Where did your drive to help others come from?

It all began in 2008. I had finished studying at the University of Newcastle and moved to Sydney to work at Colonial First State. In an effort to make friends, I joined a local Rotaract club. I realised that I had a knack for helping people, so expanded my volunteer work into various other causes; a homeless shelter, Make-a-Wish, and Rotary, amongst many others. However, it was after I visited Burma in 2008 that I became even more passionate about international causes. This was because the experience of being in a developing country really instilled in me a desire to use the opportunity I have as an Australian to help others. This was even more meaningful for me because my grandmother is from Burma, and I realized just how different my life could have been if my mother’s family did not migrate to Australia. I know during my life I have been offered assistance and given opportunities to achieve my own goals and dreams, and I wanted to assist others who are equally deserving of this support, but unable to access it in the developing world.

Why did you move to Cambodia?

When I was 25 I took a career break and moved to Cambodia, with the intention of working there for 15 months in the position of

Volunteer Coordinator at a day centre for former street children. I had volunteered in Cambodia for a month the year before, and saw that there were many volunteers visiting the country. I thought I had the skills and experience to manage a volunteer program, ensuring that volunteers were having the maximum positive impact possible.

It was while I was in my position as Volunteer Coordinator that I eventually realized I was not helping the future of Cambodians. I was encouraging unskilled volunteers to come and spend time with vulnerable children for a few weeks at a time. I realized that for Cambodia to truly develop, it needed to be the locals taking charge and building their communities. That was the most sustainable way.

How did you become involved with Human and Hope Association?

It was around this time that I was introduced to Human and Hope Association through my friend, Sreylin, who volunteered there. At the time, HHA was open two hours an evening with volunteer Khmer staff, and sometimes foreigners, teaching English and Morality to village kids and teenagers at a fee of 50 cents to $1 a month. Amongst the murky green walls of the pagoda based school, I saw hope. I saw that a handful of these Khmer volunteers had the passion and ability to make something out of this organization, so, in October 2012 I became involved with HHA, and started full time as Operations Manager in December that same year. Over the next few years, with the support of local staff, we built up this grassroots organization with local staff so that it was a professional, trustworthy and effective NGO for the community to reach out to and our donors to support. We registered Human and Hope Association as an official NGO, created a Khmer team of paid employees, developed a donor database, initiated
various programs with the aim to alleviate social issues, initiated weekly training sessions, developed a sewing business and other sources of income and built a permanent location for HHA. My role had it all: fundraising, marketing, accounting, office management, curriculum development, website maintenance, business development, training, sustainable development, relationship management, public speaking and mentoring. I became a jack of all trades.

How did you go about actually getting Human and Hope Association to be locally sustainable?

We focused heavily on capacity building the staff. Every Sunday we hold staff workshops, and although I was running many of these workshops in the beginning, I have only run a handful over the past couple of years, as now other staff have stepped up to run these workshops. We focus on a vast array of knowledge and skills; everything from team building to problem solving to fire safety. Additionally, we provide frequent one-on-one training and weekday workshops catered to individual needs, such as communicating with donors, making videos in iMovie, photography, etc. We also provide university scholarships for some staff, and they take the knowledge they learn and apply it to their jobs. We frequently send our staff on external training workshops, and they then run workshops for the rest of the team with what they have learnt. We undertake six-monthly performance reviews, and the team are finally comfortable with giving and accepting feedback, as they realise it has helped them to develop substantially. We are also committed to internal promotions, and our current Director, a founding member of the organisation, was originally a volunteer English teacher.

It has taken a long time to ensure the staff are confident in their jobs and their decisions, and this involved me having to step back and allow them to learn from their mistakes and celebrate their successes.

Why are you outspoken about voluntourism? 

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 hard working 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.

What are alternative options to partaking in voluntourism?

If you are travelling overseas, here are my recommendations on how you can support NGO’s and causes in a responsible way.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!
  1. 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 can not 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 it!

How is Human and Hope Association different to the other groups that we hear about in Cambodia?

We are a grassroots NGO, meaning we only target three communes. This allows us to have a more personalised approach, and focus on the individual needs of our villagers; we don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. We, unlike other NGO’s, also don’t give our direct aid; it is not sustainable, it is disempowering, and it shifts the responsibility of the villagers to fund their living costs onto us. Instead, we engage our community using empowering and sustainable programs to address the core issues we have identified they face.

We really believe in the ability of the Cambodian staff to run the organisation well, hence we have an entirely Khmer governing board and staff.

We are committed to acting ethically when we raise funds; we have a strict visitor policy and do not allow visitors to take photos, nor do we allow production companies to film our villagers in vulnerable situations. We always focus on the positive, the success stories, the positive future that will result due to our programs, the commitment of our staff and our community.

We also have an end date of 2029. This is because we know that if we are truly being effective in our approach to development, our community will no longer require our projects by that time. We are essentially working ourselves out of a job, and are proud of it.

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