Volunteering in Asia forum

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

  • somtam2000

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    The Guardian has a pretty good story on this -- well worth a read.

    While the story is running off research in Africa it starts with a Cambodia lead and touches on issues like "orphanage tourism". Interesting.

    #1 Posted: 15/11/2010 - 21:44

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  • sayadian

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    Agree 100% with the author and as one comment puts it succinctly;
    It's more about making a CV look good than actually helping.

    #2 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 01:59

  • busylizzy

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    A sobering article. This should be a 'must-read' by anyone considering volunteering as part of their 'holiday' - whether they pay for it or not. Somtam, this should be a sticky!

    #3 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 02:23

  • somsai

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    At the bottom of the article in the google adds there are offers for volunteers.

    In the last paragraph the author offers this advice.

    Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries.

    There are some good things written about responsible tourism that advocate for the same. Spend your money in developing countries by all means, stay in small family owned guest houses, buy food at local stalls, buy handicrafts. No money for begging, no money for anyone who solicits it for anything, . sex, education, computers, sick buffaloes, whatever.


    Should be a sticky.



    #4 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 10:46

  • mattocmd

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    I concur with everyone that this should be a sticky.

    This topic is of great interest to me for a number of reasons.

    There are risks associated with "voluntourism" and this article, along with our discussion, can help to raise awareness.

    It's no doubt that many people in Cambodia are profiting through the exploitation of children. Just today as I tried to explain to a tuk tuk driver that I have seen everything in Phnom Penh and don't need a ride, he then threw out "Then why don't you visit orphanage, buy rice...children no food!" No doubt he would have profited from not only the tuk tuk ride
    but by commissions from the overpriced rice I would buy and perhaps even a cut from the donation that I would be eventually be pressured to give.

    But it's not only the Khmers who are engaged in this. As the article states, a British orphanage owner was recently arrested for sexual assault. But even more common than that are the "voluntourism" agencies that make huge profits with their "pay to volunteer" schemes. Just google "volunteer in Cambodia" and look at the number of organizations with programs. Click on any and read the "fee" section. It's unbelievable what they charge, in some cases $1000 or more per week, and they are actually getting away with it!

    Though some on this board might disagree with me, I do think volunteers (even short-term ones) can have a positive impact on this country, albeit, volunteers should never be left alone with children and shouldn't have to pay to help.

    I've met with several Khmer teachers and many of the English teachers have awful pronunciation. As someone who studies Korean, I know the benefit of practicing with a native speaker, it helps me even if it's just for an hour. Native English speakers who visit Khmer schools and assist the English teacher can make the class more exciting for the children and help them to learn at the same time. But as I said, a volunteer shouldn't be left alone with children and shouldn't pay anyone to do this.

    #5 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 13:20

  • busylizzy

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    I am in total agreement with the concerns about volunteering in schools and orphanages - anything that involves the potential to exploit others, or mess with their emotions.

    The one type of voluntourism that I have wondered about is where you go somewhere for a few weeks/months to build a house, school, whatever, for a family or community in need. Forgetting the issues of the fact that you pay for the opportunity, I was wondering if anyone had experience with this, and how successful/genuine was it? It seems that at least you are leaving something 'concrete' and useful behind.

    Would be interested in comments on this...

    #6 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 13:37

  • mattocmd

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    Lizzy,

    Here's the problem with those projects. The volunteer pays to build a school/building etc.

    It's wrong on so many levels. Not only does this take away jobs from locals but the "volunteer" pays a fortune.

    An expat here once told me a story about a group of teens, each paid about a grand to "volunteer" for a week. Their job was to paint a school. Locals would have been happy to do the job for a much much lower fee than than the thousands charged by the "pay to volunteer" agency. So not only were locals out of a job, but huge profits were made by the agency.

    #7 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 13:45

  • busylizzy

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    Thanks for the response, matt. My sister's friend recently did one of these things in East Timor for a week or so. Paid a fair bit of $$, told they had to 'do it rough' and built a school house or something. I haven't heard the outcome yet, but it just didn't sit right with me. And I hadn't actually considered it from the perspective of locals having potential jobs taken away.

    Like I said earlier, this should be a sticky!

    #8 Posted: 16/11/2010 - 15:15

  • somsai

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    Biz Liz,

    I've had a link for a while to the blog of a woman who has been working on a build a school type project.

    http://www.howlaobrowncow.com/

    If you go start at the beginning you can get a feel for how the whole thing evolves. Unfortunately the blogger didn't post as much as I would have liked.

    There are a few indicators though that the org made the effort to do things right. They involve locals in the decision making and organisational process, only locals do the work, etc.

    At one time I'd thought of starting some sort of school or clinic or local library to use as a way to write off my trips to Asia for taxes. Now that I know what to look for I sometimes spot others doing the same.

    #9 Posted: 17/11/2010 - 05:48

  • swag

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    Very good article raises some interesting points. I like the thought of travel/trade and spending money in developing countries rather than paying to volunteer, when if I thought hard and honestly about it: what skills would I have to contribute apart from my money.

    #10 Posted: 17/11/2010 - 07:19

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  • Voyagner

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    It is interesting if you speak to expats outside of the NGO circle in Cambodia (even just outside the Humatitatian side of it) they are often rather critical of the NGOs. If you are to believe them (and I kinda do) things like entrapment, lying, NGOs run for profit and just generally badly run organisations are rife.

    One thing I'm very sceptical of is computers, unless NGOs are using them to educate older people or intend to provide high quality education to young students well past year 6 it is pretty much a waste of money and I've heard more than a few reports of brand new computers sitting unused for years, probably because the OS is mostly in English and they are useless until they have a good understanding of the language.

    There is no denying there is now an economy around NGOs and Voluntourism has played a big part in that. Not to mention that in Cambodia especially where there are more NGOs per capita than any other country in the world the media coverage that ends up coming out of the country only perpetuates it further and makes the country look worse than it is. In fact if you announce a trip to Cambodia these days and doing more than just visiting Angkor Wat there are two conclusions, you are either going to volunteer or you are a pedophile.

    Nobody is suggesting they would be better off without NGO to lend a hand but there is currently a problem where "beware the wrath" if you are to suggest that an NGOs operations might not doing their job properly. Hopefully this article and some more voices behind it will get people to take a step back and look at how things could be done better.

    Don't even get me started on Christian missions.
    Samaritans Purse you're nothing but a bribery group trying to win over children with Xmas and Santa Claus.

    #11 Posted: 17/11/2010 - 07:50

  • mattocmd

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    Posted from within Vietnam.

    I just wish that more of our tourism dollars went into the hands of those who really need it rather than the upper class. Look at Angkor Wat/ Siem Reap for example, mostly the rich are the ones who are benefiting while the locals just get low wage jobs cleaning hotels, serving food, etc.

    Cambodia is just so messed up on so many different levels. If you ever gain the trust of an educated Khmer they'll go on and on about it.

    With all that said, it truly is a fascinating country (except for Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville). OK Angkor Wat is cool if the crowds aren't so bad.

    Just be responsible, don't fall for the "visit an orphanage" scams. If you really want to help there are reputable NGOs in the country doing fantastic work. But before donating money or volunteering, do your research (easier said than done I know)!

    #12 Posted: 17/11/2010 - 15:37

  • sayadian

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    Just add one aspect to this.
    Cambodia has some of the richest soil in S.E.Asia.The annual floods see to that.
    If you walk around SR or PP you will see a plethora of luxury cars.
    Orphans aren't the problem.Land clearance is.
    So many people live on land with no deeds because of the destruction left by the KR.What Cambodia needs is a program of land redisribution (pigs can fly) then this country could easily feed itself.
    What it's got is people being thrown off land and then being forced into the slums of PP to work in the garment factories for 14 hours a day while the rich and connected get richer by expropriating the land.
    A lot of these kids aren't orphans.It's that their family can't afford to feed them anymore.
    Volunteers-you are just covering for the people who have created this mess.You'd do better writing to your government asking why our aid isn't doing the job it is supposed to do.

    #13 Posted: 17/11/2010 - 16:05

  • Seby_C

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    Posts: 11

    Great article and great responses!
    Thoroughly agree in particular with sayadian - I live in Cambodia and only last weekend I met my Khmer friend in Phnom Penh who'd been the victim of this exact land displacement at the hands of Sokimex - oil giants who own the rights to Angkor destroyed their home in Prey Veng. I could go on...
    Cambodia operates under a false democracy, and so is seen as legit to the onlooking world. The problem is that NGO numbers continue to increase, unmonitored, creating a culture of dependency on the part of the people and a government whose corrupt system is based largely from aid fees blindly handed over in response to claims of pity..
    Governments in the west need to wake up and stop handing World bank donations to NGOs who work on 'getting the numbers' with sky high admin costs and collaborative corruption.
    The Khmers are extremely bright people (they built Angkor!) and unless the NGOs don't stop giving handouts and forcing Western principles but rather choose to empower the locals with a view to moving out ofthe country at some point, there is little that will change. Volunteers I suggest researching long and hard, and if possible spend some time in the country prior to volunteering, in which you learn about the country, itspeople, their customs, their religion and their language before taking over theclassroom in a rural school.
    This is from experience - I volunteered here in a rural school with no useful skills in the context of our vastly different backgrounds after 3 days in the country, and did none of what I advise above. I know my impact on the children's education was next to nothing, but I had a great time - isn't that what really matters?

    Biz Liz – Sorry I know I'm a bit late but this is an article about what you talk about. But this whole site as a whole I hope will have some good info for you!
    http://voluntourismgal.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/a-tale-of-three-schools/

    #14 Posted: 18/5/2011 - 23:17

  • MADMAC

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    There's a lot of negativity here towards the subject, and my experiences with NGOs (particularly personal experience with Medecine Sans Frontiers) has also had some acutely negative elements to it. Mine was not surprisingly in Africa. That said, it's always a lot easier to say what you're against than what you're for.

    "Spend your money in developing countries by all means, stay in small family owned guest houses, buy food at local stalls, buy handicrafts."

    I don't prefer small guesthouses, I definitely don't consider food from local stalls to be quality dining and I'm not much into handicrafts. Why would I spend my money on things I don't like?

    "I haven't heard the outcome yet, but it just didn't sit right with me. And I hadn't actually considered it from the perspective of locals having potential jobs taken away."

    Liz, the project probably wouldn't have happened at all if the volunteers hadn't coughed up the funds for it. So your sister likely didn't take any jobs away from anyone. I agree that disruption of local economy is a risk in all sorts of aid projects, but in this case, if there wasn't an actual profit to be made, it's unlikely anything at all would have been organized.

    "One thing I'm very sceptical of is computers, unless NGOs are using them to educate older people or intend to provide high quality education to young students well past year 6 it is pretty much a waste of money and I've heard more than a few reports of brand new computers sitting unused for years, probably because the OS is mostly in English and they are useless until they have a good understanding of the language."

    In my wife's village they had someone (NGO or not I don't know) donate about 20 computers. The school set aside a room for them, they are networked, and the kids get instruction on how to use the software in both English and Thai (can't speak about Cambodia). It's a great thing - this crappy little village has a teacher who's a computer enthusiast and the kids are getting an excellent skill that might, for some of them, one day really pay off.

    "What Cambodia needs is a program of land redisribution (pigs can fly) then this country could easily feed itself."

    Sayadian, the last country that was playing around with serious land redistribution was Zimbabwe, and that hasn't turned out so good. The trick is, who decides who get what? And why would anyone believe that said redistribution would somehow be a fair process?

    Without a doubt, in my mind, the biggest problem with NGOs in general is they take on a life of their own and the organzations become and end in themselves. But having said that, there are literally millions of people who today would be dead were it not for NGO intervention.

    #15 Posted: 18/5/2011 - 23:42

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