Toronto Star

The aid cha­rade

- IS­ABELLE HACHEY LA PRESSE Society · Parenting · Volunteering · Family · Cambodia · Phnom Penh · Asia · United States of America · North America · UNICEF · Kenya · Thailand · Canada · France · Germany · United Kingdom · Khmer Rouge · Médecins du Monde · Mark Watson

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.”

 ?? IS­ABELLE HACHEY/LA PRESSE ??
IS­ABELLE HACHEY/LA PRESSE
 ?? IS­ABELLE HACHEY PHO­TOS/LA PRESSE ?? Reporter Is­abelle Hachey with three res­i­dents of the Home of Hope or­phan­age in Ph­nom Penh. She was placed as a vol­un­teer de­spite hav­ing no qual­i­fi­ca­tions.
IS­ABELLE HACHEY PHO­TOS/LA PRESSE Reporter Is­abelle Hachey with three res­i­dents of the Home of Hope or­phan­age in Ph­nom Penh. She was placed as a vol­un­teer de­spite hav­ing no qual­i­fi­ca­tions.
 ??  ?? Other Home of Hope res­i­dents, above and top.
Other Home of Hope res­i­dents, above and top.
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