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Hey voluntourist, take a back seat!

Hey voluntourist, take a back seat!

This originally appeared on New Matilda

Last year, I spoke with an American lady who brought troupes of foreign volunteers to do a few weeks of “giving back” in Cambodia. The main objectives of her non-profit organisation are to provide tourists with the experience of helping those who are less fortunate, in international locations, for an intercultural learning experience. If the people in poor countries benefit, it seems like a fortunate by-product.

I stumbled across this organisation in my work with a small organization called CABDICO, who work with people with disabilities in poor communities in Cambodia. The American organisation was giving adult-sized wheelchairs to children with disabilities. Why? Because despite their suppliers making adult wheelchairs, they preferred their volunteers to interact with children rather than adults.

The wheelchairs are designed in the USA by a partner organisation, made in China, flat packed in containers, and shipped from Shanghai to the destination of need. Once they arrive in the country, such as Cambodia, they are assembled by local workers or volunteers.

People don’t need any particular skills to assemble them, and in fact the design is intentionally dumbed down so that, for example, unskilled tourists could assemble them together at “wheelchair parties”. On top of this, as they are made with parts that cannot be found locally, if they break down, the communities can’t repair them.

Wheelchairs such as this are manufactured offshore, then delivered and assembled by volunteers at "wheelchair parties".
Wheelchairs such as this are manufactured offshore, then delivered and assembled by volunteers, who brand the wheelchairs with their own names, at “wheelchair parties”

In the process of being given to recipients, the distributor works with local partner NGOs to “verify need”. Yet, as this occurs right at the end, this step seems somewhat tokenistic. The need is verified, but there are no other possible solutions because only one type of wheelchair exists.

So even if the product doesn’t fit the need (adult wheelchairs for children), there is no alternative available. In the absence of any real alternatives, it’s hard to imagine that any poor family would refuse something if it is given for free.

A representative from another local organisation in Cambodia recently told me that he estimated that 75% of these wheelchairs are not used as wheelchairs. Instead, they are commonly used as pieces of furniture for other family members. We can speculate this is because they were inappropriately prescribed, or they broke down and were unable to be fixed, or the need changed and there was no follow up or reassessment.

On the website of the manufacturer and distributor, Free Wheelchair Mission, they claim to have delivered 8,250 wheelchairs to Cambodia. The cost of one wheelchair, according to their site, is $71.88. Incredibly cheap for a wheelchair, yet incredibly expensive for a piece of furniture.

This means that they have been responsible for delivering the sum total of $445,000 worth of IKEA-like furniture, direct from factories in China, to Cambodia. There’s your aid money at work right there.

When I raised my concerns about the effectiveness and dangers of this program, the American lady’s response was to say that what she was doing was inspiring people from developed nations to care. She was “lighting a fire” underneath them, so that they would do more good in their lives in the future. My response to this was “what is the point of this, if you don’t make a difference to people’s lives in Cambodia?”

Who is the focus of the voluntourists mission? Photos like this speak volumes.
Who is the focus of the voluntourists’ mission? Photos like this, taken from the ethical voluntourism organisation’s website, speak volumes.

As nonsensical as this approach is, this kind of “voluntourism” is rife in places like Cambodia, and not just in the disability sector. “Orphanage tourism”, where tourists are able to visit orphanages, play with children for a while, and generally feel good about themselves, is a booming industry in Cambodia. Yet the dangers around this are well-documented. Supporting a system of institutional care for vulnerable children, when there are better alternatives, is only one reason why this is problematic.

Elsewhere, unskilled Western tourists have been transported at great expense to build schools, churches and other buildings in poor places, often supplanting local labour and hence depressing the local economy.

It’s perhaps too easy to sneer at well-intentioned, yet clueless, foreigners who come to poor countries with the aiming of helping. Perhaps they do not know better. However, there are a range of better initiatives that do make a difference in places like Cambodia.

As I witnessed recently, there are already some incredibly ingenious solutions to problems, owned and initiated by Cambodian people. In regards to wheelchair provision, some Cambodians, aided by foreigners who play a supporting role, are tackling some incredibly difficult problems step-by-step.

2014-01-17 11.54.33
Thankfully, small scale and locally grown solutions do exist. They just need our support.

This wheelchair is a good example. It has large bicycle wheels so the person can travel longer distances and a smaller castor that drops down for manoeuvring indoors. It allows the person using it to tackle both the difficult roads that exist outside the house, while also being able to use the wheelchair inside their own house.

I spoke to the Cambodia man who leads the team that makes them, and was fascinated by his thoughts, one of which was quoted as the title of this piece. He has worked with foreigners, like myself, previously with some good success. For example, he worked with a British engineer who listened to what the Cambodian people needed, provided his own technical expertise, and then worked with him to come up with the design. Once he left (which mind you, unlike the voluntourists, was not a matter of weeks, but months) the work could be continued independently by the Cambodian people.

The story of this Cambodian man is in itself quite inspiring. He graduated from high school during the civil war, travelled overseas to educate himself and source ideas, and now works virtually unnoticed making and modifying equipment like this for people with disabilities. He is so humble and away from the spotlight that he wouldn’t even let me take his photo. Oh, by the way, the team of 18 mechanics he has trained all have disabilities.

Often, the answers to the problems are right in front of us. Foreigners should take a supportive role in helping people access resources, be they financial, technical or otherwise — not pretend to help while really putting ourselves in the way.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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