The Voluntourist

I just finished watching this documentary on voluntourism. Although I have an embarrassingly short attention span, I was captivated as this is a topic I feel so strongly about. The documentary interviews natives in developing countries, voluntourists as young as eighteen years old and NGO workers. It was great to see those undertaking voluntourism questioning their impact, as it is something we don’t often do. As one staff member from PEPY Empowering Youth said, we have “A conveyor belt of a different teacher every week instead of one amazing Cambodian teacher.”

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. 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. Of course, no matter how many times I say this, I always have a friend of a friend with no specific skills asking if they can volunteer at Human and Hope Association, or if I know somewhere they can. If you aren’t organised enough to really know what skills you have the ability to pass on, then volunteering isn’t for you.

I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone why we don’t accept foreign volunteers at HHA, instead focusing on Khmer volunteers:

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 four 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. I have been sick quite often over the past few weeks, hence I have been working from home most days. This has not been an issue, as our team have become so well-equipped and confident that I am slowly doing myself out of a job.

I strongly recommend you take the time to watch ‘The Voluntourist’ and see what conclusions you reach about voluntourism.

Well done to Chloe Sanguinetti and her team for raising awareness about this issue.