Facebook memories are a great thing. They can remind you of just how terrible your taste in music was as a teen, of the love interest you’ve long since forgotten about, or the utter disaster that turned out to have no long-term impact whatsoever. For me, however, my memories have recently been reminding me of my greatest ever travel mistake.

See, I’m currently being inundated with posts from early 2010, when I travelled to Siem Reap, Cambodia to volunteer. Fresh out of high school and high on my own self righteousness, I spent two weeks volunteering at a small school a few kilometres out of town.

Although where I volunteered was a school, it was managed by the ever-so subtly named “Cambodian Orphan Project”.

As someone who had grown up in a loving, middle class family, the idea of being an ‘orphan’ was utterly shocking. The thought of children growing up without the warm embrace of their parents was something totally foreign and heartbreaking to me.

What I didn’t know at the time – but what I should have known – was that most of the time (or, 3 times out of 4, according to a Unicef study) the Cambodian children were separated from their families, at best, unnecessarily. At worst – and quite frequently – the orphanages and organisations that purported to “help” them were actively contributing to their suffering and separation from their families.

Cambodia’s orphan business

See, the “Cambodian Orphan Project” and many others like it, could well have been called the “Cambodian Orphan Business”. I paid well over $1,000 for the week to live in a guesthouse (worth about $7 a night) and volunteer with the children. All over Cambodia, this ‘business model’ is replicated hundreds of times, whether it be weeks-long volunteering projects, or the chance just to “drop by” an orphanage and say hello.

In fact the number of new orphanages grew hugely between 2005 and 2015, despite massive falls in the poverty rate.

The result? Many, if not most, of the orphanages in Cambodia make enormous profits for someone. If it’s not the orphanage directly, it’s the organisations that manage the placements (for many years, it was Projects Abroad, although they ceased sending volunteers to orphanages in 2013.)

This has created a “demand” for so-called orphans. Studies into Cambodia’s out of home care ‘industry’ has found that many parents are pressured or tricked into giving up their children. 3 out of 4 children in Cambodian orphanages have one or more parents alive. There’s no telling how many more have a relative or friend who is able to care for them at home.

Often, these “paper orphans” are created for the purpose of making money. It sounds horrible, and it is. But it’s the truth.

It is horrible, but in my view, the intentions behind the people participating in it are not all that relevant. Whether children are being harmed because someone is greedy, or because someone is compassionate, doesn’t make a difference to the. outcomes for the children.

Plus, history is littered with people who have had “”good intentions”” but done terrible things. Frequently this has involved removing children from their families, whether it be Australia’s Stolen Generation or the children of unwed mothers in Magdalene Laundries. Irrespective of good intentions, this caused intergenerational trauma and enormous suffering.

Cambodian orphanages, child abuse and slavery.

Even in heavily regulated, “best practice” institutions such as those in Australia, group residential care is considered a last resort. We recognise that the effects of such institutions on children is overwhelmingly negative.

Children raised in residential facilities tend to have worse physical, mental and educational outcomes. In extreme cases, attachment disorders can occur, that stay with people their entire lives. Once children leave residential care, substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness are common outcomes.

Again, this is in Australia, a country with best practices and safety nets for children and adults.

What about the children of Cambodia? These orphanages are largely unregulated; the ratio of children to carers is not regulated and no one is overseeing their health and education outcomes.

Children in developing countries like Cambodia experience trauma just like any other child. Even if a child’s circumstances are such that placement in an orphanage is the only appropriate solution (which is exceedingly rare), they need support from qualified, experienced professionals. Not teenage gap year students who know nothing about the language, culture of Cambodia or child psychology.

They particularly don’t need a revolving door of people who provide short term bursts of love and affection, only to leave. This is re-traumatising.

Plus, what happens to these children when they grow up? The financial and emotional support completely dries up, and many of these young adults find themselves on the streets and all that entails.

Plus, in Cambodia, many orphanages have been found to be keeping children in deliberately squalid conditions to elicit more sympathy from would-be donors. In Cambodia and many other countries, donations are often pocketed by the directors, and donated goods are sold at a profit.

Other practices that are widespread in Cambodian orphanages include children begging for money on the street, or putting on “shows” for visitors in the hopes of soliciting donations. Friends International succinctly puts it: “children are not tourist attractions”. A home should be a safe place, not a place where children are wheeled out to make money.

A few years ago I attended a conference with a prominent female barrister who has worked on numerous trafficking and slavery cases. I asked her if she thought that the situation of children in orphanages in Cambodia and elsewhere met the definition for slavery. “Absolutely‘ she replied. Not long after, the Australian Government passed the Modern Slavery Act which expressly includes orphanage voluntourism.

Another common practice in Cambodia is children being taken out for ‘day trips’. Frequently, these ‘day trips’ are organised by people who have had no background checks, whatsoever. They just roll up and declare they want to take the kids to see some temples.

This is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The thought of doing this in nearly any other country is utterly ludicrous.

Plus, Cambodia is, sadly, considered a hot bed for child sex tourism. Undoubtedly, practices such as allowing random people to interact with – and worse, take away unaccompanied – vulnerable children, is an irresponsible practice. Frankly, irresponsible fails to explain the gravity of the situation.

I am not being dramatic. There have been many cases of Cambodian orphanages being implicated in child sexual abuse. In fact, the owner of the organisation I volunteered with was found guilty of child sexual abuse against a number of children at the orphanage.

Taking personal accountability.

I am disgusted, embarrassed and ashamed that my actions contributed to the suffering of Cambodian children. In fact, I put off writing this post for a long time, because it hurts to write it. Facing up to our own failings is never comfortable, and when you realise that your actions had serious consequences, it’s even worse.

Of course, some people would probably tell me that it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t know, I had good intentions, yadayada. There may be a kernel of truth in some of this, but none of that makes up for the harm that was caused to vulnerable children as a result of myself and others failing to think through what we were doing.

The information was there if I had looked, and in fact, much of this is common sense if you really think about it. The fact I was willing to waltz into Cambodia without even thinking “wait a minute, what do I actually know about teaching children?” shows that I did not put the kind of legwork in that I should have. I need to take personal accountability for that.

There’s also a whole other conversation here about the “white saviour complex” and privilege and bias. Why did I, an eighteen-year-old white person, think that I would be helpful, at all, in this situation? I think the answer lies, at least to some extent, in racism, bias and privilege. That’s also not an easy thing to admit. But until we face up to our own biases – subconscious or otherwise – we sure as hell aren’t going to address them.

Bottom line: avoid orphanages.

Since my experience in Cambodia, I know I’ve made a lot of people uncomfortable by raising these points. You don’t make friends by calling out people who want to volunteer in orphanages, or even just visit them for an afternoon.

I could feel the tension in a lecture when I called out Projects Abroad for coming in to do “guest lectures” about orphanage voluntourism (interestingly, they later stopped). While on tour in Africa, pointing out that I didn’t think dropping by an orphanage to dole out cuddles to random people’s children was very appropriate had me relegated to the definite “outer”.

I still struggle when I hear people talk about the possibility of going to volunteer on gap years, church projects, etc. Since trying to support other organisations – local, transparent ones that keep families together – I’ve had many people excitedly tell me of their plans to volunteer overseas, not realising the issues with it. Some of them have been my family members, which always makes for a fun dinner.

But, I’m not going to an orphanage, I’m…

Of course, voluntourism is a lot wider than just orphanages. There’s a lot of different volunteer opportunities. What about them?

Again, this is ripe for another article. I will just say this: it is key to think really, really hard about what you are doing. Once you are tired and need a lie down from all the thinking, then think even harder.

Ask yourself; what are my motivations for doing this, whether it be volunteering or anything else? Is genuinely to help? Or is it something else? This calls for some uncomfortable self-examination. Is it just maybe you want to feel good about yourself? Have some pictures to post on social media? Maybe feel better about your life by comparing it to those who are less fortunate?

Be honest with yourself. We are all human, we can be selfish. You’re not an evil person because these things cross your mind, but you have the responsibility not to let them cause other people harm. People in Cambodia or elsewhere are not there for you to achieve selfish aims.

You hitting 250 likes on Instagram is not sufficient reason to put children in harms way.

If you are genuinely sure your aims are mostly good, then ask yourself; what sustainable benefits can I offer? “I will make people happy” is not a sustainable benefit. Perhaps you have expert knowledge in a field, and you can communicate that to staff (again: consider your own privilege here. Are you really an expert, or are you a white saviour?)

Finally – and this is important – think about any possible negative consequences. Imagine you were someone with nefarious intentions – what precedent are you setting? Are you indirectly supporting an organisation with sub-par child protection practices? Are you taking jobs from local people? Are you disenfranchising the local communities who should be the ones who can shape the services available to them?

If you honestly believe that you have something of value to offer, which isn’t going to cause harm, then by all means offer it. But don’t expect that people are going to be falling over themselves to take you up on it.

A better way

Phew. This was not really a fun article. May I suggest reading my rant about jerks in hostels to make up for it?

But seriously, this is not a fun topic, but it’s important. I don’t want other people to feel the way I feel about my attempt to “help”, and I certainly don’t want other children to be harmed by our collective ignorance, no matter how well-intentioned.

I think travelling can bring economic development and cultural understanding – as long as it is done with respect. Again, examining our own biases and privileges is important to help make sure we are actually treating people and places with respect.

If you do want to do more, good! Great! Look for organisations that are built by local people, that are sustainable and transparent. If you want to help Cambodian children, specifically, then making regular donations to charities that are helping address the underlying causes of poverty and family breakdown is going to be much more helpful.

It may not give you the immediate warm and fuzzies of actually meeting and interacting with children. But it is far more sustainable, important and safe.

Note: the image on this page is a stock photo from Unsplash. I do not mean to imply those children are in care in Cambodia.

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