This is why we say ‘no’ to foreign volunteers

I am often asked by people whether they can volunteer at Human and Hope Association. Although they understand that we don’t accept foreign volunteers, they believe that they can still contribute with their skills in-country. I get it, I do. I understand wanting to help in a hands-on way and wanting to utilise your skills. It is good to feel needed. But, as my new book states, ‘It’s Not About Me’ (or you).

Human and Hope Association is proudly run by local staff. They are the subject matter experts, they know the community and culture well, and they are there for the long-term. When I was developing the organisation, always with the intention to make myself redundant, we focused on skills building and succession planning. That meant weekly workshops, mentoring, university scholarships and external training. We supported local universities and training organisations, as supporting the local economy is important for the country to move forward. Basically, all the knowledge and skills the staff need can be accessed in-country through local Cambodians. And that’s the way it should be.

Think about it – this is a country that sees tens of thousands of voluntourists cross their borders each year. For the longest time, they have been sold the message that for Cambodia to develop, there needs to be assistance from foreign volunteers. This simply isn’t the case. Cambodians are incredible – they are resilient, resourceful and determined. Yes, a large percentage of educated people did perish under the Khmer Rouge regime, but Cambodia has developed in leaps and bounds over the years, and there are plenty of intelligent and skilled people to teach others so the country can continue to grow.

Take, for example, Human and Hope Association’s Sustainability Assistant, Sophy. She grew up during the Khmer Rouge regime and never had the opportunity to attend school. Although she is illiterate, Sophy has other skills – she manages Human and Hope Association’s farm which makes a tidy profit each month and has reduced their operation costs, she uses her creativity to teach art class to children, and advocates for Human and Hope Association in the community. When I recently returned to Cambodia, Sophy was telling me that her neighbours were asking whether Human and Hope Association had foreign volunteers. She proudly told them that they don’t; the education classes are run by university graduates who are in charge of the curriculum and have created their own culturally-appropriate textbooks. Her neighbour was surprised, as she was so used to seeing foreign volunteers at other organisations. She went on to ask about whether the teachers were actually able to control their classes and whether students turned up on time. Sophy responded that yes, Human and Hope Association has core student values that the staff and students live and breathe, and they are very strict on punctuality. The neighbour walked away from that conversation very satisfied, and I had tears of pride when Sophy told me.

I am not telling people not to help; there are many ways you can help countries like Cambodia without participating in voluntourism, including supporting social enterprises, fundraising back home or donating much-needed supplies. My new book goes into further detail about why voluntourism is a problem, not a solution, including disempowerment of local staff, taking jobs from locals, attachment issues with children and inconsistency. By helping in effective and empowering ways, we can support Cambodians to make a positive social change themselves, which is far more sustainable.

Order a signed copy of ‘It’s Not About Me: Discovering voluntourism is a problem, not a solution’. All proceeds are donated to Human and Hope Association Inc.