Aug 12 2011

Short-term volunteering in Cambodia: some questions

Published by at 11:01 am under Volunteering in Cambodia

A debate is going back and forth in Siem Reap at the moment relating to visitors who want to do something to help Cambodia, but only have a very small amount of time in which to do it, from half a day up to one week. Seeing so much poverty, and so many of the children who suffer, inspires many visitors to express a desire to spend time working with children in one of the many shelters that are dotted about the countryside around this town, teaching English or otherwise helping out. Perhaps after reading this, you will be able to give your input on how to accommodate these good intentions, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Take a leap

Take a leap!

Everyone has the greatest respect for anyone expressing a desire to help in Cambodia. As Cambodians work hard to rebuild their country, many people are working alongside them to help them achieve their goals. The difficulty is that short-term volunteering, especially with children, has the potential to do more harm than good, both for the organisation and the children involved. Your opinions on what alternatives you and your co-travellers would be happy with would greatly add to the debate and help find some answers.

Looking at the difficulties: for the organisation, integrating a volunteer for a very short period of time is costly. A full-time paid worker is required to spend time preparing for the volunteer, introducing them and supervising them. This full-time worker may be a teacher or a social worker, and is being taken away from their normal duties that are usually directed towards the children’s education or well-being. As the work of the volunteer is naturally of limited value compared to the work of a full-time employee, the cash-strapped organisation is basically paying full-time wages for very little benefit.

That is assuming the organisation is a reputable one with a formal child-protection policy, sound paedagogical standards, a transparent accounting system, and proper management structures. Cambodia may be poverty stricken, but these things are not difficult or expensive to achieve — provided you have the will to do so. However, if it is a reputable organisation with all of these procedures in place, it is unlikely that they would accept volunteers for such short periods of time.

It is extremely difficult for visitors to identify which organisations are good and which are exploitative of both the children and visitors. One indicator: if you’re not asked to sign a child protection policy, walk away. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Asking your tuk tuk driver where to go will very likely put you on that road.

For the unaware traveller, the consequences for the child go deep. There are too many “orphanages” in Cambodia, most of which are not even needed. It has, however, become an attractive business model for some unscrupulous individuals who prey on the vulnerability of the children, and their parents – the majority of Cambodian “orphans” have at least one living parent – and the goodwill of visitors. The managers of these institutions are blessed with a salesman’s ability to quickly tug loose the heart strings that bind visitors’ wallets, and letting visitors spend time “teaching” the kids is an easy bargain. The result is that children are needlessly institutionalised, kept in a state of poverty and deprived not just of an education, but even their own home.

Moreover, for children a constant revolution of people through their lives can have terrible consequences. Cambodian children grow up in a context of profound psychological vulnerability. The inherited trauma driven behaviours of their parents and grandparents, coupled with poverty and insecurity, make them some of the most vulnerable children in the world. With every volunteer that comes into their lives, creates a relationship and then promptly leaves, there is a further psychological loss to the child, impacting their ability to form meaningful relationships. Their capacity to love and be loved suffers.

There are other ways to help, and we need to find them fast. Ideas such as blood donations have been put forward though it is understandable that that is not for everyone. Another concern is that the work of volunteers should not take away the possibility of paid work for a local.

We are searching for ways that will make everyone happy. What do you think would help?

Further reading
Why giving money to street kids is a bad idea

More still
» Previous post:
» Next post:

Disclaimer always pays its way. No exceptions.

Agoda logo
best price guarantee

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Short-term volunteering in Cambodia: some questions”

  1. swampgumon 13 Aug 2011 at 12:56 am

    Thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for the article.

    We are planning on spending at least a few months volunteering in Cambodia next year, so these questions are at the front of my mind. I had been thinking about some shorter-term vol work in other SEA countries too…

    Apart from the existence of a child protection policy, what other things should we look for in a good organisation?

    What kind of volunteering (if any) CAN have a positive impact in the short-term? Obviously working with kids is not the best, but are there often agricultural or building projects etc that need extra hands for short periods? Or does that just undercut the local employment?

    Like most questions of ethics, it seems that the deeper you look, the more shades of grey appear. I appreciate the wisdom of more experienced travellers :)

  2. shannonon 13 Aug 2011 at 2:31 am

    One of the things that come to mind is that the author points out that a social worker or a teacher who has to be paid to integrate the volunteer but this person is also paid to teach or deal with child welfare issues.

    I am not suggesting abstinence from volunteering, but that seems like the only option as A) we shouldn’t take away from the local labor/workforce and B) disrupting the child’s psychological well being is disheartening and C) putting strain on the already overwhelmed people who are needed to train/supervise/integrate volunteers.

    The reason for volunteers or reduced paid employees is to fill gaps, to help alleviate overworked systems, etc not create a burden as this article suggests. Long term stays aren’t possible (3 months isn’t much)

  3. Robon 13 Aug 2011 at 3:27 am

    When I first came to Cambodia, I helped found a small NGO devoted to the children at the Sihanoukville dumpsite. I quit as soon as the opportunity arose, a year later. This came in the form of another NGO that was formed for the sole purpose of providing a home, meals and schooling for the children.

    I started the NGO partly because I was shocked by the damage that was being done by another start-up NGO and partly because nobody was doing anything of substance for the dumpsite kids. I started looking for a way out because I realised I had neither the resources nor the experience to do the job right. It wasn’t an entirely wasted effort, since the ultimate goal, to get the kids off the dumpsite and into a safe, hygienic home was accomplished, so I don’t regret it, Wisely, I think, the NGO that funds the house does NOT allow volunteers to work there any longer. It is a bare bones operation that provides food, shelter, public school funding and medical services only.

    I don’t want to dissuade anyone from volunteering, but just bear in mind that you ARE as naive as the next person and you WILL make some false assumptions about your capacity to help and what constitutes need. In my opinion, the safest way to volunteer is to be a part of providing something tangible like a well.

    While I agree that the “inherited trauma driven behaviours of their parents and grandparents, coupled with poverty and insecurity, make them some of the most vulnerable children in the world”, this is not the whole story. My own extended family is about as poor as they get, but they look after one another as best they can and for the most part no longer look to me to bail them out. If I did bail them out, I would be contributing to the breakdown of their existing support structure. I learned this the hard way and now only provide help in dire emergencies.

  4. karenon 01 Oct 2011 at 3:14 am

    I’ve been pondering this issue lately as I am hoping to offer service this winter in Cambodia or surrounding area. One things I know is that it does take organization to include volunteers. It CAN be a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, if someone comes and makes a one on one connection with a project that is helping people, they might feel inspired to help in a more long term capacity (for eg. fundraising at home) to support ongoing needs. Aren’t you more inspired to give to an organization that you have first hand experience with?
    I am considering volunteering somewhere that is kind of like an ashram. There is a small fee to cover things such as room and board and that person who needs to be hired to organize the volunteer. Then that one person can organize many volunteers who can then offer services to the children. I’ve seen this kind of situation work to the benefit of all involved. As long as the children have a stable core of people that are there for them, they can see the volunteers as passing travelers that they can befriend and have an interaction with, but not depend upon emotionally.
    Of course if nothing like this is available, perhaps just random acts of kindness might help. See a family begging or looking hungry, Go out and buy them groceries for the week. See a person building something, offer to help. See a farmer planting his field, offer to help. Even these small offerings can be big for someone. To ease their burden for a short period of time. I’ve traveled many times with friends on service bike rides where everything we did was spontaneous. We would just ask if anyone needs help. And then helped them.

  5. onlyincambodiaon 16 Oct 2011 at 4:28 am

    Offering “random acts of kindness” can be just as harming as doing nothing because you have no idea about what the people are doing with your money or things you are buying.

    In fact, there is a local, long running scam that happens in Siem Reap where children carry babies around begging for passersby to purchase milk powder. The passersby go to the conveniently located market and purchase a can of formula, and walk away feeling content with their good deed of the day. What they don’t know is that that kid is going back into the market to sell back the can of formula for cash. So, how helpful was that “good deed”?

    There are MANY ways that passing tourists can help out besides spending time directly playing with children at so-called orphanages. Here are a few suggestions:

    1. Use your money to buy products or eat in restaurants that support projects that are providing employment and skills training for disadvantaged Cambodians. In Siem Reap there are numerous shops and cafes that do just this, as well as in Phnom Penh.

    In Siem Reap,
    -Joe to Go Cafe
    -Osmose shop called Saray
    -Common Grounds Coffee House
    -Senteurs d’Angkor
    -Tooit Tooit (Friends International shop in Old Market)
    -Sala Bai or Ecole Paul Dubrule hospitality training restaurants
    -Mad Eatery (ME)
    and so much more!

    2. Attend any one of the numerous Charity Pub Quizzes in Siem Reap. Every Thursday night at Warehouse, nearly every Friday night shared between Rosy Guesthouse, Molly Malone’s and Chill Si-dang, these quizzes raise money to support local charities who are working directly to meet the needs of Cambodians. You can have fun and do some good at the same time!

    3. Include responsible tour activities in your tour plans by renting bicycles (White Bicycles are available to rent and goes directly to supporting charitable projects), touring visitors centers provided by organizations, including eco-aspects to your existing tours, or visiting projects to become more aware of what exactly the needs are.

    People need to move away from the idea that it is necessary to volunteer for a day or two in order to feel good about spending money on a holiday. If that’s the case, who are you really doing it for? Yourself or the poor? More than likely it’s to feed your own ego and share with folks back home how much “good” you did and posting pictures of you with cute kids on Facebook.

    I have found ConCERT Cambodia ( to be an excellent source of information about discovering how to help support the REAL needs in Cambodia. Their website is a wealth of information about responsible volunteering and asking the right questions.

    Be sure to check out their article on the realities of orphanages in Cambodia that includes research by UNICEF, Save the Children and Friends International. They have a list of member organizations who are clearly in touch with the needs of Cambodia that you can learn about from their website or in person.

    The most important thing to remember is to THINK before you come. Don’t leave your brain at the border. If you can’t do it in your country, then you shouldn’t be doing it in Cambodia either.

  6. swampgumon 16 Oct 2011 at 7:13 am

    Wow. It takes a special kind of person to take the time and post something like that. Thank you so much for all the info, I really really appreciate it.

  7. onlyincambodiaon 16 Oct 2011 at 9:06 am

    Happy to contribute. This is a topic that is close to my heart and I am actively working on a project to respond to it through education and awareness.

    I firmly believe that most people would not be “volunteering” if they really understood the consequences. What they need to know are the alternatives which are just as helpful, if not more beneficial. The more accessible the right kind of information is, the better off Cambodians are as a whole.

  8. swampgumon 16 Oct 2011 at 10:50 am

    “I firmly believe that most people would not be “volunteering” if they really understood the consequences.”

    I agree – volunteering is a very very tricky thing. It’s easy to find an experience that make us feel good about ourselves, far more difficult to volunteer in a way that truly contributes to that community.

    My partner is a primary school teacher, and I have a diploma of permaculture, so I figure that having those skills will be a good start to making ourselves useful. We also intend to commit to a project for 6 months, which I assume will be more beneficial that doing short-term stuff.

    But despite that, I’m feeling unsure how best to contribute in my time there…

    Would sustainable agriculture skills be the best thing i can offer, considering I won’t be there long enough to implement/manage any longer-term projects? Plus I don’t have much experience with tropical permaculture, so I wouldn’t really be comfortable leading a project alone.

    I’m a graphic designer / art director by trade, but that seems fairly useless in the context of the more pressing needs that exist across South-East asia. But I don’t know – Maybe NGOs need design work done?

    Or should I get some teaching qualifications or something else?

    Not expecting you to answer these questions, just putting it out there on the off chance someone here presents a golden opportunity or can help me with my little dilemma :)

  9. onlyincambodiaon 16 Oct 2011 at 11:05 am

    Linking with organizations that are already working on agriculture projects would be your best bet. In Siem Reap I can think of two who are doing experimental projects: Trailblazer Foundation and MaD for Cambodia. I’m sure there are others.

    Additionally, technology skills are in high demand for NGOs, both to provide your services to them to improve their websites, PR, marketing and such, but also to train staff or students in those skills, too. Anything related to IT, web development, or design can be a huge benefit to many organizations who don’t have the budget to pay for those kinds of services!

    Teaching qualifications are not always necessary for organizations, but if you’re not already a trained teacher, then it’s not going to be much help. Teaching English, believe it or not, isn’t really Cambodia’s greatest need.

    If you have background in child development/psychology or social work, then those skills would be useful, too, since many organizations are beginning to recognize that community development involves teaching families about keeping children at home rather than sending them away to “orphanages”, but there is a serious lack of social workers here who know how to respond. Programs and projects need assistance in their creation, monitoring, and training of local staff.

    It’s good to hear you are planning for 6 months. That is a good amount of time to get used to being here, settle in, and have an opportunity to be effective.

  10. Swampgumon 16 Oct 2011 at 11:33 am

    That’s very interesting to hear about the need for IT/marketing help and teaching. I’ll be sure to look into that some more.

    I’m not really keen on the idea of teaching English, and from what you said it seems we may have similar views about priorities for these communities. I think I can offer something more (not that it isn’t an important piece of the puzzle)

    Im confident that my partner will be great in a school/orphanage/community centre, as she does have a very good grounding in children’s learning and developmental needs, but yes, all I would be able to do would be get a tefl certificate… And I’m not sure that’s the best thing I can offer.

    Thank you again for the advice and the links, seems like there’s some good leads there.

  11. Swampgumon 16 Oct 2011 at 11:36 am

    I should add, that I’ve never travelled outside Australia before, and I’m very conscious of my ignorance – which makes good advice a precious commodity :)


  12. Robon 17 Oct 2011 at 12:49 am

    I don’t really have anything more to contribute except to say that this has been one of the best threads about volunteering I’ve run across. Okay, two little comments:

    1) I taught ESL in Australia and thought I’d do it here, but changed my mind for two reasons. One is that I would be taking a job from a Cambodian. The other is that while Cambodian English teachers may not always be the best by our standards, they don’t inadvertently Anglicise or Americanise their students.

    2) Aside from Western run establishments, sometimes if you keep your eyes open you can find a Cambodian restaurant that allows street kids and/or the genuinely needy to eat the diners’ leftovers. Took me years to work that one out, though, so maybe it’s not too practical for newcomers.

  13. […] As spectacular as the weather is now, I haven’t forgotten that Cambodia suffered the heaviest rains in decades this year and the rice crops were ruined. It’s created enormous problems for the people, as you might imagine. If you come for a visit, keep this in mind. I’m not sure what the best way to contribute is, but before you do anything, check with some reputable sources. There’s been quite a bit of discussion on Travelfish about volunteering in general and for the most part, I think it’s been a valuable forum topic.  Click this link, Short-term volunteering in Cambodia: some questions and follow the thread. […]

  14. onlyincambodiaon 20 Oct 2011 at 7:14 am

    Here’s an excellent resource to be shared about why visiting an orphanage is NOT the way to volunteer:

    The information is from Friends International who developed the ChildSafe program within Cambodia to protect the rights and safety of children. It gives very clear reasons why volunteering in an orphanage can do more harm than good, no matter what you think ortherwise.

    In response to what you can do to help with the post-flooding crisis in Cambodia, here are a few very reputable organizations who are currently addressing the food crisis by providing rice and other necessary foodstuffs. Your direct monetary donation or purchase of rice for them will go directly to the most needy.

    Green Gecko Project with support from Hotel de la Paix, Heritage Suites, Golden Banana Resort, and Exotissimo.

    Grace House Community Center with support from Raffles Grand Hotel.

    MaD for Cambodia working in one of the poorest villages in Siem Reap province.

    Or, just go to the link here with the story:

  15. Prudence lamberton 28 Mar 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Folks, in Cambodia, as a foreigner, you are a total fish out of water until you can speak the language, and understand the history and the culture – say ten years to get to that point?

    Instead, why don’t you volunteer in your own country, where you do know the culture and nobody has to waste their work hours giving you cultural induction and where the needs are huge, though of course, different.

  16. Sem Sam Anon 06 Jun 2013 at 9:51 am

    CRID is looking for Voluntary Board Members and Foreign Volunteers
    Community Resource Improvement for Development (CRID) is a local non-profit, non-political and non-governmental organization was established in February 2008, aiming to improve, promote, and integrate conservative concepts into development aspects throughout environmental conservation and advocacy natural resources management, community development, volunteer and environmental debates program. CRID was officially registered by Ministry of Interior on January 27, 2010, and implemented activities with our race, religion and political discrimination.

    The vision of CRID is wishing to see the people in the whole communities, gaining the understanding of health and professional skills to improve the community resources in order to live in the better living-standard and sustainable development.

    CRID commits to work as the partnership with all classes of authorities, developing the communities, especially extreme poorest families to ensure the effectiveness of sustainable living-standard in order to reduce the poverty in Cambodia.

    Recently, CRID has been implementing a project, Capacity Building for Local Climate Change Adaptation in two communes in Prey Veng province, funded by UNDP SGP/CCBAP from 2011 to 2013.
    In aiming to improve Organization Management, CRID is now seeking Voluntary Board Member and some Foreign Volunteers to help us.

    General Description:
    Contribute to a five-member governing board by providing direction and advisory support in areas of organizational development; compiling CRID’s policies and strategy plan, financial management, fundraising support programme oversight and human resource development.

    In particular the post-holder will provide the organization with technical expertise in any one or a combination of these areas: women’s empowerment and leadership; good governance, sustainable livelihood and natural resource management and strategies to reduce gender based violence.

    Qualifications / Requirements
    • Enthusiastic, motivated and committed to the gender and development issues.
    • Knowledge/experience of governance board mandate, organizational development, strategic analysis/planning and advisory.
    • Available to meet quarterly and communicate by email on regular basis.
    • Commitment to the values and ethos of CRID

    Interested Volunteers may send a Cover Letter and CV to:

    Village 6, Sangkat Veal Vong, Kampong Cham City, Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia.
    Tel: +855 1221 8575 .

  17. Workers of the World #8on 02 May 2014 at 10:16 pm

    […] Short-Term Volunteering in Cambodia: Some Questions With so many places in Cambodia offering the orphanage volunteer work experience to travellers, Travelfish suggests that despite the best intentions your contribution might not benefit everyone. […]

Leave a Reply