Reflections of a Voluntourist: 7/15/13

Back home in my Global Poverty and Practice classes, “voluntourist” rings like a curse word when directed at someone, a serious insult, a sound that should burn as it roles off your tongue. We continually discuss how voluntourism can contribute to deeper, broader problems that underlie the immediate concerns that well-intentioned volunteers come to address. We discuss the dangers of blind optimism and oversimplification for hours, and occasionally pause to address “paralyzing cynicism” as it exists on the opposite end of the spectrum.  I have done my best to analyze my work with WOMEN and the Stellar Childcare Center (my orphanage [SCC]), carefully contemplating my position and responsibilities, hoping to distance myself from the dirty label as much as possible. Despite my best attempts, however, I remain (at least partially) submerged in the muddied waters of the voluntourist industry.

With WOMEN, it is clear that foreign volunteers are not in high demand, though we are occasionally useful and contribute to team moral. My job here is to learn and observe and I have quite enjoyed doing that. Field visits have taught me much about NGO work, both within and beyond the field of HIV, and challenged me in new ways. At HIV testing the other day, for example, I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to maintain a sincere smile while WOMEN staff worked with the male clients of young entertainment workers. I admired the welcoming environment WOMEN created, encouraging workers and clients to receive testing and protection, as well as their patience and unfaltering enthusiasm. As discussed in other posts, this experience has certainly shed new light on both the strengths and limitations of nongovernmental organizations as they attempt to alleviate poverty from a variety of angels.  I fully recognize that the insight and experience I have gained from WOMEN far outweighs my contributions. Fortunately, I have no doubt that the NGO will continue its good work in my absence, and I am strangely relieved with the limited role foreign volunteers are able to fill here.

Work with SCC stirs deeper concerns, striking a more emotional chord and extending far beyond my own experience. Perhaps because work with children can be so rewarding and requires less expertise than other positions, Cambodian orphanages have evolved into volunteer hotspots. While the number of orphaned children has declined in recent years, the number of orphanages has skyrocketed. In fact, 71% of children housed at these facilities have parents elsewhere, but have been sent to orphanages because their families are too poor, too sick, or otherwise unable to provide for them (Hartley 2013). Built upon the volunteer fees and foreign aid, this “Orphanage Industrial Complex” increases children’s access to education, safety, and healthcare while creating new potential for emotional distress (Walker 2013). While the children often come to belong to a sort of second family, as I have seen at my center, they must still live in the virtual absence of stable parental figures, especially as volunteers continuously come and go. Unlike WOMEN, where the Khmer volunteers far outnumber the occasional foreigner, orphanages (run by executives in distant lands) do not seem to host Cambodian volunteers who could perhaps stay longer and build secure, long-lasting relationships with the children. This industry also fails to address the larger structural issues (e.g. lack of transportation to schools) that, if fixed, could reduce the need for these facilities in the first place.

This analysis is discussed in depth in several important critiques and reflected in my observations in Cambodia. In the following articles Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley discuss the ethics of visiting and volunteering at orphanages:

SCC is truly dedicated to the welfare of its children and able to provide them with opportunities I know their parents could not grant them. The kids are so close and attend good schools, with the exception of Pao who will return to the classroom after his surgery next month. While I trust that SCC will continue to take good care of the kids, I continue to contemplate my contribution to the center. Though I have no doubt that the kids and staff appreciate my presence, as temporary as it may be, I cannot shake the guilt of leaving the boys. I have tried to be very clear about the date of my departure, which creeps closer every second, but the thought of causing Poa, Revy, Pia, David, and Se Coot more pain or confusion breaks my heart. They have seen other volunteers go and will see new faces, though the small size of the center ensures that this is not an overly frequent process. I will leave them with games that make learning a bit more enjoyable and a handful of warm memories, but there is little more than I can give them at this moment. Again, while I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, my time with these kids has likely contributed more to my own personal growth than to theirs.

As at least one of the mothers of my kids is currently employed as an entertainment worker, I can’t help but hope that WOMEN will be able to contribute to the livelihoods of these children and their families in ways unseen.

I am grateful that the GPP program calls this time abroad “practice experience”. In addition to navigating the problematic connotations of “service” and “mission,” this name reminds me that this is the time to wrestle with such questions and concerns, especially as we (confused students) attempt to plan for life after Cal. Every day brings with it more questions than answers, some more difficult to swallow than others, and we must find strength in our ability to face them.


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