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Voluntourism: the Cost to Orphans

During the years between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime carried out the Cambodian genocide. The regime targeted professionals, those linked to the former government of Cambodia, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Thai, Muslims, and Buddhist monks. A combination of torture, slavery, disease outbreaks, and malnutrition eventually led to the death of an estimated 25% of the population. 3 million people died, many of them buried in any one of the 23,000 mass graves spread across Cambodia.

The devastation felt by Cambodia during this time naturally led to a huge number of orphans and a great need for orphanages. That was 40 years ago, and common sense would tell you that in a post-genocidal and comparatively stable era, the need for these orphanages would not be so great. However, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased from 154 in 2005 to 269 in 2010, with the vast majority of these orphanages being private and not run by the state.

Compare this to another country which has experienced similar events in recent history: Rwanda. Prior to the 1994 genocide where 800,000 people lost their lives, there were only four orphanages in the country; after the genocide there were around 30. They are a necessity in a country where nearly everybody had lost family, friends, and neighbours. In 2012 the Rwandan government announced plans to shut the orphanages; the generation of children who were left parentless had grown up so Rwanda was to return to a saying they had before the genocide: “no orphans in our community”. It was commonplace for family members or even neighbours to take in other’s children if the circumstance required it. This plan, however, has not been without it’s difficulties or criticism and despite having a target of 2014, it still has not been achieved; nonetheless, the attitude behind it is in stark contrast to that found in Cambodia.

So why are orphanages opening in one post genocidal country, but shutting down in another? Sadly one of the answers to this question is voluntourism. Cambodia is a popular country amongst well-meaning backpackers, gap year students, and tourists intent on spending their time helping the less fortunate. Unfortunately, many may be feeding a dark industry that prays on children and those well-meaning people who wish to improve their lives. The truth is, 77% of ‘orphans’ in Cambodia actually have at least one parent still living. These are children given up by their parents because they feel they cannot look after them, or need some extra money and cannot afford them. Many parents are promised that their children are going to live better lives and that they will never see or hear from them again. To some it is seen as the most affordable way to feed their child. These children are then advertised as ‘orphans’ to tourists visiting the country, garnering donations, free man hours. People are willing to pay thousands of pounds to spend weeks or months looking after children in the orphanages.

As tourism rises, so too does the income of pseudo-orphanages. Unscrupulous people wanting to make money from vulnerable children will continue to do so. While some organisations are legitimate, many others keep the children in their ‘care’ in a state of poverty to continue drawing in donations. It is a money making business and some go so far as to parade their ‘orphans’ through bars, or places like Siem Reap.

There are other reasons for voluntourism to receive criticism. Even in a legitimate orphanage, volunteering for a short time without the correct skills and experience can be detrimental to the welfare of the children. Many experts cite that the coming and going of so many faces only adds to the sense of abandonment in an already vulnerable child. Voluntourism is also guilty of taking away jobs from those already in the country who have the skills to do the job. Using unskilled tourists who are willing to pay for the privilege to ‘aid’ the developing countries they visit is simply better financial sense than paying money to a skilled local worker, even if they would do a better job. Considering the potential harm that voluntouring can cause in such nations, it is more important than ever to check the legitimacy of the organisation, and then ask yourself if you really have exceptional skills that would be of benefit to the children.

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