Here’s how it usually goes: you’ve booked a trip to a city or village that, in addition to the wonderful reasons you wanted to visit also has a flipside of life for residents, where life isn’t as upbeat as it seems at the resort or hotel or main squares where tourists are likely to wander. In an effort to be world-wise and philanthropic, you’ve booked with a tour company that brings you to community projects so you can learn more about the locals, something like the AIDS orphanage and township tours in South Africa, the slum tours of Mumbai, and the orphanage visits of Cambodia. Most often, these visits are eye-opening and result in donations and support, as well as visitors who spread the word, that translates into quantifiable progress for the project and the people it serves. Most often is not, however, always.
In Cambodia, orphanage tourism has become a somewhat lucrative business, and what you see is not always what it seems. There are dedicated children’s programs in Cambodia that can benefit from volunteers and donors, to be sure, but there are more and more “fronts” cropping up, displaying (for lack of a better term) children who are not parentless or poverty-stricken, but are part of a profit-driven industry. The Cambodian government and childcare professionals are in agreement that orphanages are a last resort option for youth, but as this money-hungry market has grown due to tourist demand, it is becoming a first choice for families who put their kids to work posing as needy. It is having what is described as a ‘catastrophic’ effect on Cambodia’s youngest generation. Of course, most travelers, volunteers, and donors have the best intentions and have no idea they are fueling the fire.
Cambodia-based humanitarians and advocates (who operate under anonymity since many of the orphanages, not all tip-top for scruples, are run by a side of the government that has threatened the work) have formed the website Orphanages: Not the Solution to help unsuspecting visitors avoid the scams that are exploiting vulnerable children. In a goal to channel well-intentioned foreign efforts, the organization works to promote solutions that do not separate children from family and community as a form of child “employment,” and instead, provides resources for us to be educated and informed about beneficial alternatives. Their website has a great list of resources for educated decision-making for visitors and volunteers to choose wisely about whether to, and how to, support the orphanage industry and the consequences of our decisions.
It’s an important issue, and worth exploring whether you are booked on a Cambodia trip or not.