Tourists often travel to Cambodia not just to see its sights, but to do good deeds too. Cambodia is a fertile field for charity; thanks to its bloody recent history (read about the Khmer Rouge and their extermination camp in Tuol Sleng), the kingdom is one of Southeast Asia's least developed and most poverty-stricken countries, where disease, malnutrition, and death occur at higher rates than in the rest of the region.
Cambodia's become the destination du jour for a different kind of package tour: "voluntourism", which takes visitors away from their posh Siem Reap resorts and into orphanages and poor communities. There's an oversupply of suffering, and there's no shortage of tourists with good intentions (and charity dollars) to spare.
Increasing Number of Cambodian Orphanages
Between 2005 and 2010, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased by 75 percent: as of 2010, 11,945 children lived in 269 residential care facilities all over the kingdom.
And yet many of these kids are not orphans; about 44 percent of the kids living in residential care were put there by their own parents or extended family. Almost three-quarters of these kids have one living parent!
"While an array of other socio-economic factors such as remarriage, single parenting, large families and alcoholism contribute to the likelihood of placing a child in care, the single largest contributing factor for placement in residential care is the belief that the child will get a better education," states a UNICEF report on residential care in Cambodia.
"In 'worst cases' these children are 'rented' or even 'bought' from their families because they are perceived to be of more value to their families by earning money pretending to be a poor orphan than studying and eventually graduating from school," writes PEPY Tours' Ana Baranova. "Parents willingly send their kids to these institutions believing it will provide their child with a better life. Unfortunately in very many cases, it will not."
Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia
Most of the orphanages that house these kids are funded through overseas donations. "Orphanage tourism" has become the next logical step: many facilities attract tourists (and their bucks) by using their wards for entertainment (in Siem Reap, apsara dances performed by "orphans" are all the rage). Tourists are actively encouraged to donate "for the children's sake", or even asked to volunteer as short-term caregivers in these orphanages.
In a lightly regulated country like Cambodia, corruption tends to follow the scent of dollars. "A significant number of orphanages in Cambodia, particularly in Siem Reap, are set up as businesses to profit from well-meaning, but naïve, tourists and volunteers," explains "Antoine" (not his real name), a worker in the Cambodian development sector.
"These businesses tend to be very good at marketing and self-promotion," Antoine says. "They often claim to have NGO status (as if that means anything!), a child protection policy (yet still allow unvetted visitors and volunteers to mix with their children!), and transparent accounting (laugh out loud!)."
You Know What the Road to Hell is Paved With
Despite your best intentions, you can end up doing more harm than good when you patronize these orphanages. Volunteering as a caregiver or English teacher, for instance, might sound like a sterling good deed, but many volunteers are never subjected to background checks before being given access to the kids. "The influx of unchecked travelers means that the children are put at risk of abuse, attachment issues, or being used as fundraising tools," writes Daniela Papi.
"The recommendation of most childcare professionals would be that no tourist should be visiting an orphanage," Antoine tells us. "You couldn't do it in the West for very good and obvious reasons. Those reasons should also hold in the developing world."
Even if you only give your money instead of your time, you may actually be contributing to the unnecessary separation of families, or worse, outright corruption.
Al Jazeera reports on the experience of Australian Demi Giakoumis, who "was surprised to learn how little of the up to $3,000 paid by volunteers actually goes to the orphanages. […] She says she was told by the director of the orphanage she was placed at, that it only received $9 per volunteer per week."
The Al Jazeera report paints a chilling picture of the orphanage industry in Cambodia: "children being kept in deliberate poverty to encourage ongoing donations from volunteers who have become attached to them and organisations that repeatedly ignore volunteers' concerns about the children's welfare."
No wonder actual development professionals on the ground look suspiciously on these orphanages and the well-intentioned tourists that keep them going. "People need to make their own decisions," explains Antoine. "However, I would actively discourage donating to, visiting, or volunteering at an orphanage."
How You Can Actually Help
As a tourist with only a few days in Cambodia, you likely do not have the tools to know whether an orphanage is on the level. They might say they follow the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, but talk is cheap.
It's best to avoid volunteering unless you have relevant experience and training. "Without dedicating suitable time, and possessing relevant skills and expertise, [volunteer] attempts to do-good are likely to be futile, or even harmful," Antoine explains. "Even teaching English to kids (a popular short-term stint) has been proven conclusively to be at best mildly entertaining, and at worst a waste of everybody's time."
Antoine makes one exception: "If you have relevant skills and qualifications (and a proven aptitude for transferring them), why not consider volunteering to work with staff at NGOs on training and capacity building; but only staff - not beneficiaries," suggests Antoine. "This is far more meaningful and actually can make a positive, sustainable difference."
ChildSafe Network, "Children Are Not Tourist Attractions". An awareness raising campaign for travelers about the harm caused by these for-profit orphanages.
Al Jazeera News - "Cambodia's Orphan Business": the news network's "People & Power" show goes undercover to expose the flaws of Cambodia "voluntourism"
CNNGo - Richard Stupart: "Voluntourism does more harm than good". "In the case of orphanage tours to places like Siem Reap in Cambodia, the presence of wealthy foreigners wanting to play with parentless kids has actually had the perverse effect of creating a market for orphans in the town," writes Stupart. "[It's] a poorly thought-out commercial relationship with terrible potential consequences to those being volunteered upon."
Save the Children, "Misguided Kindness: Making the right decisions for children in emergencies" (PDF). This paper comprehensively explores the harm caused by institutionalization.