The Ethical Evolution of Voluntourism

As the ‘voluntourism ’ industry continues to boom, many question the real impact that short term holiday volunteers have on an international community. Some argue that voluntourism is ultimately about the self-fulfilment of the volunteers, more than what they bring to the communities they ‘help’, with the only real change being their own Facebook profile picture.

Such good intentions from Western travellers can be misguided, misused and often taken advantage of. But surely it’s better to do something than nothing at all? According to Friends International and the Child Safe Movement, travellers should focus on being better educated and more aware of their social footprint, before embarking on a volunteer experience.

It is now widely accepted that Western aid and donations have significantly contributed to the ‘orphanage trade’ of Cambodia. According to a recent UNICEF study, at least 3 out of 4 orphans living in institutionalised residential care have at least one living parent at home. And the amount of orphans in Cambodia has significantly increased.

So what does this mean? And how did we get here?

The increase in well intended travellers and the lack of formal structure and rules around the orphanages has led to an increase in orphanage donations. And the more orphans, the greater the donations. In some cases, if the orphanage owner keeps the children at the right level of ‘poor’, the greater the chance of the travellers’ donation. If the money received went to the children and the level of life quality increased, then donations from tourists may go down. Therefore, it’s in the interest of the orphanage owner to have maximum children kept at sub level living conditions.

Are they all like this?

Well, no, of course not. There are many that do great work with the best intentions, who do not profit from the children. But deciphering which ones are great, which ones are not and which are somewhere in between is near impossible. It is the system that encourages institutionalization. And this is where the inherent problem lies.

What does the future hold?

As educational awareness grows, organizations such as Cambodia Childrens Trust and Friends International have started a campaign to “Think families, not orphanages”.  The model, particularly from CCT in Battambang, Cambodia, strongly encourages the children to live with their families. To provide the support as to why a child might ‘need’ to be in an orphanage in the first place, CCT provide a number of community outreach programs where children can receive extra education and nutrition, among many other basic necessities.

How do I find the ‘good’ NGOs to donate to and/or volunteer at?

It’s all about doing your research and asking the right questions. Questions like ‘How is the model of your program sustainable?’ or ‘Does your NGO have an exit plan and how long will it take?’. Just because an NGO may take volunteers for a day or a week, doesn’t mean that it’s good practice. It truly is a complex world and making informed and educated decisions regarding your level of involvement takes more than a couple of hours on Google.

What is the next step?

Social Cycles, a start-up Melbourne based company, has launched NGO educational adventures across Cambodia, with a view to give insight and understanding to well-intentioned travellers, before they commit to a volunteer experience. Travellers have the chance to undertake a fully supported 500km cycle expedition from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia over two weeks.

During this time, they have the chance to visit, engage with and learn from five various local grass root charities along the way in the form of direct presentations and project site visits. This is not about teaching English for a day or building a toilet, this is a unique opportunity to speak to NGO Directors about their challenges, solutions and strategies for the future.

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All riders in the Social Cycles expedition commit to a nominal charitable donation prior to departure to give firsthand experience of understanding the complexities of how and where financial aid is best distributed.

Social Cycles are conducting further expeditions in April, June, July, October and November. Maximum group size is eight riders.

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About the Author

Brett is passionate about sustainable travel. After throwing in a corporate career to cycle across the world for a few years, Brett has now founded Social Cycles, a social enterprise that hosts group cycling adventures across Cambodia and the developing world, in a bid to learn more from local charities and experts. Before we can help each other, we must know what we are doing.

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