken
DO consider helping community-based programmes, which support families and enable the children to live at home.
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