“These handicrafts are all made in Cambodia, and the proceeds provide education to children,” I said with a smile on my face to the lady who approached our market stall.
She smiled at me, and with an air of pretentiousness, her hands gesturing all over the place.
“I have just been to Cambodia. I travelled through the Mekong. I know all about the schools. I visited them and listened to the children sing. I went out to the villages. I know all about this.”
I faked a smile as the lady walked away, oblivious to the discomfort my partner and I felt. She was comparing Human and Hope Association to the many organisations and schools in Cambodia who ‘put on a show’ for their visitors, and who encouraged tourists to treat their surrounding villages as tourist attractions. She was putting us all in the one basket and acting as though she had helped Cambodians by participating and promoting in this sort of tourism.
The reality is, she hadn’t. No one really does.
Whilst people might believe they have good intentions by visiting schools in Cambodia and watching as the children ‘put on a show’, they are encouraging children to put their education aside in order to entertain and essentially, be tourist attractions. If the organisation is an orphanage, they are allowing themselves to believe it is normal to visit the homes of vulnerable children, when it isn’t.
Take, for example, ACODO Orphanage. Whilst I am not sure they still do this, for many years they put on nightly dancing shows that were advertised on tuk tuks and flyers that were distributed through Siem Reap town. Visitors were able to turn up to the orphanage, a short tuk tuk ride from town, for free. They would then spend an hour watching children as young as seven dance on stage and then spend time with them after the show. Take photos with the children they were ‘helping’. Encourage this behaviour. Because Cambodia is a developing country, the Western standards were thrown out the window. Tourists believed that the children were lucky to be placed in the orphanage, when the fact is, around 80% of children in Cambodian orphanages are not real orphans. They should be living with their families, or where that isn’t possible, with extended families or foster parents.
Orphanages aren’t the only ones to encourage a revolving door of visitors. A not-for-profit English school around 4km from Human and Hope Association frequently posts photos on their Facebook page of visitors coming to their school and taking photos of children who are lined up to sing a song from them. They recently started teaching the students how to dance, so they have another way to entertain these visitors. It breaks my heart to see several of Human and Hope Association’s former students from our time at the pagoda, dressed up and performing for these visitors. The children who have a sponsor ‘mum and dad’ are forced to take photos with them, often on their laps or with their arms around them, which is invasive and not in line with Cambodian culture. It also puts them at risk.
The reason this behaviour continues is that people like the lady who boasted to us at our stall keep participating. If we, as responsible travellers, stop encouraging schools and orphanages to use their students as tourist attractions, it will stop, and they will be forced to come up with ethical and sustainable ways to source an income.
So no, all NGO’s, schools and community groups in Cambodia are not the same. Human and Hope Association is an outstanding community centre that will always put the safety, dignity and well-being of their students and community members first before making a quick buck. Hopefully, all NGO’s will one day act in the same way, then I will be proud when we are put in the same category as others.