“I want to make a difference”: voluntourism, NGOs, and international aid in Cambodia

This post was first published on my previous blog in 2011.

“I don’t want no fucking tight ass people come my country.”

So said a particularly sassy fourteen-year-old Cambodian girl to me on a beach in Sihanoukville almost two years ago. She was trying to sell me a bracelet, and I – heeding the pleas from local NGOs not to encourage kids selling on the beach – was not going to buy. I had just been to visit a school for underprivileged kids on the outskirts of town, had made a donation, and was feeling pretty good about sitting by the beach with an afternoon beer. I had made it clear to the girl that I didn’t want to buy, but was enjoying chatting with her, joking and having fun. And then, suddenly, with the kind of vicious smirk only teenagers are capable of, she said – “Fuck off, go home.”

Such encounters bring out the guilt many Westerners visiting or living in places like Cambodia often feel. How should you – a relatively wealthy and privileged person from a developed country – behave in a place where so many people are struggling to survive? And how can you be responsible – and really helpful – when it comes to donating money or supporting local people? When I first arrived in Cambodia almost two years ago I thought it would be easy to find a way to “make a difference”. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and with so many people in need, I reasoned, there must be hundreds of opportunities to help. I thought I would volunteer at an orphanage, perhaps, or donate money to a local NGO. However – and while I still believe that giving aid is very important – I’ve discovered that the realities of really making a difference in Cambodia are much more complicated than I first imagined.


Cambodia is one of the fifty poorest countries in the world. 30% of the population live on less than $1 per day (1) and 80% of Cambodians do not have electricity, clean water or toilets (2). Since the devastating genocide carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 – when an estimated 2 million people were killed – Cambodia has been struggling to get back on its feet. Set in the middle of Southeast Asia – bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam – Cambodia is at the centre of the Southeast Asian tourist route. Thailand has its beautiful beaches, Vietnam has Howlong Bay, and Cambodia has (in addition to Angkor Wat) ‘voluntourism.’

Volunteering in Cambodia has become almost trendy, perhaps popularised in part by Angelina Jolie, who (after filming Tomb Raider at Angkor Thom in 2001) adopted a son from Battambang province and brought Cambodia into the Hollywood spotlight. Typing “volunteer in Cambodia” into Google generates more than 12 million results. “Combine volunteering with tourist attractions”, “explore this Southeast Asian paradise and contribute to poor children”, experience “a unique blend of work, cultural immersion, and fun” – there is an endless variety of packages to choose from. Can’t decide? Take an online quiz to find out what kind of voluntourism best suits you. And volunteer tourism is often not cheap – one website advertises a week-long project for US$1,100, while a volunteer interviewed by Al Jazeera admitted she paid US$4,000 for three months at an orphanage (3). Tourists paying such huge fees to volunteer their time in orphanages and with other projects must wonder where exactly all that money goes. While many organisations are careful to break down costs for the consumer, some are not so specific about the details of their budgets. And then there is the question of whether some of the orphanages offering voluntourism packages are really orphanages at all.

Orphanage Tourism

A British friend of mine tells a story about visiting an orphanage outside of Phnom Penh shortly after arriving in Cambodia. Her moto-driver suggested she buy some rice as a donation, and she paid US$25 for a large bag to give to the orphanage. Months later the moto-driver (now a close friend) told her that he had received a $6 commission on the bag of rice and that the majority of children in the orphanage they had visited were not orphans at all. They were simply sent in for the day to bulk up numbers for tourists.

Stories like this are not uncommon. With the rise of voluntourism in Cambodia more and more illegitimate projects are created to capitalise on this new market. The Cambodian government is supposedly cracking down on orphanages, trying to weed out those that are not legitimate, but the persistence of volunteer tourism is not helping this process. According to UNICEF, the number of ‘orphanages’ in Cambodia now is double what it was in 2005 (4). UNICEF argues that nearly three-quarters of ‘orphans’ in Cambodia have at least one surviving parent, and that tourists that support such institutions are often contributing to the problem. “We appreciate that they’re [volunteers] doing this for the best of motives,” says Richard Bridle from UNICEF, interviewed by Al Jazeera’s 101 East program, but “they are exacerbating the situation” (3).

Other arguments against orphanage tourism are strong, and many legitimate organisations will not accept temporary volunteers at all. Scott Neeson from Cambodian Children’s Fund says that volunteers are often “unreliable” (3). Instead, Neeson prefers to employ local Cambodian women to work with the children in his project. Many volunteer programs are also not properly run or supervised. UNICEF remarks that anyone working in childcare should be subjected to proper background checks, as well as having undergone training: “It’s [working with children] not something you can just do as an amateur” (3). The quality of education given by these volunteers – people that come and go and often have no teaching experience or qualifications – is questionable, and can even be disruptive for young children, especially if not properly managed. As Scott Neeson points out, the idea of “come and hug a child and speak some English” is really not helping these children at all (3). There is also the danger that children will become attached to volunteers – caregivers who are temporary and who will leave after a few months. Jolanda van Westering, also from UNICEF, points to the problem of the “constant emotional loss to already traumatised children” when they are introduced to temporary volunteers (5).

Perhaps long-term, more experienced volunteers can work, but voluntourism, which has to take into account the ‘good’ experience of the tourist as well as the well-being of the children, does not seem particularly useful. If volunteer programs are to be successful, they must, as Michael Horton (an advocate for responsible tourism) notes, be properly supervised (3). Volunteers must be subjected to proper background checks, whether they are volunteering for a week, a few months, or a year. And rather than teaching children English for a couple of months, Horton suggests that volunteers with skills and training instead “teach the Cambodian teachers”, so that they may pass on their knowledge and create a system that is much more permanent and sustainable (3). There are also a number of NGOs that work with kids and their families, such as the Grace House Community Centre in Siem Reap (5). Organisations like these accept foreign volunteers to work with children during the day, but make sure they return to their families in the evenings. It seems there is a valuable role for foreign volunteers to play, but it cannot be in conjunction with tourism. As Geraldine Cox, founder of well-respected orphanages in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap points out – “my priority is the safety of the children, not to give volunteers a nice experience” (3). The combination of tourism and volunteer work may sound good in theory, but in practise there are too many conflicting interests. Volunteering really should not be about the quality of experience of the volunteer, but how much those in need are assisted. Volunteering must be properly organised and taken seriously by both the organisation and the volunteer. Otherwise, voluntourism runs the risk of becoming a “human safari” – where foreigners travel to Cambodia to marvel at its temples, and pity its poverty (3).

NGOs and International Aid

Boeung Keng Kang I (or BKKI) in central Phnom Penh is often referred to by locals as “NGO Land”. There are several thousand NGOs and international aid agencies in Cambodia (6), and many of them are located here, as well as numerous services catering for expat staff. Villa-style houses and serviced apartments rise up behind barbed-wire topped concrete fences. Restaurants and spas, massage parlours and trendy bars line the streets. And there seems to be a café on every corner – air-conditioned, with clean white floors and walls, ambient music, lattes, gourmet foccacias and quiches, chocolate cheesecake and ice cream. Walking into one of these cafes is like walking into a different country. You can sip your espresso and imagine yourself in New York, London, or Melbourne.

It can be a very good lifestyle for expats in Phnom Penh – especially for those on foreign salaries. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, as well as nightclubs, expat trivia nights, salsa lessons, and poetry readings. And while many NGOs are in Cambodia to work hard, there are certainly a number that came to help the poverty but have stayed for the lifestyle, so to speak.

There has been some debate in the media over the power of NGOs to effect change in Cambodia – especially after the government’s recent attempts to pass a new law that requires all NGOs to register. One local Phnom Penh NGO was lately suspended by the government for no apparent reason, and this has rights groups concerned about what will happen when the law itself comes into action (7). Ken Silverstein writing for Slate magazine points to the fact that while some NGOs are stirring the pot and questioning the government (a political party renowned for its corrupt practises), others turn a blind eye to corruption, or even collaborate with the government. Wildlife Alliance, one of the biggest international environmental NGOs operating in Cambodia, justifies its ties with the government by saying that it is important to work on the inside to get things done – “We have to be careful and build alliances that are sometimes uncomfortable” (6). There has been some debate over how effective this inside work can be, and also whether such explanations are simply excuses for corruption. Whatever the case, it is certainly true that NGOs should be paid the same amount of scrutiny as any other business, as Silverstein suggests. Silverstein also questions why so many foreign NGO workers are paid so highly (with salary packages up to $250,000 for directors of some prominent international charities) as well as being provided with housing and cars (6). In a country like Cambodia, where the average government employee makes between US$50 and $80 per month, these kinds of salaries seem ludicrous (8). It also seems impossible for anyone making $250,000 to understand what it is like for people that have so little, let alone make efforts to really assist those people.

International aid from Western governments such as Australia and the United States is also falling short. Joel Brinkley, author of the book Cambodia’s Curse, points to the donation each year of over $1 billion in aid (Australia alone last year gave $64 million) (1). Each year more than 3000 government and donor organisations meet in Phnom Penh (2). Each year, they make the Cambodian government promise to clean up corruption, and each year nothing changes. And yet the aid keeps coming, supporting a regime that keeps the poor poor and makes the rich richer. Brinkley suggests that international aid should be restricted to humanitarian donations direct to civilians and local NGOs until the government agrees to change. When asked why this doesn’t happen, Brinkley points to BKK. “Living in Cambodia is pretty nice,” he says, “you can rent a big house and have servants for almost no money. If they [international governments] suddenly stood and said we’re not going to give you money this year then they’d have to move away” (1).

I don’t want to paint a cynical picture of aid in Cambodia – but I do want to be realistic. There are things that can be done – certainly there are many worthwhile volunteer programs and NGOs to donate to. But real change cannot be brought about as part of a tourist package, and people must be willing to put in the time and research if they truly want to “make a difference”. It also must be recognised that if change is to happen in Cambodia it must come from Cambodians. If foreigners can help that come about it will be by assisting those Cambodians who will make change, rather than trying to change it themselves. As foreigners in Cambodia, one of the most important things is to think small. Respect Cambodian people rather than pitying them, try to understand what this country has been through, and be a good person in day to day life.


(1) ABC News, Stephen Long (interview with Joel Brinkley), “Cambodia’s leaders are murderous kleptocrats”, published Thursday 14th July, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(2) The Washington Post, Joel Brinkley, “Aid to Cambodia rarely reaches the people it’s meant to help”, published 18th April, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(3) Al Jazeera, “101 East – Cambodia’s orphan tourism” (video), retrieved Monday 15th August, 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqeHxfnR9OY

(4) Monsters and Critics, “Cambodian government to investigate orphanages after UN concern”, published 23rd March, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(5) Dawn.com, “Cambodia’s ‘orphan’ tourism sparks concern”, published 27th July, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011 (link no longer available).

(6) Slate, Ken Silverstein, “Silence of the Lambs: For do-gooder NGOs in Cambodia accommodation with the regime is very profitable”, published Monday 20th June, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(7) The Phnom Penh Post, Vincent Macisaac and Mom Kunthear, “NGOs in shock over ‘arbitrary’ suspension”, published Friday 12th August, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(8) ABC Radio Australia, Presenter Robert Carmichael, “Investors in Cambodia fear repercussions of bribery law”, updated 17th August, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.


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