Volunteer in Cambodia

For anyone visiting south-east Asia, a first-hand experience of poverty can be confronting. It is common for tourists to feel compelled to ‘do good’ and give back, but without understanding the bigger picture, their good intentions can create more problems than they solve. 

When Tara Winkler, Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) co-founder, first visited Cambodia in 2005 she felt uncomfortable being on holiday surrounded by so much poverty. “I wanted to do something to give back,” she says. 

Tara’s intention to do good and help Cambodian children meant she became an orphanage tourist, voluntourist, orphanage donor. Eventually, after discovering abuse in the orphanage she was supporting, she set up her own orphanage to rescue the children. After learning to speak Khmer and researching best practice in child development, Tara learnt that no matter how good her orphanage was it would still ultimately cause damage to children she was trying to help. 

In 2012, Tara and CCT co-founder Jedtha Pon transformed the orphanage into the Village Hive Model which promotes and advocates for family-based care. The children in the orphanage were reunited with their biological families and those who couldn’t return home were transitioned into foster families who were supported by CCT and had relationships with the children. 

Today, CCT’s Village Hive model is at the forefront of the care reform movement in Cambodia, setting the blueprint for community-led child protection that also focuses on preventative social protection. CCT’s model is co-created with families and members of the local community. It is operated by a Cambodian team of social workers, nurses, teachers and project managers in partnership with the Battambang local council. CCT’s Advisory Board of Directors is represented by care leaver youth, all of whom have direct experience with institutional care, foster care and family preservation services and provide invaluable insight into the ongoing development and evolution of CCT’s work. 

One of the members on CCT’s Advisory Board of Directors is Sinet Chan, a care-leaver and orphanage survivor. Growing up in an orphanage, Sinet saw first-hand how voluntourism negatively affected herself and other children in the orphanage. 

“I met many volunteers when I was at the orphanage. I know they are good people and they want to help, but what they don’t know is their actions are hurting children”

Sinet Chan

Orphanage tourism and voluntourism is big business and has played a significant role in driving the increase in the number of orphanages across the developing world. The demand for ‘feel good experiences’ by well-meaning tourists has caused more and more orphanages to be set up. As orphanages are founded, more and more children have been separated from their families to fill the beds. The separation of children from the people they are bonded to is a deeply traumatic experience that triggers a massive biological stress response in children that interrupts their normal brain development and has lifelong consequences.

There are also serious child protection risks associated with having unskilled and unvetted tourists volunteering and engaging intimately with children. It gives potential predators easy access to vulnerable children. The constant rotation of volunteers can also cause psychological damage to children who are often already struggling with attachment disorders after being separated from their families.The indiscriminate affection that volunteers and tourists encounter when they visit children in an orphanage is a sign of an attachment disorder. It’s a survival mechanism for institutionalised children who are vying for love and attention from adults who are constantly coming in and out of their lives. 

The western world has known for over a century how damaging institutional care is for children and closed all the orphanages. So if a practice is not good enough for white children, it is not good enough for children anywhere in the world. 

Imagine if tourists were allowed to play and interact intimately with Australian children while they were at school, preschool or daycare. The thought is horrifying. We have to ask ourselves why we feel it’s appropriate in a developing country?

Despite lobbying from international child protection organisations to cease orphanage tourism, there are many travel companies who are more concerned with profit than the wellbeing of children and continue to offer orphanage trips. 

That is why it’s important for each of us to do what we can as individuals to raise awareness about the harms of orphanages, so that our well-meaning friends and family don’t set off on international volunteering experiences, unaware of the harm they may be causing. If demand for these sorts of poverty porn trips dry up, so too will the orphanage tourism industry and, ultimately, the masses of orphanages around the globe. In their place, better programs and services will arise that take a holistic approach to supporting whole families, ensuring children can grow up safely in families where they belong.

If you, or a friend or family member are considering an overseas volunteering trip…

The best advice we can give is: learn before you try to help. 

Go on an educational tour run by ethical travel companies and get yourself a copy of “The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel” by the brilliant people at Learning Service. The insights will help you navigate a complex issue and ensure your efforts aren’t inadvertently causing harm to the people and communities you’re intending to help. 

“When I first heard Daniele Papi-Thornton’s (author of The Essential Guide To Volunteer Travel) story in 2011, it had a profound impact on me and changed the trajectory of my life and work in Cambodia,” says Tara. “It’s the book I wish I had 13 years ago.”

The most important thing for each of us to remember is that children are not tourist attractions. They are not animals in a petting zoo and they are certainly not there for the entertainment of tourists and travellers. 



HOW CAN I HELP WITHOUT ENGAGING IN VOLUNTOURISM?

  • Investigate whether you might have a skill that you can use to do capacity building and training with local staff in NGOs who are committed to family-based care and best practice in child protection. 
  • Learn before you help by going on an educational tour. There are lots of great responsible tourism companies and social businesses running wonderful tours where students and individuals can learn about the culture they’re visiting and about best practice in aid and development. Check out Trepid Travel, Flight Centre, Pepy Tours and Ayana Journeys.
  • Redirect support away from orphanages and residential care institutions towards projects that empower families and communities to raise their own children. No matter how good the intentions, residential care does harm to children. There’s a century of research to back it up.

A GREAT WAY TO VOLUNTEER IS TO DO IT AT HOME!

We’ve put together a handy list of how you can volunteer your time and money ethically and give back to vulnerable children and families in crisis in Cambodia.

WHAT CAN I DO TODAY?

  • Share the family stories from CCT’s social media. They are a fantastic example of how this model works. Choose the platform that suits you best; Facebook, Instagram or Twitter
  • Become an advocate for family-based care. Tell your family and friends, tell your colleagues.
  • Educate yourself about our model and watch Tara’s TED talk
  • Does anyone you know support orphanages? Explain why empowering families to keep their kids at home is best for children and give them some alternative ways to use their money.
  • Call out #whitesaviourism when you see it. 

HOW CAN I SUPPORT CCT?

  • Become a Regular Giver and donate monthly. Consistent support from you means consistent support for families. Every donation – however small – counts.
  • Fundraise on our behalf. You could organise a fun run, cook a Cambodian feast for your friends – if you want some ideas, get in contact
  • Come to Cambodia and Ride Along with our Social Workers to see the effect your donations have on families in Battambang. You can read one donors journey to Cambodia here.

With your help, we can help end the era of orphanages in Cambodia, and empower families to build sustainable futures for themselves and their children.