One day in February 2016, Human and Hope Association was approached by a tour company in Phnom Penh. They wanted to bring 15 tourists from India to Human and Hope Association to “teach, play with the kids and do something competitive” so that those tourists would have ‘team building’. If we allowed them to do that, they would give us a donation in return.
I was absolutely mortified. I had known that this was common practice with some tour companies, however, we had never been approached to partake in these shenanigans before. My Director and I discussed this, and I suggested he phone them back and explain that the community we work with needs stability, and that comes from the local staff who work with them day after day. Bringing a tour group in to play with the kids is not part of our culture at Human and Hope Association, particularly as we did not accept foreign volunteers and have a strict policy for accepting Cambodian volunteers. Giving a tour of our organisation to this group wasn’t even an option, as we have a rule that a maximum of five people can visit at a time to not overwhelm our villagers or make them feel like they are on show.
My Director phoned the tour company back and explained this. The staff member at the tour company understood our explanation, however, he then suggested that he could still bring the tour group and they would partake in activities with our staff, with us organising this. My blood started to boil. What was the point of this? Why would our staff take time out of their incredibly busy days to provide entertainment for a group of tourists? That’s what it pretty much would be; entertainment. Instead of focusing on our mission, we were expected to play games and pretty much present ourselves as tourist attractions. Again, the offer of a donation was on the table.
Being a well-respected, legitimate organisation that strives to build the community around us, we stuck to our values and told the tour company that this wasn’t possible. The sad thing is, despite our explanation of why this wasn’t a good idea, I have no doubt that they would then approach other organisations or schools with the same request, and they would certainly find one who would say yes. During my time in Cambodia, it became common practice for tourists to want to ‘help’ by partaking in something ineffective and possibly harmful so they can feel good about themselves. I know of an NGO who was asked if four hundred tourists could come to their NGO and partake in ‘team building’. This NGO thankfully said no, whilst trying to explain that not only was their organisation unable to host four hundred people, their community was, too. Think about it; four hundred people turning up to a small village? There would be roadblocks, noise pollution, it would disrupt their everyday living, not to mention it would overwhelm the community.
Voluntourism and poverty tourism are not the correct ways to interact with people in developing countries. This way of thinking needs to be changed, and quickly. Tour providers, instead of striving to make their guests happy by organising such tours and events, should educate them on the pitfalls of treating children and organisations as attractions. They should be protecting the vulnerable people in their country, not encouraging people to go and play with kids they do not know, take photos and teach them things that local staff are more than capable of doing. They should not be dangling a donation with outrageous conditions that unfortunately some schools and NGO’s must accept due to their financial situations.
Human and Hope Association, just like all the other charities and NGO’s in the world, needs funds. There is no doubting that. However, we refuse to be a novelty for more fortunate people to play with. We are all human beings and we need to be treated as equals, not patronised by those who happen to be more fortunate than us.
“People want to know where their donations are going, that’s why they want to visit and take part,” a friend once said to me.
“Why?” I responded. “If an NGO is legitimate, they will have finances and reports readily available. They will have an up-to-date website, annual report and social media accounts. There shouldn’t be a need for people to visit and take photos to ensure it is a good NGO. Do you see people who donate to the Cancer Council demanding to see their projects in action before they donate? Isn’t it strange that people would not do that in Australia, yet they feel they are entitled to in developing countries?”.
My friend couldn’t help but agree with me. That point of view hadn’t been presented to her before, as she was so used to being bombarded with voluntourism opportunities, and had even just finished her own voluntourism stint, despite my advice. Attitudes towards developing countries had to change and it started with us.