The “voluntourism” industry and its negative impacts on development have been well documented recently with Cambodia being a particular popular destination through lack of meaningful regulatory control in the affected sectors.
Aspiring individuals with money can come to Cambodia to teach English, provide medical care, build schools and orphanages, play with children living in those orphanages, work in conservation, and human rights protection. They can engage for as little as one day and in most cases, no one will ever ask them if they have any relevant qualifications before engaging in these activities.
A less reported phenomenon is the recent rise of using crowdfunding platforms to raise funds for these trips under the guise of a “mission” that these particular individuals are embarking on to “save the (insert your own cause there)”.
A simple Google search on “Crowdfunding” and “Cambodia” will immediately return several results on potential voluntourists crowdfunding for their trip to do some kind of good in Cambodia.
Proposed activities ranges from saving the forest, providing medical care to “underserved patients”, school or church missions building schools or orphanages, giving “children an introduction of music, sport and English”, and an internship with a local human rights organisation just to name a few.
It is particularly troubling to see how these campaigns are typically marketed to their target audience. The campaigns typically start with the “statement of problem”, painting Cambodia as an impoverished country where the environment is “under threat”, the children have no parents caring for them or destined to “end up as a street kid”, families living on less than one dollar a day, and the Cambodian people continue to suffer “with a former Khmer Rouge official holding the reins of power for nearly all of the last 30 years”.
The fundraisers then offer themselves as part of the solution, engaging in activities such as “Working on important ongoing projects to improve the standard of living for rural Khmer communities”, “living [in Cambodia] over summer…to improve people’s lives”, “treating underserved patients with dramatic and often lifesaving results” and “serving the Lord through assisting in various activities”.
There is no disputing that there are still a myriad of development, social, human rights and other problems facing Cambodia today, largely as a result of a corrupt and self-serving government and an overtly willing international donor community that continues to fund essential social services the government should be responsible for.
However, given that there is now strong evidence to suggest instead of helping to elevate the development problems, the influx of voluntourists have instead directly contributed to some of the most dire development issues in countries like Cambodia, attributing to the explosion of unregulated orphanages and schools, poorly thought out environmental, social, and human rights projects, contributing to government and NGO corruption, and potentially taking away valuable jobs from local qualified tradespeople.
Yet this has not stopped the voluntourists from coming to Cambodia in ever greater numbers, and similar to the NGO sectors taking advantage of the various crowdfunding platforms to raise money for their cause, the vonluntourists are doing the same to raise fund for their trips.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with fundraising for any activities that one might wish to engage in, these crowdfunding campaigns take the cynicism of voluntourism to a new level of misrepresentation. Most fundraisers represent themselves as “problem solvers” who engage directly in the process of solving the particular issue relating to their cause.
The truth, however, often can’t be further from their claims. In one example, two nurses from the US are attempting to raise $15,000 for them to come to Cambodia on an eight-day mission working with local medical clinics. What they failed to disclose on their crowdfunding website was the extraordinary cost of the eight-day trip included accommodation on a private island and daily boat transfers for them to visit the nearby island communities they will be working with.
Another example is a law graduate from the UK who claims to be coming to Cambodia this summer to “lobby on behalf of citizens on a range of issues, working with businesses to raise their awareness of human rights, training Cambodian human rights advocates, working to make sure property rights are respected and ensuring that trials proceed fairly”.
These are some lofty goals indeed, and I am highly sceptical of the ability of a 20- something recent law graduate who doesn’t speak any Khmer to be able to accomplish these goals in one summer holiday.
At first glance, these projects can appear to rise above the usual voluntourism activities of building houses and engaging with vulnerable children in orphanages; however, it is difficult to answer the essential development question: What do these people expect to accomplish in such short period of time when they lack the local contextual, language and cultural understanding?
It is therefore easy to come to a far simpler conclusion that most of these crowdfunding campaigns are no more than asking strangers to donate money for someone to go on a holiday while contributing to everything that is wrong with the voluntourism industry.
What is particularly disappointing is that most of these campaigns are backed by local schools and churches, making them appear more “credible” in what they are trying to do. The few schools I have engaged in Australia on this issue all ultimately pointed to the “personal development” benefit to the students, it would seem to be an incredibly sad indictment on the state of our society if the only way for “Western” youth to develop their sense of empathy to the poor is through the exploitation of the most vulnerable people living in Cambodia and other least developed countries.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai is an independent human rights and legal consultant.