Attitudes towards developing countries must change

This week the organisation I work for, Human and Hope Association (HHA), was approached by a tour company in Cambodia. They wanted to bring 15 tourists from India to our community centre and “teach, play with the kids and do something competitive” so those tourists would have ‘team building’. We were offered a donation in return. 

I was absolutely mortified. I had known that this was common practice with some tour companies, however we had never been approached to partake in these shenanigans before. My Director and I discussed this, and I suggested he phone them back and explain that the community we work with needs stability, and that comes from the local staff who work with them day after day. Bringing a tour group in to play with the kids is not part of our culture at HHA, particularly as we do not accept foreign volunteers and have a strict policy for accepting Cambodian volunteers. Giving a tour of our organisation to this group wasn’t even an option, as we have a rule that a maximum of five people can visit at a time so as to not overwhelm our villagers or make them feel like they are on show.

My Director phoned the tour company back and explained this. The staff member at the tour company understood our explanation, however he then suggested that he could still bring the tour group and they would partake in activities with our staff, with us organising this. My blood started to boil. What was the point of this? Why would our staff take time out of their incredibly busy days to provide entertainment for a group of tourists? That’s what it pretty much would be; entertainment. Instead of focusing on our mission, to empower Cambodians through education, vocational training and community support, we were expected to play games and pretty much present ourselves as tourist attractions. Again, the offer of a donation was on the table.

We are a well-respected, legitimate organisation that strives to build the community around us. We stuck to our values and told the tour company that this wasn’t possible. The sad thing is, despite our explanation of why this wasn’t a good idea, I have no doubt that they will now be approaching other organisations or schools with the same request. This has become common practice in Cambodia (and I am sure in other countries, too), for tourists to want to ‘help’ by partaking in something ineffective and possibly harmful in order to feel good about themselves. I know of an NGO who was approached for 400, yes, FOUR HUNDRED tourists to come to their NGO and partake in ‘team building’. This NGO said no whilst trying to explain that not only was their organisation unable to host 400 people, their community was, too. Think about it; 400 people turning up to a small village? There would be road blocks, noise pollution, it would disrupt their every day living and not to mention overwhelm the community.

This way of thinking needs to be changed, and quickly. Tour providers, instead of striving to make their guests happy by organising such tours and events, should educate them on the the pitfalls of treating children and organisations as attractions. They should be protecting the marginalised people in their country, not encouraging people to go and play with kids they do not know, take photos and teach them things that local staff are more than capable of doing. They should not be dangling a donation with outrageous conditions that unfortunately some schools and NGO’s must accept due to their financial situations.

Human and Hope Association, just like all the other charities and NGO’s in the world, needs funds. There is no doubting that. However we refuse to be seen as a novelty for more fortunate people to play with. We are all human beings and we need to be treated as equals, not patronised by those who happen to be more fortunate than us.

I once had a friend say to me, “People want to know where their donations are going, that’s why they want to visit and take part.” I responded by saying, “Why? If an NGO is legitimate they will have finances and reports readily available. They will have an up-to-date website, annual report and social media accounts. There shouldn’t be a need for people to visit and take photos to ensure it is a good NGO. Do you see people who donate to the Cancer Council demanding to see their projects in action before they donate? Isn’t it strange that people would not do that in Australia, yet they feel they are entitled to in developing countries?”. Also think about this. Would you be allowed to go to a school in Australia and play with the kids? No. So why do you think it should be allowed in developing countries?

I implore of those of you reading this to think about what I have said, and encourage people to find alternatives to visiting NGO’s and wanting to volunteer for short periods of time. How about shopping at social enterprises? Dining at training restaurants? Partaking in responsible tourism that doesn’t involve treating the marginalised as tourist attractions? Supporting NGO’s that are locally operated by signing up to be a monthly donor once you have checked their finances online?

Attitudes towards developing countries need to change and it CAN start with us.

To take a look where Human and Hope Association spends their money each month, visit here.