By Amanda Mitchell
“Maybe I’d like it there if I was volunteering in an orphanage and got to play with the kids.”
I slapped my hands over my face, shaking my head. I’ve been living in Cambodia for over three months now and probably haven’t been Skyping my best friend back home as much as I should, but I couldn’t believe she still had no idea what I was actually doing here.
Work-mode took over and I began spitting out numbers like, in Cambodia over 75% of the children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans at all and even though the number of orphans is decreasing the number of orphanages is increasing with the rate of tourism. I explained how visiting and volunteering at orphanages can perpetuate child exploitation.
“I didn’t know that,” was all she said after I’d finished my spiel.
Had my friend acted on her desire to volunteer, not just at an orphanage but anywhere, she’d be bombarded with an overwhelming number of options, good and bad. When you’re surrounded by talk on development and the effects of volunteering it’s easy to forget run-of-the-mill voluntourism projects can be indistinguishable from programs making sustainable contributions to those hearing about it for the first time. Even though I know spending a week painting a classroom will unlikely make any kind of difference in the local community my friend may see it as an excellent opportunity to “give-back”.
In Cambodia I work with two different organizations. PEPY Tours is social enterprise tour company running culturally immersive, educational trips. They started out offering short-term volunteer trips and quickly learned that even though those participating left feeling like they had made a difference, more often than not their contributions didn’t offer any long-term solutions. Learning Service is an advocacy group that stemmed from the lessons PEPY Tours learned and promotes the idea we must learn about a community and the issues they face before we can offer any kind of service.
In January, Learning Service launched a series of videos designed to engage the volunteer-travel community and spark discussions about how to put their good intentions to good use. Online you’ll find numerous lists explaining how not to volunteer and quite a few articles that point fingers at volunteers for adding to dependency problems but not a lot of information about how to volunteer responsibly.
The first Learning Service video, Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement, reminds viewers to analyze the financial transparency of any organization they are considering. If you are paying a fee to join a volunteer project know where that money is going. Also, take into account the implication of foreign volunteers. You shouldn’t be given high-level roles or jobs that could be done by locals just because you are foreign or speak fluent English. Other videos in the series tackle topics such as being a valuable volunteer, staying involved once you’ve returned home, and orphanage tourism.
All of the Learning Service videos are available online:
While videos alone won’t change the volunteer travel community, they hopefully can start the conversation and inspire thoughtful discussions about the impacts our actions have on the world.
Amanda Mitchell is interning in Cambodia with an educational travel company and responsible volunteer travel advocacy group. In her post she refers to the Learning Service video series.
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