Published 11 March 2011
A phenomena familiar to anyone living here in Cambodia is that many of today’s holidaymakers want to do more than just to sightsee. As a result, growing numbers are volunteering their time, energy and skills for free in the comparatively new but burgeoning ‘voluntourism’ sector.
From schools to orphanages, they hope their efforts will have a positive impact on a country with far fewer resources and opportunities than their own.
A 2008 study by Tourism Research and Marketing, an independent British consultancy, provided the first global overview of the voluntourism market and it found it is booming. There are estimates of 1.6 million volunteer tourists a year, with the industry worth up to $2.6 billion dollars worldwide.
More recently, unemployed young graduates in the West are joining the exodus, choosing to come here to volunteer rather that join the lengthening unemployment queues back home. A stint in the developing world can help burnish their CVs while they enjoy the ultimate vacation.
How better to have an authentic experience getting close to the natives that working cheek-by-jowl with them out in the village?
For the organizations that arrange these ‘tours’, moreover, this is a win-win: a pool of ready free labour and, often, a source of income as well if they can persuade these volunteers to pay for the pleasure of coming here.
Critics, however, claim that while such intentions may be laudable in theory, in practice they are having unintended consequences. Some NGOs are making a fortune, they claim, trading on guilt. These ‘charities’ have discovered a business model, unshackled from the need to constantly beg from donors, based on a modern version of noblesse oblige – and making healthy profits into the bargain.
There are reports of Cambodian orphanages using children with parents to pose as orphans, of wealthy tourists depriving local workers of much-needed jobs, of orphans forming emotional attachments to volunteers and facing trauma when they depart.
Judith Brodie, a director of Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), complained in 2007 that too often these “charity tours” are designed with the enjoyment of the volunteers to the fore, with too little concern shown for the communities they are supposed to be helping. In fact, she claimed that the gap-year experience of Western kids with little real experience of life sallying forth to bring civilisation to the blighted of the developing world could be seen as a new form of colonialism.
Others refer to it as “poverty voyeurism” – along with vicarious slum visits (such as those that followed the release of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”). They could be compared to the 18th Century habit of visiting Bedlam as a form of entertainment for the rich.
However there are more serious objections. Sometimes well-meaning foreigners can, for example, damage the local labour market by replacing locals who might otherwise earn a living from the work they do for free. Getting people to work for nothing when the ‘charity’ is in fact a for-profit business, such as a microfinance operator, also raises questions about exploitation.
Then there is the insidious practice of using this type of charitable giving as a guise for the harvest of souls.
Another unintended consequence can be that the locals simply conclude that providing any of the services that charities offer is not their responsibility. This is a poor country but they are still plenty of wealthy Khmers, but few who appear to feel any obligation to help their fellow countrymen. They are more likely to be making a comfortable living out of the aid industry than volunteering in it.
Finally, it can also reinforce the idea that foreigners have some sort of responsibility to give things for free – much favoured here – to atone for the US bombing of eastern Cambodia during the Vietnam War, for example, or for the neglect the current government experienced in their time of need immediately after the Khmer Rouge were first driven from power.
Lest we forget, there are often issues of social exclusion and marginalisation in many Western countries that also need to be addressed, so it isn’t always necessary to leave your home in the West to help the disadvantaged.
In these time of increasingly straightened times for many NGOs and those dedicated to running them, with many donors exiting the country and pressure to find alternatives sources of funds, there is a temptation to embrace the voluntourism model. However, this carries risks, not the least of which is that poorly formulated programmes can backfire and bring the host organisation into disrepute.
However, it need not all be bad. Foreigners can offer very real expertise that is not available locally. This expertise combined with innovative technologies, such as water filtration, sanitation and solar panels connecting to low-voltage LED lighting systems developed in the West, to name a few, can make a very real difference.
Moreover, this type of experience can also have the personal benefit in that it gives the volunteer a more rounded understanding of the sometimes complex and intractable causes of poverty in a country like Cambodia.
This type of volunteer tourism has clear benefits. It’s the other type that risks doing more harm that good.