Thursday, March 24, 2011

Voluntourism: Is it helping them or you?

As of late I've been contemplating the issues surrounding tourism and volunteering and the issue of responsible tourism.

I hear from and meet a lot of travelers who pass through Siem Reap in my role as the founder and lead moderator of the Siem Reap-Angkor group on CouchSurfing. Many are here only for a few days, while others stay slightly longer.

It's only a few who actually choose to stay in Cambodia for at least a month. Many of these folks often look for places to volunteer. And most of these volunteer-seekers think the only alternative is going to an "orphanage" to play with or teach children. They have no idea about where to begin and often look for recommendations of places to contact.

My first recommendation for these volunteer-seekers is to visit the ConCERT Cambodia website. ConCERT describes itself in the following way on its homepage:
ConCERT – "Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism" - is a non profit organisation based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our aim is to reduce poverty, and we do this by bringing together people who want to help, and local organisations that need the kind of support they can give.

At ConCERT we have information on a range of organisations that are engaged in humanitarian activities, all of whom need your support. They are wellmanaged and financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people.

We also have a wealth of information on the causes and effects of poverty in Cambodia; this information explains why there is such an urgent need for your support.

At the ConCERT office in the centre of Siem Reap we have information on a range of organisations engaged in community development and support activities, and which supplement the work of the government.
What I really LOVE about ConCERT is that its founder, Michael, has made a huge effort in checking out numerous local organizations and charities within Siem Reap.
All our member organisations need your support and are well managed, financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people. Every organisation is different and requires different types of help. All our member organisations need your support and are well managed, financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people. Every organisation is different and requires different types of help.
Being a teacher for a hotel and tourism school, I feel it is even more important to be "in the know" so that I can be a responsible teacher. After all, it's these same tourists who they will depend on for their jobs once they finish their training.

I've also been reading posts from Daniela Papi on her Lessons I Learned blog, and have been both empowered and dismayed. There is a lot of dialog going on, but the key point I keep hearing repeated is that there is a need for more transparency and willingness to share. Sharing can take the form of ideas, lessons learned or even just simply talking things out in the open.

I am empowered to provide the most accurate information about volunteering and speak out as much as possible about making well thought out choices for how to support the work happening in Cambodia. I do this by posting as much information I can and directing people that I meet to places like ConCERT.

At the same time, it is disheartening to encounter the numerous well-intentioned people who are seeking "easy" ways to volunteer and "help" the poor in Cambodia, while ignoring what would and should be good practices in their home countries simply because "this is Cambodia."

Somehow, these seemingly well-educated people think it is OK to disregard safe and responsible practices. They leave their logic at the door because to them, any help is better than no help in a developing country like Cambodia.

Why should it be acceptable to just walk in to any village, school or children's center and just start "volunteering"?

When I read articles like this one, "UNICEF Concern Prompts Cambodian Investigation of Orphanages," it makes me wonder what it's going to take to get tourists to change their perception of volunteering. Part of the responsibility lays in the hands of the tour agents and operators. While the other half is tourists themselves who need to start re-adjusting their thoughts as to the wider impacts of such short-term volunteering on the local population who must put up with the revolving door of volunteers.

It's going to take a paradigm shift for both tourists and tour operations in order to adjust their view of "voluntourism," which has become the de facto model for "helping" the poor and less fortunate, particularly in Cambodia.

Daniela Papi has provided some excellent links that I have found extremely useful in framing my position on this issue.

Where do we draw then line when good intentions for the sake of doing good is not enough?

How to evaluate an orphanage, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do, by Ian Birrell (despite this article, tourist STILL think it's perfectly OK to walk into orphanages for dance shows, buy for child sellers, or give money handouts to beggars.)

Cambodian Orphanage Tourism, on Aljezeera

Orphanage Tourism: The Catch-22 of Orphanage Funding, by Eric Lewis

Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia: Good Intentions are Not Enough, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

A Protest Against Orphanage Tourism, and other orphanage tourism related posts on this blog

Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund reminds us to be generous and use our heart, but to “ask the tough questions”

Here's my own useful link for some really useful ways for giving back and helping back without mucking about in the lives of people where the author provides 8 rules for “econ-travel.” Is There a Right Way to Spend Money When Traveling?

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