An Increasing Awareness of Voluntourism and Orphanages

It was with a great sense of sadness that I read an article in The Guardian recently, titled: The Race to Rescue Children from Cambodian Orphanages Exploiting Them for Profit .  I was saddened, but unfortunately, not surprised.  I’ve written previously about the unethical practices of unscrupulous organisations that masquerade as virtuous charities.  This article on The Guardian is another reminder of the shocking challenges that impede genuine and sincere charities.

In recent times, there has been a growing awareness of the huge inequities that persist in some parts of the world.  Younger people, in particular, are increasingly looking to combine their travels with volunteer humanitarian aid work (i.e. voluntourism).

Neither travel nor volunteer work is typically harmful in isolation.  On one hand, on the subject of travel, Mark Twain wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness … broad views of people and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”; on the other hand, humanitarian work can greatly reduce chronic inequality.  However, when the two are combined, they can cause more harm than good.

The empirical evidence clearly shows that humanitarian and aid is much, much more effective when control and decision-making authority is placed in the hands of the beneficiaries.  This concept of control is the difference between empowerment and a handout.  We must continue to empower people to make better futures for themselves, rather than impose our own will and foreign customs.  Voluntourism is invasive and can destroy the fragile confidence of the disadvantaged communities it seeks to improve, leading to dependence rather than empowerment.

Although voluntourists have well-meaning intentions, they can be naïve about the harm they are potentially causing.  They are often seduced by slick marketing campaigns that are entirely deceptive.  As the article on The Guardian points out, there are some organisations that even participate in the separation of families in the hope of attracting the voluntourist dollar.

What, then, can be done to fix this awful situation?  As individuals, it is important that we do our own research and refuse to support organisations that engage in unethical behaviour.  Here at Human and Hope Association, we do not and never will engage in voluntourism or any of the horrific practices of child abuse and trafficking.

The article has received many emotive responses in the comments section.  A quick glance shows that some people believe that donating money to any charity is not worthwhile because the entire not-for-profit sector can’t be trusted.  Although it’s understandable that heartbreaking articles like these can have the unintended consequence of reducing trust in the entire sector, disengaging completely is not the right answer.  Significant progress has been made to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in developing countries like Cambodia.  I’m not going to let a few unscrupulous operators get in the way of eliminating poverty and improving wellbeing.  I hope you won’t give up either.

Sally Hetherington – President, Human and Hope Association Incorporated