If you find yourself volunteering abroad only to have something to put on your resume, or get a new profile picture for Facebook, you need to redefine your priorities.
While volunteering abroad can dramatically change the quality of life in communities in underdeveloped nations for the better; sometimes, these individuals are the target of exploitation and harm.
As a result of the civil war between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Cambodia was struck with a rise in tourists wanting to help the country in one way or another. While many had good intentions, a small proportion of organizations resorted to the exploitation of Cambodian children in order to gain sympathy from outsiders for profit-incentive purposes. This eventually led to the concept of ‘voluntourism,’ where companies send volunteers to countries like Cambodia for the sole purpose of generating profits instead of actually helping the community.
The increase of tourists in the country has also led to an increase of orphanages, with the number rising by more than 75% in the past six years. Why the connection? Because promises of a better, ‘Western’ quality of life in orphanages have led to parents willing to give up their children so that they can have access to better food, water, and education — something that the parents are not able to afford. In fact, families wishing to send their children to school must sacrifice 25% of their monthly income, according to Rana Flowers from Unicef. For reference, a maximum of 15% of your monthly income should be spent on food, a necessity. In an underdeveloped country such as Cambodia, this number is much higher.
Some companies actively ‘recruit’ children living in slums, separating children from their families for the illusion of a better life, with approximately 70% of the children living in these orphanages not actually being orphans. Majority of the money the orphanages gain from tourists and donations do not go towards the betterment of the facility. Instead, it is returned as lucrative profit for the owners. Taking the case of French orphanage Enfant du Sourie Khmer, half of the former residents are currently either living on the streets or are dead; this is due to the orphanage shutting down after the owner selfishlessly kept the money meant for the children for himself.
It becomes painfully apparent that the evolution of ‘voluntourism’ has led to the exploitation of children for personal financial gains. Instead of organizations addressing the problem of poverty in the nation by helping families deal with the situation, they are snatching children from their parents not only to advertise false promises for a better life, but to elicit sympathy from outsiders who do not know their true intentions.
When volunteering abroad is doing more harm than good
The prevalence of orphanage scams in Cambodia prove that it is of utmost importance to know exactly who you are working with, and what you will be doing. This includes researching about the project you will be working on, the length of it, where funds will be allocated, and whether it benefits the community you are helping. It seems counterintuitive to think that volunteering abroad can have negative impacts on the inhabitants of their community; after all, the whole point of volunteering is to change people’s lives for the better, right? Well, taking the previous case of orphanages, if you are building many of them in the country, often times you are not attacking the problem of poverty itself, but rather building an inefficient, temporary solution.
If you find yourself volunteering in South Africa for one week playing with the children, you are simply not doing meaningful work that will improve the living standards of the community. It is much more meaningful to work on long-term, sustainable projects such as building resources that will provide the community with clean water. Needless to say, if you find yourself doing work that exceeds your skill level, you are very likely doing much more harm than good.
Finally, if you find yourself volunteering abroad only to have something to put on your resume, or get a new profile picture for Facebook, you need to redefine your priorities. Children are not tourist attractions.