Notes on Voluntourism

Although it’s exhausting, the best times in my week are spent teaching English to a group of 15 children.  This takes place at a home for HIV+ children which was established by local colleagues who worked in the medical field with families of the children, the parents of whom have either died or are not able to provide adequate care for their children.  Previously the partner of an expatriate colleague living with us was teaching English to the children.  When he left, the orphanage asked if I would consider continuing the English lessons.  I happily agreed and began teaching a month ago.  Since then two homeless girls who I have mentioned previously and the son of one of my staff members have joined us.  Chom, a local tuk-tuk driver and friend, takes us so as to avoid the children cycling on busy roads while in my care.  He stays and acts as translator and support during the class.  We always arrive to the excited greetings of 12 more children who have welcomed and included without question, the three extras who come with me.  Friendships have formed quickly and easily.  For two of the three classes we are also joined by my colleague Bee who shares the lesson planning / teaching responsibility with me and enjoys the experience as much as I do.

We have a routine of purchasing fresh fruit at the market on the afternoon of each class, which we offer to the kids as a part of the lesson.  The class starts just as the older children cycle in the gate from school in their uniforms, so they are undoubtedly ready for a snack.  The cook is always there preparing dinner, which is served just as we are leaving, an hour later.

At our most recent class the children immediately began rough-housing and chasing each other as soon as we arrived.  To settle them down I decided to feed them immediately so I asked them to sit down and placed the plates of Jackfruit and Mangosteen nearby.  Once they were in a circle I called out “Who is hungry?!”.  Those who understood the question shot their hands into the air and the others quickly copied.  Then I called out “What will we do?!”.  With 17 pairs of eyes studying my mouth I slowly articulated “We… Will… Eat… Fruit!”.  They understood each word in the sentence from previous lessons and repeated after me in unison.  We repeated the exercise a number of times until they were forming the sentence spontaneously, then I asked each of them individually “What will you do?” and supported each to reply “I will eat fruit”.  We then placed the fruit in the centre of the circle and many hands grabbed excitedly for it.  Then we repeated the exercise using the current tense of “We are eating fruit” and “I am eating fruit”.  Once the fruit was eaten, we repeated using the past tense “We ate fruit” and “I ate fruit”.

As soon as this exercise was over the craziness recommenced and my lesson plan was looking rather dishevelled.  As the lesson plan is just a guide and we don’t have a timetable to stick to or an Education Department assessing us, I went along with their mood and ran a freestyle session led by the children, during which I managed about half of the planned lesson once they settled down a little.

Neither Bee, Chom or myself are qualified teachers and so Bee and I have spent a fair amount of time online working out lesson plans and advice on how best to introduce English to children learning it as a foreign language.  I’ve learned a lot and we have lesson plans to guide us courtesy of an online website which I joined so that we can have structure to our classes.

During my online searches for this purpose I have learned about the concepts of  “Voluntourism” and “Orphanage Tourism”, which a wealth of information has been written about and in which Cambodia features strongly along with other developing countries.  It is reported that many orphanages exist simply to meet the demand from foreigners wanting to volunteer for a few days or weeks while on their overseas holiday.  This is a lucrative business with many negative impacts.  It is alleged that many families are enticed by financial incentives and the unmet promise of improved educational opportunities, to send their children to these “orphanages” where children are kept out of school in order to be available for English lessons taught by usually young and unqualified volunteers whose only asset is knowledge of English.

The more reputable orphanages I have read about employ local staff to do the work that foreign volunteers might otherwise do, in order to provide constancy to the childrens’ lives.  This has the added benefit of providing local employment.  Volunteers are only considered useful in certain situations when they can commit to 3, 6 or more months and it is important that they have relevant vetting (ie police checks) and qualifications.  I now have a better understanding of why my offers to volunteer later this year when my MSF mission comes to an end, were not met enthusiastically.  The one organisation I applied to required an online application with submission of my Curriculum vitae.  They have offered me two hours of work per week directly related to my professional qualifications.  An initial reaction to such strict criteria could be an assumption that your willingness to spend time helping people is not appreciated but in fact there is a very strong element of child protection and responsible service provision to this approach.  It would seem that those places who offer positions to volunteers without any checks or conditions attached, are in fact involved in the world of voluntourism, which can significantly harm an already-vulnerable population.

Teaching English without qualifications to children can also be considered in a negative light and I have pondered on my involvement in this way.  However we were specifically sought out by a legitimate local organisation for the purpose in an environment where English speakers are highly sought-after.  The children are receiving these lessons in addition to, not instead of, their regular schooling and we have sought materials and resources to help us make the lessons structured and useful.  Given the value placed on the English language I also think it can only benefit the children to be around English speakers for a few hours each week, regardless of the lessons and homework we provide.  The children clearly enjoy themselves and have taken to asking for extra lessons and at risk of sounding very much like a voluntour, the lessons are certainly the highlight of my week.  We also have our own conditions in place, which include not posting pictures of the children online, not inviting people to join the class who do not have a specific role to benefit the children, we have all relevant checks allowing us to work with children and we can provide a long-term commitment of over six months.

Some interesting reading on the subject of Voluntourism can be found at the links below and/or by Googling the subject.  The last article on myths about the developing world was particularly interesting for me this week as I experienced an East-Meets-West phenomenon when a tiny 6yo homeless child was heart broken and sobbing.  I was unable to fathom what was wrong with her but it was apparently serious.  Eventually her grandmother explained to me via sign language and the universal name of “Coca Cola”, that the reason she was crying was that she was trying to insist on her grandparents (who were beside themselves about her prolonged tantrum) buying her a can of Coca Cola!

For anyone interested in knowing about some more reputable organisations, I have also posted links to three NGOs in Cambodia with genuine programs that do not exploit the children in their care. This is not an exhaustive list and there are undoubtedly other equally needy and deserving organisations.

Article from the Huffington Post, Orphanage Tourism Should Be Stopped, International Activists Urge, 27 October 2013

Blog Post on Volunteering in Cambodia

Children are not tourist attractions website

Global Citizen article 27 myths about the developing world, 30 May 2014[/

One thought on “Notes on Voluntourism

  1. A fascinating read Helen. There are some creepy people in the world and a place like Cambodia with so many needy and orphaned children would bring them out of the woodwork, as is well known. Keep up the good work. (writing and teaching)


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