What I wish I knew when I was 25

In September 2011, I packed up my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia. I was determined to ‘make a difference’. My intentions for moving there were good, but as I soon realised, good intentions aren’t good enough. I can’t change the past, but what I can do is share the lessons I learnt, and what I wish I had known when I was 25, to help others from making the same mistakes.

You need to respect the culture

I often assumed I was the exception to the rule. That my Western quirks were cute. That Cambodians would understand my cultural differences. But in reality, I was rude. I knew I shouldn’t raise my voice and risk having someone else ‘lose face’, yet I did. I knew I should wear modest clothing, yet for the first few months of living in Siem Reap, I would venture out in clothing that didn’t show my respect for the culture. I knew that things moved slowly in Cambodia, yet I was always trying to rush the pace.

If I had done my research and talked with my Cambodian co-workers, I would have understood the importance of respecting their culture. I would have been more effective in my work, developed stronger relationships from the get-go, and not put the community I cared so much about in awkward positions.

Listen and learn first

There is a term that is really popular with Australian schools called ‘service learning’. They believe that volunteering overseas to build houses, plant trees or teach ‘orphans’ how to brush their teeth is an effective way to help. That’s what I initially thought too. I moved to Cambodia with the preconceived notion that I needed to provide hands-on help for communities to develop and thrive. I was wrong.

What I needed to do was to listen first. If I had listened to the communities, to my co-workers, and to those former volunteers with lived experience, I would have learnt that change should be coming from community members themselves. They are the subject-matter experts, they know the community and culture best, and they can provide the consistency and stability that is needed. It didn’t matter if I had a university degree, or experience volunteering with charities in Australia. I wasn’t best-placed to do the work. I didn’t need to teach children the ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ song for the 20th time. I didn’t need to paint a hospital ward. I didn’t need to work directly with beneficiaries.

Yet that’s exactly what I did for the first 12 months, because I never thought to ask questions or to create an environment where local staff felt comfortable enough to explain what I was doing wrong.

Be prepared to challenge your beliefs

As time went by, I challenged my beliefs. It was highly uncomfortable. And when I look back at my behaviour, I cringe. But it is better to be educated and uncomfortable, than ignorant and causing harm.

I went to Cambodia thinking that I knew best. That people couldn’t move out of poverty without hands-on help from international volunteers. And for months, I promoted that belief. I managed voluntourists, patted them on the back, told them what a good job they were doing. But as that was happening, qualified local staff members were pushed into the shadows. Vulnerable children developed attachment issues. Visitors treated the community members as tourist attractions.

When I realised I had been going about things the wrong way, I had to humbly admit to my mistakes and take action to help other voluntourists challenge their beliefs, too.

And now…

Since late 2012, I have been advocating for a local approach to development.

Yes, it makes people uncomfortable and offended, just as it made me.

Yes, not everyone agrees with me.

Yes, I do receive some backlash.

But I will continue to push this message, to make up for the mistakes of my 25-year-old self, and the negative impact I had on a wonderful Cambodian community. I can’t change the past, but I can act in the present to influence the future. With international travel on the cards again, we need to rethink our actions when travelling to lower income countries. Being ethical travellers is the best way to do this.

Please, learn from a 25-year-old Sally.

To learn more, you can purchase a copy of my manifesto, It’s Not About Me.