People switch off the common sense buttons when they arrive in a developing country.
According to a UNICEF study, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 75 percent between 2005 and 2010. Yet, more than 70 percent of children in the nation’s orphanages and childcare centers have at least one living parent.
We sat down with James Sutherland, International Communications Coordinator at Friends-International in Phnom Penh, to learn why foreigners are actively being discouraged from giving to begging children and volunteering in Cambodia’s orphanages.
For a lot of well-meaning travelers, their first instinct is to volunteer their time to help locals in need. What is your stance on that?
Volunteering needs to be done right. It needs to be something that doesn’t just impact in the area you’re volunteering in, but also builds capacity.
Bringing people in who have no skills is sometimes pointless. It may be very good for your CV to say you’ve worked in a school or a childcare center for a few weeks in a foreign country, but you know you’re not actually having a sustainable impact.
What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen in these volunteer placement companies?
There has been a rise of volunteer placement organizations in the last few years, and they have been sending young people into some very difficult situations. They don’t have the skills, capacity, or the knowledge to be working in those situations.
Putting a 17-year-old who is fresh out of high school into that situation — no matter how much of an impact it has on them personally — is probably having a negative impact for the children they’re working with.
You’re saying that short-term volunteering with young children can do more harm than good?
There is extensive research into the physiological and psychological impact upon children who are living in institutions with short term volunteering. Here in Cambodia, there are orphanages with vulnerable children, many of whom have special needs. These short-term relationships are a bad thing. Someone fresh out of high school may have empathy but these children need skilled social workers and psychologists working with them.
One of the more powerful messages comes from Friends-International, the “Children Are Not Tourists Attractions” campaign. What were the origins of that concept?
This was prompted in 2011 by the rise in the number of orphanages in Cambodia, which paralleled the rise in tourism.
Cambodia, as we all know, has a very troubled history. At the end of many years of conflict and of the genocide, there was a need for orphanages. Families had been torn apart, children had been separated from their parents.
But in subsequent years, as the country developed and families found each other again, you would have thought the numbers of orphanages or care homes would have actually decreased. This hasn’t been the case. Since 2005 it’s increased dramatically, and this increase parallels the increasing numbers of tourists coming to the country.
Many orphanages were offering visits to their institution as part of a package for tourists. We wanted to make people aware that what they were doing wasn’t acceptable. It’s not legal in most of the developed world for total strangers to walk into care institutions and to interact with children.
What’s the takeaway message for both tourists and tour companies?
Children are not tourist attractions on your bucket list. These are children and they have the right to privacy and they have the right to a structured form of care.
It’s kind of like people switch off the common sense buttons in their heads when they arrive in a developing country. Their behavior doesn’t parallel how they would behave at home. If a busload of tourists showed up at a care institution in the US or England, played with the children, taught them local songs, and fed them candy, they’d probably be arrested.
When it comes to training youth to prepare traditional Khmer cuisine or designing jewelry, how do you maintain authenticity without it becoming just another tourist attraction?
In our case, we are targeting tourists. There are elements of Cambodian tradition, but we want to make an international product. The important thing is that when those products sell, they’re helping families to stay together, helping young kids to go to school, and supporting older kids to go into training for employment. It’s a real long-term impact by doing that.
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