An Infinite Learning Curve

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.  Using this definition, they estimate that there are 132 million orphans in the world, but of this number, children who have lost both parents (double orphans) total 13 million – still a staggering number.  HIV is named as the single most important factor affecting these numbers, but there are other reasons such as war which result in children losing their parents.  The UNICEF estimations do not include abandoned children or children who have been sold or trafficked.  While orphans are a worldwide phenomenon (there are obviously orphans in every country), the vast majority are living in the world’s poorest countries.

The first case of HIV in Cambodia was discovered in 1991, ten years after the epidemic was identified.  Cambodia’s first case of AIDS occurred in 1993 and the HIV prevalence rate by 1998 was 2.5% of the population.  Since then the rates have steadily declined, and in 2013 0.7% of people aged 15-49yo were estimated to be HIV positive.  This translates in total numbers to 71,347 people including 6,850 children.  On average three new HIV infections are contracted and six adults die from AIDS here each day.  Approximately 85% of people living with HIV in Cambodia are receiving appropriate anti-retroviral treatment (ART).  Another huge achievement is the much-reduced rate of HIV transmission from HIV-infected mother to child, to only 2%, thanks to the use of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) interventions.

In the past ten years the number of orphans in Cambodia has decreased (alongside the HIV epidemic).  Simultaneously there has been a 75% increase in the number of orphanages in the country.  This is directly linked to the concurrent explosion of tourism to Cambodia, with a 250% increase in foreign arrivals in the same ten years, with more than three million visitors entering Cambodia annually now.

Friends International list a number of dangers associated with Orphanage Tourism, as:

  1. 70-75% of children in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans and should be with their families.  They have been recruited from poor families with promises of educational opportunities which are otherwise unavailable.  Such recruitment is usually dishonest, with many orphans kept out of school entirely.
  2. International visitors have no child safe checks, allowing predators access to vulnerable children.
  3. Visiting an orphanage which allows you to come as a tourist or short term volunteer supports a business which is making money from the children.  This causes untold emotional damage to the children while the only real beneficiaries are the orphanage founders who gain financially from well meaning foreigners.

There is a lot of information available about the topic, and I’ve put some useful links below. Cambodia’s Orphans Business, a film by Juliana Ruhfus and Matt Haan, is 25 minutes of worthwhile viewing available at this link.

There are an estimated 10,000 children currently residing in approximately 500 orphanages in Cambodia.  A large number of these orphanages use volunteering or other means to attract foreign visitors (such as shows put on by the children) as a way to generate income.  Some keep the orphanage in poor condition, and even starve the children, in order to use it as evidence to visitors for the lack of funding.  Fabricated paperwork makes parents and families untraceable, meaning many children can never be reunited with their families.  Children are often kept out of school and forced to perform in front of visitors for cheap treats.  Supervision is often minimal or even non-existent.  These are just some of the issues arising in orphanages across the country.

Foreign NGOs are also involved in this scam, with an American organisation called Projects Abroad coming under the radar a number of times in the Cambodia’s Orphans Business documentary.  One volunteer reported that it cost her $3,000 to register with the NGO who sent her to Cambodia, while the local orphanage receive around $10 per week per volunteer.  The financial turnover in 2010 of Projects Abroad was US$24 million with a profit of over US$3 million, of which US$1 million was paid in dividends to their two directors.  Even more shocking, is the lack of criminal history checks on volunteers, making it easy for foreign sex offenders to enter Cambodia, hide their identity and carry out child abuse – some have even opened their own orphanages for this express purpose!

Until things in Cambodia improve, it is said that the country does benefit from the skills and qualifications that overseas visitors bring with them.  However, need will only be met with responsible volunteering alongside the implementation of in-country systems which can better protect the children.  Responsible volunteering is easy enough to explore via the internet.  Two decent and informative sites I’ve discovered, but no doubt there are many others, are and .

With all that said, it is possible to volunteer responsibly and Cambodia also has many legitimate NGOs and orphanages, as I have mentioned previously.  I have also alluded previously to my involvement with an orphanage founded by a number of people including two of my national colleagues.  Prior to 2008 MSF-France worked on an HIV program and the doctors and social workers realised over time that many of their patients were dying and leaving behind children who were HIV positive, in need of adequate care, which was not being provided in their crisis-ridden home environments.  This motivated my colleagues to found an orphanage to take care of some of these children.  For the past three months, at the request of one of the founders who I work with, I have been attending the orphanage three times a week to teach English to the children, who have all suffered educational set backs due to their social and medical conditions.  It’s been a brand new endeavour for me, full of exhausting planning and preparations, classes which don’t go according to plan, and a failure on many days when craziness overtakes the structured plans in my mind!

More recently I have been recruited as the seventh member of the Board of Directors of this orphanage.  There are four local Khmer people and a French social worker, all of whom were involved in the founding of the orphanage, plus an American volunteer based in Phnom Penh and myself.  Yesterday I attended my first board meeting, where I spent four hours absorbed in discussions relating to the governance and functioning of the orphanage.  Issues ranging from the children’s education and health, exit strategies for each child when they reach adulthood, the possibility of admitting more children to the home, budget and staff salaries, donors, conditions relating to specific donations and transparency of financial and administrative aspects of the orphanage were all discussed.

Many of these points led to more general discussions.  How much money should a small, functional NGO should spend on overheads such as staff salaries (the short answer is 35% or less; the longer answer is much more complicated and far less clear-cut).  This thought-provoking 18 minute video is a lecture by American humanitarian / entrepreneur Dan Pallotta about the way we think about giving to charity. His point that overhead contributes to the cause, rather than being an obstruction, turns the usual thinking about donor money on it’s head, and in my opinion, rightly so.  Which is certainly a controversial thing to say given the heated discussions I sat in on yesterday!

Our staff salary discussion in turn led to a more general discussion about Cambodian incomes.  Income and food prices work together in Cambodia to directly influence the population rates of malnutrition, which are very high.  According to the World Food Programme, rice supplies approximately 75% of daily caloric intake and fish is the main source of protein for the population.  Rice cultivation employs a significant proportion of the population.  There is a lucrative rice export industry but many families have their own rice fields, for self-sufficiency.  One of my colleagues recently took two weeks annual leave and upon her return I discovered that she had spent the time planting her rice field.  Not exactly my idea of a holiday, but she is guaranteed to be able to feed herself for nine months of the forthcoming year.

Depending on the arrival of reliable rains, rice planting season usually begins between June and July, and for a period while the rice grows, from August to December, rice and money often run out, making these the “hunger months” when people are much more likely to go hungry and malnutrition rates rise.  A new poverty line was reported in Cambodia last year, based on a combination of the costs of food items, purchasing clean water and non-food items, set at a nationwide daily limit of almost US$1 per day.  This rate differs between Phnom Penh, other urban areas and rural areas (refer  As such, $1 per day per person is the very least amount required for basic survival.  This feeds my understanding around the fact that some colleagues and orphanage staff earn $100 per month and how $100 of debt can result in extreme stress.

The orphanage budget is very small and restricted and one of my roles as a board member will be to work out ways to try and increase donations as well as assisting with budget monitoring and transparency.  As I have never been involved in fundraising before, and am not a natural salesperson, this seems a daunting challenge, but one which I am prepared to have a go at.

I sat in a riverside restaurant writing most of this.  We are at the beginning of the final year examinations for Year 12 and the guest house here has many young Khmer girls who have traveled to town to sit their national exams.  As I sat here writing this a foreign man sat a few metres from me at the bar, leering shamelessly at the teenage girls coming and going as he bored the poor bar staff, a much less common occurrence in Kampong Cham than I’ve seen in places like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.  There must be heavy rains to our north as the Mekong River is rising at a rate of knots and there is a lot of talk about it flowing over into the town.  The villages on the banks opposite us are already underwater, with boats taking the place of motos, tractors and animals.  Below are some photographs of the changing Wet Season land and waterscapes.

One of the many ways to transport rice seedlings
One of the many ways to transport rice seedlings
Rice seedlings arrive by bike and wait for planting
Rice seedlings arrive by bike and wait for planting
Planting underway
Planting underway
Cattle has to be kept away from the rice, so loads of grass are transported home each day
Cattle has to be kept away from the rice, so loads of grass are transported home each day
Boats which once traveled metres below us, out of sight, are now like an extra lane of traffic beside us
Boats which once traveled metres below us, out of sight, are now like an extra lane of traffic beside us

Responsible tourism

2 thoughts on “An Infinite Learning Curve

  1. I too am involved in Cambodian life, having lived here for a year. I am intrigued by your wonderful insights. I am in Kampong Cham at the moment, and would love to meet you.


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