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Travel stories, inspiration, news and musing

We are the dreamers, the seekers, the travellers, the adventurers, the optimists. It's nice to meet you! There are lots of us with the same DNA - we look forward to sharing the journey with you.

How to volunteer responsibly

Aimee Pearce

It makes sense that many avid travellers decide to spend some time volunteering. When you spend a lot of time visiting different cultures and meeting different people, it doesn't take long before you see there is a big wide world out there and a lot of people are doing it pretty tough. Poverty is rampant, there is need everywhere you look, it's only natural to want to help in some way. And overall, volunteering can be great! In fact, we wholeheartedly support the idea of volunteering. I (Aimée) have spent three months volunteering in Uganda and Elissa has spent six months volunteering in Nepal. So Wanderlust People is pro-volunteering!


But!....(And there is a big BUT!).... as global citizens, we have an obligation to volunteer responsibly. Just being willing to help and having the best intentions actually doesn't cut it. In fact, volunteering irresponsibly can have more detrimental impacts on a community than positive outcomes. 

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Volunteering can actually undermine the local economy. It's not always the case, but having foreigners fly halfway around the world to conduct basic tasks like building, painting, cleaning, gardening etc. can actually be taking employment from local people where there is already severe underemployment. Uncool.
  • Although it's never the intent, some forms of voluntourism like orphanage tourism can have pretty severe negative impacts including leading to significant increases in the presence of orphanages in some regions where children become commodities for foreigners to visit and take photos.
  • If volunteer projects are implemented solely or even predominantly by foreigners, there is often no long term sustainability. As soon as the volunteers return home, the projects shut down and no long term improvements are seen in the community. And that's just frustrating for everyone!
  • Volunteers often arrive in-country with no pre-departure training or cultural awareness and can often cause offense because they operate without cultural sensitivity. Being a bit clueless as a tourist is one thing, but as a volunteer, it's just not cricket - it can cause real damage to the project underway and any that follow.

Negative nellies, we hear you say! But don't despair - it is possible to turn good intentions into good actions. Here are some simple ways to volunteer well:

  • Don't pay a third-party to "place" you with another volunteer organisation
  • Focus on capacity building! The best kind of volunteering takes place when volunteers are focused on training and building skills and capacity within the local people so ultimately they can operate independently. 
  • Do your research! Find out a bit about the organisation you are volunteering with and talk to previous volunteers. Make sure you are happy with the model and how the organisation works in a development setting.
  • Learn about the culture you are planning to volunteer in. Research the culture, the religion, the people and operate with sensitivity and respect. This covers everything from interaction with people, to what you wear and how you speak.

There has been a lot of media focus on voluntourism recently, especially in Cambodia where orphanage tourism is rife. This is a really interesting interview that travel writer Lara Dunston conducted with Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children's Trust. Would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to comment below with your opinions or experiences or questions!

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia

Lara Dunston

on June 17, 2014 at 6:12 pm

As we waited at Siem Reap airport for our flight to Bangkok a few days ago, I overheard American tourists on their phones telling friends back home about their Asian adventures. A highlight of their trip, they said, had been orphanage visits in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. This has to stop.

It was a similar conversation to that I had overheard in a Battambang hotel a few months earlier, between young Asian-Australian travellers about their orphanage visits in Cambodia, that had motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT).

CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, with the support and technical expertise of Australian chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok (Asia’s best restaurant) and restaurateur John Fink (owner of Peter Gilmore’s Quay restaurant, Sydney), which we’ve been writing about since it opened in October 2013.

Here’s my interview with Tara Winkler about why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia.

Grantourismo: Q. Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?
Tara Winkler: A. Orphanage tourism is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries like Cambodia. It simply means tourists visiting orphanages as part of their travel itineraries.

Q. Orphanage tourism is closely linked to voluntourism — they both come from a desire to give back to the places visited.
A. While voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, it can cause serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia — problems that most people are not aware of. Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. We need to think before visiting an orphanage. Children are not tourist attractions.

Q. So orphanage tourism is big business?
A. Absolutely. Because there are so many tourists who want to come visit orphanages, it has become very lucrative for orphanages to exist and to be open to tourist visits. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphans has declined. It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and well-meaning foreigners are the customers.

Q. What’s wrong with orphanage tourism exactly?
A. The majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope that they will find a path out of poverty to a better life. Yet these families do not fully understand the negative impact that living in an orphanage can have on their children. At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

Q. Why is that?
A. Part of the reason for this is the rotating roster of carers and visitors to orphanages. It is important for children’s development and mental health to have long-term, stable relationships, rather that short-term periods of bonding followed by separation. So to answer your question, because orphanage tourism provides an incentive for these orphanages to exist, it is not a good thing at all. With the best of intentions, people who visit orphanages are being more harmful than helpful to children.

Q. Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
A. I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?

Q. What are the alternatives to orphanages in a country like Cambodia where UNICEF estimated there were 600,000 orphans? Are residential care centres and children’s villages better?
A. Residential care centres, children’s villages, and orphanages are all types of institutionalised care. The best place for a child to grow up is in a family environment, not in an institution. That’s why all the children that CCT works with live in a family, whether it is with their biological parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, or foster parents. Cambodia has a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children within kinship care, and to this day, the majority of Cambodia’s orphans live within the extended family. The rapid increase in residential care facilities threatens to erode these existing systems and places children at risk.

Q. If altruistic travellers want to help to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, what are some better to do this?
A. A great way is to support social enterprises run by charities that support children. In Battambang, we run Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains youth from our programs, with all the profits coming back to CCT to support our programs. There are similar social enterprises throughout Cambodia, like Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh and Marum restaurant in Siem Reap, which support Friends International’s work with children living on the street. In Kampot, Epic Arts Café supports Epic Arts’ work with people with disabilities.

Q. Why was CCT established and what does it do exactly?
A. CCT was established in 2007 when Jedtha Pon and I, with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, rescued 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Battambang. Since then, we’ve grown to support more than 300 children and their families through our communityeducation and social enterprise programs. These programs work together to ensure children and their families have the comprehensive support they need to thrive. We enable children in Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

Q. How does the CCT differ from an orphanage?
A. All children supported through our programs live in a family. We believe strongly that families are the best place for children. There have been a few cases where we have reunited siblings and parents and children who have been separated when the children were living in orphanages, and it is incredible to see the difference this makes in their lives. They are doing so well.

Q. What about travellers considering a volunteer program?
A. Think before volunteering overseas. When travelling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might inadvertently be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train and empower local people. Then, instead of taking jobs from local people, you’ll be empowering them and helping them to become more employable.

Q. Any tips for travellers who wish to donate money or gifts?
A. Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Support organisations that promote family based care and empower the people they are working to help. Think before sending donations of goods to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

Q. In other words, do some thorough research first.
A. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the ways in which we are helping are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Q. Are there any specific organizations, projects or businesses you recommend travellers visiting Cambodia donate to or support?
A. In addition to those I mentioned already, PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.

Cambodian Children’s Trust

You can also donate to Cambodian Children’s Trust here