Cambodia, Voluntourism

The Silver Lining of COVID-19

We have to look at the silver linings, don’t we?

I was naive when COVID-19 hit. I assumed it would be a short-term problem; that it would be over in a few months and we could all continue as normal. But of course, that isn’t the case. I have no answers to when it will end, and all I can do is act responsibly  and help people who are doing it tough.

The major way I am helping is in my role as CEO of Human and Hope. For those of you who have followed me for awhile, you would know my story. But for those of you who are coming across this blog randomly (which I highly doubt, as I don’t have the SEO skills that would enable that), let me give you a brief overview.

My Story

In 2011, at the age of 25, I packed up my belongings and moved to Cambodia. I was naively determined to ‘save the world’, and I assumed the best way to do that was by encouraging foreigners to come and volunteer in Cambodia. I worked as a Volunteer Coordinator at a school for disadvantaged children, but it was during that time that I discovered that I was part of the problem, not the solution.

Honestly, voluntourism (whereby people volunteer short-term to undertake jobs such as teaching English, building houses, painting classrooms and helping out in orphanages) is a huge problem, and if you want to know more about this, you can listen to the Hustle & Flow Podcast where I speak about this. So, I shifted my focus and spent a few years developing Human and Hope Association Cambodia with a team of local staff so that we could initiate poverty-alleviating programs.

I eventually was successful in making myself redundant, and moved back to Australia in 2017. I now advocate for a local approach to development, and frequently speak to service clubs, universities and companies about why they should make the shift away from voluntourism and move to ethical travel. In fact, demand for these workshops and presentations has increased during the pandemic. Thank goodness for Zoom, hey!

The Silver Lining

The silver lining I see with COVID-19 is that the number of people partaking in voluntourism now and in the foreseeable future has been greatly reduced. In February and March, Projects Abroad reported that volunteers were down by 78% and then in April by 98%. Other voluntourism companies are holding crowdfunding campaigns to survive, and small NGO’s who independently sourced volunteers are letting their local staff go because they don’t have the income from voluntourists they are so reliant on. Don’t get me wrong; it is honestly heartbreaking to hear of people losing their jobs, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

The silver lining though is that perhaps people will see what I discovered back in 2012; that people living in countries like Cambodia are best placed to serve their communities and to independently run their projects. They can provide consistency, stability and react in a timely manner. It is also the most sustainable approach to community development.

Human and Hope Association Cambodia

Take for example, Human and Hope Association Cambodia. In April, thanks to the good business acumen of their Board Chair (the entire governing board of Human and Hope Association Cambodia are Cambodian), they reacted swiftly to the pending financial crisis and slashed their budgets. What was already a shoestring budget was cut further, including the staff uniting to take a 20% pay cut so all their jobs could be saved.

At the same time, knowing their community was suffering as Siem Reap’s tourism industry was being decimated, they launched a 15-day campaign to educate 26,000 local Cambodians how they each play a role in stopping the spread of COVID-19.  The program included information in Khmer about self-protection, shopping and working in wet markets, with information about practicing food safety conveyed via loudspeaker on tuk-tuks, which was repeated three times every 10 minutes in each of the communes’ villages.  They also distributed soap and face masks made by their sewing graduates.

In comparison, the school for disadvantaged children I had initially worked at had their foreign volunteers make hand washing videos in English to distribute to their students electronically. Why, when this information is so vital, would they convey it in English and not Khmer, the native language of Cambodia? Was it to make them feel useful during a time when all schools were ordered closed, so they really didn’t have much to do?

What’s Next for Voluntourism?

My hope is that NGOs who have been heavily reliant on voluntourists understand that this isn’t sustainable, nor practical. By diversifying their income sources and developing their marketing and messages, they may be able to make the shift away from using free foreign labour and instead hire qualified local staff to do the work. For those organisations that purely exist as a money-making scheme, perhaps they will close down. And for those big voluntourism companies who exploit both their participants and the in-country NGOs they send the volunteers to? I won’t shed a tear if they aren’t able to survive.

How You Can Help

The best way to help countries with high rates of poverty is through donating. Human and Hope’s supporters rallied together to help fund the hygiene campaign, because they knew how important it was and trusted in Human and Hope Association Cambodia’s ability to run the program. During the outreach, the staff were finally able to reach the most disadvantaged community members they had never had contact with previously, and as a result set up an emergency food package program and Home Food Garden Project. Their years of experience providing support to their community has put them in a strong position to react to COVID-19. They have achieved all of this (and more) without involving foreign voluntourists, because to be frank, they can do a much better job without them.

And of course, once international travel is permitted again, being an ethical traveller will help economies to recover from the devastation of 2020.

To learn more about why voluntourism is a problem, not a solution, buy my book ‘It’s Not About Me’