The aid charade
A company promises Canadian travellers the opportunity to volunteer abroad, giving therapy and love to orphans in Cambodia. But an undercover trip shows the “voluntourism” may be doing more harm than good.
$2,215 Amount paid for a two-week volunteer mission, excluding airfare
$50 Amount that went to the orphanage
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA— As the rickety tuk-tuk drops me off at the doors of the Home of Hope orphanage — having worked its way through the bustling roads of Phnom Penh — seven Spanish volunteers say their goodbyes. Smiling, they pose with the children for souvenir photos.
They had spent most of their two-week trip painting a mural on the façade of the orphanage. A lion. An elephant. A rabbit. Butterflies. In the common room, I watch the orphanage’s 15 residents — most of them severely disabled children. I don’t have a clue what to do. Nobody introduces me to the kids. Nobody gives me instructions. I am left alone, avolunteer among others in the world of international “voluntourism.”
I enlisted in this volunteer mission through Projects Abroad, one of the largest for-profit volunteering companies in the world. Each year, the British organization sends more than10,000 volunteers to 27 “countries of action.”
I paid Projects Abroad $2,215 for what they said would be an “extremely rewarding experience” spending two weeks in Cambodia. Lodging and food — very affordable in this Southeast Asian country — were included, but not airfare, which cost $1,600.
I signed up without identifying myself as a journalist in order to investigate voluntourism.
It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was pay a $295 deposit. I then choose the destination, the mission and my departure date — all according to one thing and one thing only: my own desires. Too easy? These trips do more harm than good, say critics. In their eyes, the thousands of volunteers sent to Africa, Asia and Latin America unwittingly become cogs in a machine that’s motivated not by the welfare of local communities, but by profit.
Despite this, Projects Abroad says its trips are helping. “Nine out of 10 volunteers sent to Home of Hope are there to provide physiotherapy and/or occupational therapy support,” said Thomas V. Pastorius Jr., the company’s vice-president in North America, in an email. “We could not stomach the thought of what would happen to these boys if we stopped sending volunteers . . . we are confident that our volunteers make an overall positive contribution even in a relatively short period of time.”
“Projects Abroad takes the well-being of children seriously.”
But the machine keeps growing.
Not long ago, tourists were happy to travel the world. Now, they want to save it. The industry adapted and travel agencies started promising travellers could be more than mere tourists. They offered a chance to do good.
This is voluntourism. And it’s the sector that has the most potential for growth in the industry. “It’s a lucrative niche,” says Mark Watson, director of the British organization Tourism Concern.
In theory, everyone wins: the travel agencies, which turn profits; the clients, who gain an enriching experience; and the host countries, which benefit from an army of enthusiastic volunteers.
But too often, Watson says, the volunteers pay to accomplish little of value. “It’s not rare for a group of volunteers to paint a school, only to have another group paint it two weeks later.”
In Phnom Penh, the walls of Home of Hope are covered in naive drawings, painted by consecutive hordes of volunteers. The mural painted by the Spanish volunteers is not even dry when one of the orphanage’s leaders, seeing my confusion, approaches me. “Are you new?” “Yes.” “What are your qualifications?” “I have none.” “Oh, well. Can you draw?” “Umm . . . Yes, a little.” “So you can work on the mural.”
Chileap, 15, isn’t as shy as I am. Minutes after I arrive, he takes me by the hand and leads me to a locked room where toys are kept. I don’t speak a word of Khmer, but the boy knows how to be understood. He also knows that he’ll have to fight to keep my attention. Soon, Sochiat, 6, jumps into my arms to demand a hug. He has never seen me in his life.
It’s confusing. And rewarding. The trips for neglected or abandoned children are popular choices for volunteers. On its website, Projects Abroad says “the friendship and support” the volunteers offer the children are “invaluable” for their development.
But UNICEF and other organizations dedicated to child welfare argue the opposite. These groups are begging for volunteers to stop working in orphanages. When children jump into the arms of complete strangers, they warn, it’s often a sign of profound distress.
“The agencies promise the volunteers that they can form a relationship with the children, that there will be an emotional attachment. It sells,” says Anna McKeon of Better Volunteering, Better Care, an initiative dedicated to discouraging institutionalized volunteering. “But for the children, the connection is incessantly broken by the volunteers, who come in and out of their lives. They continuously feel abandoned.”
After volunteering in orphanages in Kenya and Thailand, McKeon realized the help she thought she was providing was, in fact, a nuisance.
“It’s very difficult for a volunteer to be aware,” she says. “They get all this love from the child, but they don’t see what happens after they leave. In truth, the repeated abandonment has serious consequences for the development of the child and his future relationship skills.”
At Home of Hope, we are seven volunteers: from Canada, France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. Seven volunteers for 15 kids. The length of our trips can range from two weeks to three months. Soon, other volunteers will bond with the children before going home with the feeling of having accomplished something. But what, exactly? I ask the orphanage’s director if he thinks it’s good for these children to continually open their hearts to the volunteer of the moment. “They’re used to it,” replies Brother Binu Thomas. He didn’t know I was a journalist. “OK, but is it good for them?” “Maybe, yes. They feel that they’re wanted. None of them have parents. You give them a maternal love.”
“When we leave, do they feel abandoned?”
“No, because they’re not normal. They don’t feel that way.”
Simon, a boy with Down syndrome; Panith, who has cerebral palsy; and Ty, whose body is twisted by polio, don’t feel the same neglect as other “normal” children?
Nowhere does the revolving door of volunteers pose such a problem as in Cambodia, where the number of orphanages has exploded in the past 10 years. The country has more than 600, most beyond government control. But the number of orphans has decreased steadily since the end of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign 35 years ago.
Astudy released in 2011by UNICEF, titled “With the Best Intentions,” concluded that Cambodia’s orphanages are populated with children separated from their parents with the intent of attracting foreign donations.
It seems voluntourists have created the orphans they want to help.
Projects Abroad pledges to improve the living conditions of children at the Home of Hope. In 2014, a group of Australian students set up a room with sensory play activities. Other volunteers built a much-needed shaded spot in the playground.
“We are incredibly grateful to both of these groups and we must now make sure their efforts have a long-term impact,” the organization’s website reads.
Around me, however, no other volunteer seems to be aware of the locked playroom with the sensory toys. As for the playground, there are many poles that appear to have once hoisted a cloth shade, but the cloth is gone. The sun beats down, strong as ever, on the burning metal slide.
At Home of Hope, we have a two-hour break daily, sometimes more, to eat or nap. During this time, the orphanage’s two employees do the real work: washing, cleaning and all the rest. The volunteers turn, with disgust, to these two Khmer women when there’s a diaper to change.
“Mother Teresa said do small things but with big love,” the director Binu Thomas
reminds me. So, I play with the children like the other volunteers. I draw with chalk on the asphalt. I build towers with Mega Bloks. I have fun playing school with Simon. Simon, who adores playing pretend. Like everyone in this orphanage.
I’m assigned a child for the day. His name is Somnang.
I open the black binder in which previous volunteers wrote their observations. I read: “Somnang, 12. Diagnosis: autism, severe learning disability, challenging behaviour.”
I am ready to run away. More than ever, I feel like I don’t belong.
With reason, says Mark Watson of Tourism Concern. “In Canada, you would expect that employees in centres for children with disabilities are qualified, right? I find it incredible that people without the slightest experience think they can go to Cambodia to care for children.”
An internship requires a minimum of training, a comprehensive plan and precise objectives. In this case, we’re not fulfilling any needs,” says Dr. Nicolas Bergeron, president of Doctors of the World, an international organization dedicated to providing health care to vulnerable populations. “It’s a drift toward the commercialization of humanitarian aid. The industry makes huge profits and doesn’t serve the communities. Ethically, it’s inconceivable.”
Projects Abroad’s website says you must have studied physiotherapy for at least three years to work at a centre for disabled patients. The company didn’t ask for my qualifications. Other volunteers here have only finished one year of occupational therapy studies. Without supervision, they put their little knowledge to the test. In a blog post, one writes of learning “by trial and error” with the children.
Other than a British volunteer and myself, the volunteers aren’t yet 25, the minimum legal age to provide institutional care in Cambodia. Project’s Abroad’s website includes testimonials from other volunteers who have worked at Home of Hope. One was barely 16 during her time at the orphanage. “Playing with the mentally handicapped children was the most rewarding due to the reason that they do not have (parents) everyday to show them love and attention,” she writes.
“Today, it saddens me to see all these young people go abroad thinking this is the way to help,” McKeon says.
“It’s very difficult to ask people to back up, to forget their personal motivations and to consider the role they’re playing on a larger scale.”
Don’t be mistaken, warns McKeon: “The only thing you’ll end up changing by engaging in this type of volunteering is your Facebook profile.”