Volunteering in Cambodia

Everything you ever wanted to know (and a few things you didn’t) about volunteering in Cambodia!

Every year thousands of well-intentioned foreigners come to Cambodia to volunteer. A few days of volunteer work have become as de rigueur for visitors to Cambodia as visiting the temples of Angkor. As a result, volunteering has become a full-fledged industry here and, lately, the subject of a lot of negative press.

Most volunteers choose to work with Cambodian children, usually by teaching English in orphanages. Be aware, though, that these Cambodian orphanages exist only to cater to foreign tourists. In fact, the vast majority of children who are placed in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans and have at least one living parent. But demand from foreign tourists to visit Cambodian orphanages and work with Cambodian children is so high that parents are often offered powerful financial incentives to place their children in these so-called orphanages, or are promised that they will be provided with a great education, which is often not the case.

No Cambodian orphans were used in the production of this photograph.

Yes, this means just what you think it does: Cambodian kids are being taken out of their homes in order to give foreigners the chance to post photos of themselves hanging out with Cambodian orphans on Facebook. Children are being kept out of school so that they can instead learn to dance and put on orphan dance performances on the streets of Siem Reap. Pretty grim, eh?

Understandably, all those Western volunteers would like to believe that they are different, that the work they are doing does not harm Cambodian children. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. If you want to work with children in Cambodia, first ask yourself if you are qualified to work with children at home. Most Westerners would be horrified at the idea of dozens of Cambodians flooding their child’s classroom each year–especially if said Cambodians had no qualifications to teach, had no teaching experience, underwent no background checks, and proceeded to post photos of the children all over Facebook. If you can’t imagine a school in your home country allowing that, I’m sure you can understand why many feel that it’s not appropriate for Cambodian children, either.

Unless you have a very specific skill set, there is almost no volunteer work in Cambodia that you can effectively do if you’re here less than three months. Most reputable organizations no longer accept volunteers who are not willing to stay for at least 3 or 6 or sometimes 12 months. Think about it: students don’t learn English when their teachers are coming in and out for two-week stints.They learn the same things–like the alphabet and how to count to ten–over and over again, but never get a deeper understanding of the language. Imagine if your whole childhood education had been in the hands of short-term substitute teachers. Many of the schools and “orphanages” that use volunteers do so to avoid having to pay for permanent teachers. More generally, organizations that welcome short-term volunteers are all too often in it only for the money.

Which brings us to the money. Many organizations that charge you to volunteer with children are highly suspect and often do not have the best interests of the children in mind. Organizations that do not require background checks most definitely do not have the best interests of children in mind.

It’s important to remember that most work that you can do in Cambodia could be done as well or better by a Cambodian. Building houses and teaching may be eye-opening experiences for the volunteers, but there is no shortage of Cambodian workers and these volunteer positions can take badly needed jobs away from Cambodians.

By now it’s becoming widely recognized that short-term volunteering is not an effective solution to Cambodia’s problems and in fact may do more harm than good. However, there are many long-term volunteering programs that are highly regarded.

If you’re still intent on visiting for the short term, check out PEPY Tours. They offer educational bicycle trips and other tours that help visitors learn about the complexity of development work.

If you’d like to learn more about responsible volunteering and tourism in Cambodia, Friends International, Cambodia’s leading child-safety organization, has plenty of information on the topic on their When Children Become Tourist Attractions site.

Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY, an educational development NGO, has written extensively about voluntourism in Cambodia on her blog, Lessons I Learned. Learning Service: Tips for Learning Before Helping is a good place to start for those considering volunteering. She’s also written a great article about volunteering in Cambodia that wanna-be volunteers would do well to read, “Voluntourism: What can go wrong when trying to do right?” Hear more from Daniela in the sidebar on this page.

Last updated: March 19, 2014