Voluntourism: Lessons learned from Cambodia {Part 2}.

Volunteering: Lessons Learned and How to Make an Informed Decision.

In Part One of this post which you can read here, I shared my experience of volunteering as an English teacher in Cambodia in 2006.

At that time, i’d thought I was helping.  

But the truth is i’d never felt so lost and out of my depth when I started to understand that actually I may not have been helping at all.

That’s the thing with Voluntourism; it’s an industry that prays on peoples’ good intentions, philanthropy, and desire to do something good, give something back.  It also however prays on our collective ignorance, and often assumption that we might be in a better place to help drive change in a developing country than those already there.

Cambodia National Museum Small

The tragedy is that people like me thought they were helping, but honestly we really weren’t.  I’m not speaking just about my personal experience.  Other volunteers that I was with were placed on projects of varying quality—two girls at least were moved placements several times when the orphanage that they had been helping at was exposed for corruption and the company who had placed us stopped working with them.

Since leaving Cambodia I heard that the company that had placed me no longer worked with the school that I taught at.  More specifics as to why were not shared.

It’s clear that the challenges and problems with paid volunteering placements don’t just apply to those looking to work with children, or just to Cambodia either.  From speaking to those who participated in projects from Latin America to India and beyond, from building projects to care, many have voiced similar concerns.  In the case of building projects for instance, some had found that unwittingly they had helped remove paid labour opportunities for locals working in construction; because of the abundance of overseas volunteers willing to work for free.

It also rings true for volunteering with (endangered) animals—an alarming number of elephant and other wildlife sanctuaries have been opening and cater to the desire of western volunteers to get up close and personal with their favourite animal.  Unfortunately many do not realise that their support of such animal orphanages or ‘sanctuaries’ often has exactly the opposite effect and encourages the capturing and retaining in captivity of many majestic wild animals who were born to roam free, not to be ridden, cuddled or beaten.

This is not to say that 100% of volunteer projects while travelling are bad, but it is to say that the majority do not have the effect that we think we will have. It is only through careful assessment that we can make a judgement between the two. 

Cambodia Ellie 2006

Above: Vintage of 2006—at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on a day off. 

Making that assessment of what is going to have a positive vs negative impact is something that requires a lot more digging than we might think. It’s especially challenging to make an assessment when the information being made available to us as travellers is limited, compounded by our often limited knowledge of the local culture or environment.  It is up to us to press for more answers.

By nature, when we volunteer while travelling we are just passing through as transient visitors.  

Given the short time that we’re often staying in a place, it makes it even harder to donate our time to create a really positive impact compared to what we might be able to do at home.

With the above said, here are some pointers for making an assessment of volunteering opportunities, and some alternatives for how you can help make a difference when travelling in the developing world.

Questions to Ask:

  • What will I be doing on a day to day basis, and why are local people not able to do this: what skills am I specifically providing that are not available locally?  Why is MY help needed?
  • Are you a for profit or not for profit organisation? Depending on the country, you should be able to do some research to see whether the company is in fact registered as a NFP.
  • If there is payment involved, where is this going to? What proportion will go to and stay in the destination country and who with?
  • Can I speak directly with other volunteers who have been part of this programme before? I don’t mean testimonials on a website, but actually contact people –  If this is not allowed it’s not a good sign and should raise alarm bells.
  • Can I donate in a more helpful way than with my time?
  • What is the minimum time I can volunteer for?  Anything less than a few months is just not going to cut it.  Two weeks is NOT better than nothing despite what some organisations may tell you.  Any serious volunteering placement will require something more like a 6 month minimum commitment from you as there will be training and investment into you from their side as well, so that you can actually make a (positive) difference.

Other ways to Help:

  • Currently a number of aid organisations and tour operators have partnered to allow those travelling to Greece and Turkey to take extra baggage with them to assist aid efforts and providing for the refugee crisis there – you can help by donating money or things.
  • You can help by travelling to destinations in need of tourism—Turkey is a timely example—and spending money in locally owned places that need support.
  • Often, donating financially to an organisation may help more than donating your actual time.  Again, do your research in deciding who, but often this can help local NGO’s and charitable organisations to become less reliant on foreign volunteers and invest more in training people locally.
  • Instead of teaching children yourself, can you help teach teachers to improve local knowledge of teaching English or other languages?
  • If wanting to bring books, stationery, clothes or other things with you, look for a local organisation to distribute these.  Giving things out as a foreign tourist has been shown to encourage begging from tourists and generate reliance.  Local organisations will know how to get your gifts to those in need and be able to help distribute them in a responsible way.
  • Finally, if still considering volunteering your time, it is often much easier to research in situ—in the country itself where you’d like to volunteer, where you can go and check out what the situation is first hand.  What is the actual setup, and who is truly behind it.  Talk to locals and other travellers, as around for information.  Anyone can set up an attractive looking website to sell the volunteering dream, but if you go in person and see anything that concerns you, that should be a clear indication to stay away.

My parting advice would be to dig deep into our own motivations for volunteering.  I know that in my experience I wanted to do it as much for myself and my own personal growth as anything else.  And whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s good to ask ourselves what our main reasons for wanting to volunteer are, so that we can determine the best path forward.

There’s lots of great resources and advice out there for those considering volunteering or wanting to help, check out these further reading recommendations below.

Are you considering Volunteering while you travel or have you participated in Voluntourism? I’d love to hear your comments and experiences below in the comments section!

8 thoughts on “Voluntourism: Lessons learned from Cambodia {Part 2}.”

  1. Hey Ellie! Loving this particular series of yours. I’m actually going to volunteer as an English teacher in Ecuador for about 6 – 8 months, so I read these articles with great interest. No doubt there are unscrupulous people profiting from travellers’ impulse to do good while they travel, and like you said, the key is to do your research carefully before jumping in. I think there is a genuine need for volunteers where I’m going as the public school system is severely understaffed (one teacher for an entire primary school with children of varying ages), and they’re grateful for any help they can get so there’s no minimum time commitment – the advantage of which is, I guess, that if I find I really hate it there, I can just leave. Hopefully that won’t happen, though. I’ve read testimonials by former volunteers on their blog and also contacted a former volunteer via email and she’s been extremely helpful, so that’s reassuring!

    • Hey Michelle, thanks and glad you liked the posts! Great that you’ve been reading up on where you’re going and reviews from other volunteers. Also great that you’re investing 6-8 months in it; I do think that this makes this a little different than many of the volunteer projects out there which are really targeting people who want an experience but don’t have a significant amount of time (say more than 6 months) to invest. With what you say about the shortage of teachers there – my question would be why is this, and what can you do to help fix that shortage? Your volunteering will help for the 6-8 months, but at the end of that they’ll be back in the same position. So is there some way you can help them solve the shortage more longer term, by helping teach other teachers or trainee teachers for instance? Or help them with recruiting? Just some thoughts but it’s these questions which have greatest impact I believe. Good luck!

  2. Hi Ellie,

    Thankyou for the wonderful post. You have definitely raised some valid points about the pitfalls of paid volunteering. And Your article will definitely help prospective volunteers to experience a meaningful and impactful volunteering opportunity. I would like to read more such informative and insightful articles from you in the future. Please keep up the good work.

  3. Thanks for the great article. It definitely puts a spotlight on some of the pitfalls of paid volunteering and how some nefarious organizations are swindling people in the name of volunteerism.

  4. Great story and suggestions. It’s great that you care so much about the long term effects of volunteering. It is sad to know about the exploits of some of these organizations. And it’s the same with charities. I met a guy who was running a few charities. And he openly admitted that he pockets 80% of the monies donated. It’s pretty disgusting if you ask me.

    • Thanks so much Tara for your comment and kind words. It is very sad that there are people out there that prey on the good will of others. It unfortunately falls to us to try and ‘play detective’ and work out which causes are *actually* good, which of course should not be the case. I hope that the situation in Cambodia will improve for the vast majority of wonderful people there.
      Happy & safe travels, Ellie


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