Why we need to think carefully about voluntourism

This month, after almost four years working for Human and Hope Association, a grassroots NGO in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was made redundant.  This was a bittersweet redundancy, as I had been working myself out of a job since day one, with the goal of handing the organisation over to a local team who have overcome poverty themselves.

One way we were able to reach this milestone achievement was by disallowing foreign volunteers since 2013. Some people supported this decision, others didn’t. However, it is something my team and I completely stand by, and for that reason I have made it my mission to inform people about thinking carefully before they volunteer overseas.

I am very outspoken about voluntourism because we need to stop looking at people in developing countries as people who need to be saved, people who are unable to help themselves or people who would really benefit you hanging around for two weeks. I have seen many people come to Cambodia for a short amount of time who have no skills yet are teaching, building houses, etc. Think about it; you wouldn’t be able to go and teach at a school in Australia without any skills or qualifications, so why do you think that Cambodians deserve any less? It is not just enough to WANT to help and make a difference. There are plenty of qualified and hardworking Cambodian teachers, particularly at NGO’s, so why do they need you to come and teach when they already are more than capable of doing so? I know that there is the argument that children would benefit from conversing with native English speakers, however our education team all learnt English from Cambodians, and they definitely have the language ability to teach English to others.

Every organization is different. Some truly believe that voluntourism benefits their community. Some accept volunteers for the financial support they receive. And some just might not want to say no. However at Human and Hope Association we don’t accept foreign volunteers, for the reasons as follows:

Empowerment of staff – Our mission is to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures. We believe in applying this not just to our beneficiaries, but to our staff as well. Therefore, it is important to give our staff the opportunity to thrive in their roles and gain confidence. We have seen firsthand that when volunteers come into organisations, this can often be disempowering, as the local staff believes that they cannot fulfil their jobs without the support of foreigners. We believe that local people are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know the country and traditions best. By promoting team work amongst the locals, they can learn from each other and not become reliant on foreigners.

Consistency – When volunteers come and go, it creates an inconsistency with our education system which follows lesson plans and a curriculum planned well in advance. In the past, students complained of the volunteers who didn’t teach them effectively. Furthermore, we educate many students who come from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, and having strangers come and go in their lives creates an unstable situation on top of what they already experience at their homes. By having full time staff to teach our students and visit the community, we can create a trust with our beneficiaries as we are seen as being reliable. One wrong move and everything we have worked so hard for can come crashing down in a community where everyone knows everything. We can’t risk it.

Child protection – Child abuse is prevalent in Cambodia, and our staff and visitors must adhere to a strict child protection policy. By inviting large numbers of temporary volunteers, the risk of abuse is heightened. Our local staff have been trained in child protection and are equipped to deal with this issue in a local context.

Culture – The Khmer culture is unique, and there are often complex factors contributing to situations. Often volunteers who come for a short period of time inadvertently offend the local staff and students by not adhering to the culture. I have lived in Cambodia for almost five years and I STILL make cultural mistakes. Our local staff are able to effectively work with the community in a culturally sensitive way and therefore gain the best outcomes.

Detachment issues – In the past, the staff have formed good relationships with some volunteers. When the volunteers left, the staff ended up feeling quite down, and this has affected their work. This has also been the case for some of our students, who already have challenging lives.

Language barriers – The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which all of our staff speak. However, as our projects aren’t just focused on English class, we have a number of staff who speak minimal or no English, and communication can be very difficult. This often proves to be frustrating for both our staff and volunteers, and can result in strained relationships for all parties involved. Believe me, I am speaking from personal experience.

Time – To run an effective volunteer program takes a lot of time, with the pre-arrival, volunteer duration and post-departure. In the past we have found it very time consuming to look after volunteers, with staff members commenting they have spent more time concentrating on the volunteers than on our beneficiaries. This takes time away from our crucial work with the local community and capacity building local staff.

Sustainability – Having volunteers come and go isn’t sustainable. What IS sustainable is training local staff, who can in turn, train more local staff as part of a succession plan.

Whilst we do accept Khmer volunteers, there has to be a need for them. In the past the Khmer teaching volunteers we had were not reliable, and we need consistency in our programs. So, when we do accept Khmer volunteers (as we are committed to Khmers training Khmers), it is to run workshops for our staff or sewing students, if a knowledge or skill is lacking. These volunteers are well prepared and train our staff in effective and culturally appropriate ways.

As I have always said, there IS a place for volunteering overseas, however it should be with skilled volunteers in placements that empower the local staff instead of taking their jobs. The increase of voluntourism means that volunteering is often undertaken without enough local consultation, and with unskilled individuals. Our NGO is focused on developing a sustainable, community building organisation. We are committed to sustainability, empowerment and resilience. To achieve long-term change, the local communities HAVE to invest in the process, international aid cannot do it all by itself.

With our Director, San Thai

If you do want to help people in developing countries when you travel, here are my recommendations on how you can support NGO’s and causes in a responsible way.

Find a reputable NGO to support with supplies – Now, I am not just saying this to plug Human and Hope Association. There are quite a few reputable NGO’s who have good systems in place to use the supplies you donate, and they will get to the people who need them the most. I have come across a few people who would rather donate supplies than money, and that is perfectly fine, just make sure that the supplies you are donating are useful and the NGO has a need. I find school supplies are the biggest need, plus bags of rice for NGO’s which provide food to their students.

  • Make donations to reputable NGO’s – NGO’s are always in need of money. If you were unsure of who to donate to, use my best friend, Google, to find out. The best NGO’s are transparent and should have annual reports online so you can see where the money is going. Your donation should not have conditions, the NGO should be able to spend it on their ongoing costs such as salaries, rent and petrol. I know these are unattractive, but organisations cannot function without their staff to teach their students, their land/buildings to provide a safe environment and petrol to conduct outreach.
  • Support social enterprises – Many NGO’s and businesses have social enterprises here in Cambodia which train community members so that they can gain stable employment. When you buy/dine at these enterprises, you are supporting the development of Cambodia and also these NGO’s. It is a great way for you to be involved in the capacity building of these people whilst also getting some benefit!

Buy local – When you make donations of supplies to NGO’s, I urge you to buy locally so you can support the local economy. There are always products which cannot be purchased in Cambodia (such as pipe cleaners and fuzzy balls for our art class), but there are many more things which CAN be purchased here. When you do so, you are keeping people employed and also saving money, so just do itIf you wanted to help Human and Hope Association, we have just launched a crowdfunding campaign, Elephants for Education. By purchasing an elephant made by a Cambodian woman, you are not only providing her with an income, you are also educating a Cambodian child with the profits. Please pledge today: https://www.chuffed.org/project/elephantsforeducation

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Written by Sally Hetherington

Sally Hetherington

Sally is a 30-year old Australian who is passionate about empowerment and sustainability in developing countries. She has spent the past five years living in Cambodia.

You can follow Sallee on Twitter, Instagram and follow her journey on her website 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Danielle Fluer says:

    Thank you for such words of wisdom. Although generally well intentioned the ‘volunteering overseas’ ethos is fraught with all the dangers you mention so clearly in your piece.


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