Lessons learnt from living in Cambodia

I was 23. It was my first time in Cambodia. I thought, “why not visit an orphanage?”

I was disappointed. The children were out attending public school. All I saw was an empty playground and a mandatory donation form.

I went back to Australia, determined to get back to Cambodia and have a second shot.

The next year, I returned. I volunteered at a residential centre for former street children. I amassed several Facebook albums of photos, all featuring me with cute kids I didn’t know. I taught them the ‘hoedown throwdown’ from the Hannah Montana movie. They loved it. I didn’t do much else.

I went back to Australia, determined to get back to Cambodia and have a third shot.

The next year, I returned. This time, I was on a career break. I was going to call Siem Reap my home for the next 15 months.

I didn’t end up staying 15 months. I stayed 63 months.

It turned out I had been falsely sold the message of the importance of voluntourism. In my role as a volunteer coordinator, I was managing short-term foreign volunteers at a school for disadvantaged children. Initially, I thought I was doing an incredibly important job. The future of Cambodia was in my hands. However, as time went by, I started to question my work and impact of it. The ethics of it. The consequences of it.

I witnessed local staff who became complacent and disempowered after having foreign volunteers, mostly with no teaching experience, taking over their jobs. I sat by as children developed attachment issues due to the revolving door of volunteers. I organised activities for a group of rich philanthropists to come and play with the children for an afternoon, in the hope we could source funds to keep the organisation running for the next few months.

I wasn’t solving a problem. I was creating a problem.

I had a decision to make. I could stay with the organisation and try to make changes from within, or I could go back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I chose neither.

For me, failure wasn’t an option. And if I had chosen either of those options above, I would have failed. The organisation wasn’t willing to change; they were so dependent on the funds from volunteers to keep their operations going that they had reduced the minimum volunteering time period from one month to one week. To this day, they continue to have a revolving door of voluntourists coming through, working on their farm, teaching children and painting classrooms. In other words, doing tasks that the local Cambodians are more than capable of doing. And if I had chosen the second option? Well if I had chosen that, I would have left the country with a negative footprint, worse than when I had originally moved there.

It turned out there was a third option.

I had recently been introduced to a nightly English school run by Cambodian volunteers at a pagoda. This handful of volunteers opened their school for two hours an evening, teaching English and Buddhist morality for 50 cents to $1 a month. They also had foreign volunteers joining them, for anywhere between two days to a couple of weeks.  The fact that this school had been founded by Cambodians really spoke to me. They were in charge of developing their community and their people. They had the drive; they just needed the resources.

Collaborating with this volunteer team, we agreed that I would join them to develop the school into a registered, reputable NGO. I gave them two conditions, though. We had to stop the foreign volunteer program and I had to eventually make myself redundant, leaving the organisation to be entirely run and driven by the local team. I had realised that for organisations to be sustainable, they needed to be run by local staff. And for local staff to run organisations, they needed to be empowered.

We ended the foreign volunteer program at Human and Hope Association in two parts. 

The first step was to stop English teaching volunteers, which we did straight away. After we did that, we only accepted six foreign volunteers who offered specific skills development.

Our last foreign volunteer came to Human and Hope Association in 2014.

Although we had gotten excellent value out of the volunteers who were there to capacity build, our team had enough knowledge and a great succession plan, so we didn’t require assistance anymore. We allocated funding each year for our team to participate in external workshops run by local training companies, a few of our team members were studying in university or English school on scholarships, and I was still holding weekly development workshops, which were eventually entirely taken over by our local staff and Khmer board and volunteers.

I left Cambodia in 2017, this time, for good.

I was successful in developing Human and Hope Association into a professional community centre, focused on outcomes as opposed to output. The local team of paid staff now earn competitive wages, with the staff turnover being incredibly low because they feel empowered in making their own decisions and running the programs in the way they want to. We have seen 19 families move out of the poverty bracket (as measured by the local commune data) and stay out, for a minimum of a year. 50 preschool students have graduated and transitioned to public school, with 98% remaining there. Our English language program has a 90% pass rate, up from 50% in 2013. Staff and board members have won international awards for their work.

I guarantee you, if we hadn’t been so focused on making Human and Hope Association locally run, these outcomes wouldn’t have been possible. There is a place for volunteering overseas, but it should be undertaken with caution.

Through my five years living in Cambodia, I learnt the following lessons:

  • Locals need to run their own organisations. If the work you want to do will disempower staff (such as teaching children when there are qualified local teachers) or take jobs away from locals (such as building a house), you simply shouldn’t do it.
  • Any organisation you volunteer with should have a child protection policy and visitor policy that they put into action. All volunteers/visitors should have undergone a working with children check or equivalent police check from their home country as a basic due diligence measure.
  • There is a need for capacity building in some organisations, but you need to first determine that those staff aren’t able to get that knowledge locally, such as through a university scholarship or a training course. There must also be a succession/exit plan for passing on the information learnt to future staff, so there is no need for a person like you to present the same training again.
  • You shouldn’t be working directly with the community; the local staff are the consistent force in the community member’s lives, they know the culture well. You should be in the background, helping with capacity building if that is their need. The best volunteers are the ones who remain in the background; if you are wanting to volunteer for the glory and the ‘humble brag’, then your motivations are probably not genuinely about making a positive contribution/impact.
  • If you can’t find a suitable volunteer opportunity, be a responsible traveller instead, and support the local economy and social enterprises by ensuring you stay in locally owned and run guest houses, not run by backpackers trying to stretch their travel dollar. Eat at local food places and buy locally made souvenirs.

Human and Hope Association has a wonderful learning and development plan in place that takes advantage of local knowledge. They have no need for foreign volunteers. Whilst some people get offended when I tell them, ‘no thanks’, please remember that it’s not about you or your ego and good intentions. It is about what the local community needs. Don’t go to organisations with what you think is best for them; it is up to local organisations to tell you what will be effective in supporting them achieve their mission. This kind of work needs to be community led and driven, and if countries like Cambodia are to truly break free from the shackles of mismanaged aid, volunteers and irresponsible tourism, then we need to educate ourselves on what best practice volunteering looks like and leave our egos at home.

To learn more about my journey, you can purchase a copy of my book, ‘It’s Not About Me’ as a paperback or e-book.