15 February 2011 ~ 100 Comments

The Dangers of Hero Worshiping (in the Social Sector)

I heard a disturbing story this week. A friend who works in Battambang, a northwestern province of Cambodia, told me that she had recently met a young traveler from Australia in her late teens who said she was starting an orphanage.

When asked why she came to Cambodia, she said:

“I was so inspired by a story I saw on TV that I decided to come here myself.  Cambodian kids are SO cute!  Now I have three of my own!”

Uh oh …

The most disturbing part of this statement is the issue that this girl is treating Cambodian kids like Barbie dolls—as if she can just pick the cutest one off the shelf, take it home, and call it hers. But I want to focus on the bigger picture. Why did this girl think coming here to “save” Cambodian children was ok? Where did she get the go-ahead to do this?

She got the thumbs up from us. From society at large. From what the media chooses to highlight. And from hero-worshipers who focus on the WHO of social causes and not the WHAT.

This teenager had been inspired by a TV feature she had seen about another young girl who came here to Cambodia at 21 years old and later, as the media describes it, “saved Cambodian orphans” by becoming their “mother.”  She was given awards in her home country for setting up an orphanage and the media produced a documentary starring this girl, reenacting not only her original rescue of 17 kids from a horrible orphanage, but also her own reenactment of how she took in additional kids she had found who were living with other families whom she felt needed a better home.

Although the media was clearly trying to highlight this girls bravery, her story of leaving a wealthy society behind to help the poor, and her remarkable instinct to act while so many others might have been too scared, for a range of reasons, to do so, the media and the award judges probably did not consider that other young people might view this as permission to go to a poor country and “getting a few cute orphans of their own”?  It seems like they should have.

I think we as a society need to be careful how we highlight philanthropy and who we choose to idealize. The stories people hear about development work around the world tend to be those of people who have led lives others might envy (working in film, Hollywood producers or starts, wealthy New York elite, etc). The media LOVES it – they love talking about how beautiful people, who could have continued to pursue popular and idealized careers, “gave it all up to help the poor.”

But they rarely focus on WHAT those people are doing—or better yet, HOW is they are doing it? Before we turn “do-gooders” into national heroes we need to move beyond the hero story of leaving fame and fortune behind and ask the tough questions. We need to do due diligence and dig into the WHAT of these organizations, not just the WHO, to be sure we are promoting responsible, educated, long-term efforts which can be models for replicable positive change.

In Cambodia, the Ministry of Social Affairs has guidelines around orphanages, and they—and so many other child protection groups around the world—state that keeping children with their families or extended families should be top priority where possible and, if that is not possible, one should consider foster care or small (8 children per adult recommended) family-style living. By promoting media pieces, awards, and articles which make it almost seem easy to take a child out of a bad situation and put them into a better one just by the nature of only rewarding and recognizing the act of removing the kids from where they were, we are giving others permission and incentive to repeat those actions.  The media rarely digs into best practices around an issue. In the case of orphanages, the media didn’t think to discuss alternatives or to do into questions about what globally respected child rights organizations describe as best practices in this area. When people fall in love with the hero stories they see on Oprah – people building schools, digging wells, building libraries – they often take a deep look into the story of the person taking action, but gloss over the details of the organization’s actions.

If we skip over those things, all we see is a hero’s story. The desire to help is something we need to embrace and then harness for good in the most responsible way. But, good intentions are not enough, and we can’t continue to praise people because their IDEA was good, or their INTENTIONS were good. This post is not intended to say that things which start out without following best practices can not be great or praise worthy in the future.  This post is to remind people who vote for “hero” awards, people who work in media, and all of us who talk about/donate to/volunteer for/idealize those who have gone out to “do good” in the world, to BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PROMOTE THROUGH YOUR PRAISE!

By praising things which make development work look easy, which make it seem like any person with no specific training can come in and start a successful NGO project, which only focus on praising how something started but overlook the discussion of the long-term systems in place to ensure a positive impact, we are setting up more opportunities for development work disasters. This isn’t the first time a young, self-identified-as-unqualified person has been praised for taking in orphans in a “poor country.” Nicholas Kristof promoted this type of action in the New York Times by highlighting a 19-year-old girl who started a children’s shelter in Nepal (see Maggie’s story in this DIY Aid article).

I feel passionately about this issue because I was once the young idealistic 20-something myself who started something I too was unqualified to start (and I sure am glad that what I started didn’t involve taking children into my home!). The reason I have this blog is to share the lessons I have learned in order to help prevent people from making the same mistakes I made. When I was twenty-six, some friends and I organized a bike trip across Cambodia, and we thought we could improve education by building a school.  We were fortunate to realize that starting a school on our own would not have been the wisest decision, so we found an NGO building schools and raised funds for their work. Were we praised for this “heroic deed” or building a school in a poor country when all of us came from rice places like the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Finland?  Yes, of course!  Lots of people wrote notes or articles about our heroic deeds.

But what were they praising?  A bunch of kids building a building which would sit there empty if we left it at that.  It has taken us five years of hard work to try to make that initial investment of a building worth while as we realized that other organizations were more concerned with building buildings than building education.

We started off funding this work by offering “voluntourism” trips, where people could “save the world in a week” and come volunteer in Cambodia.  What we learned early on was that we were doing two major disservices by offering trips which were focused on giving rather than learning: 1) by rushing to help, we were encouraging people to take action before they fully understood a problem or a goal, which can often lead to unnecessary mistakes; and 2) we were creating experiences which made US feel good, which were catering to the universal desire to be a hero, and which were more about filling the needs of the looking-to-feel-needed traveler than of the “beneficiaries” of the projects we claimed to be supporting. We realized through our own missteps that we have to learn before we can help, and that sustainable change takes time and expertise.

My friend Nik made a great comment about this mentality when she said:

While I understand the desire to help kids who are in bad situations, I can’t understand why people think the logical solution is for the kids to be then entrusted in the care of a young girl. If we come across someone who says their community needs a well, no one would just start digging on the spot and fudge their way through it, would they? It would be obvious that you didn’t know what you were doing!

But sometimes it isn’t obvious to the “doer”, and that is why I think we need more development education initiatives in schools, for travelers, and for the philanthropists.  It also isn’t always obvious to the media, and then the media sells heroes to the public based on their personal story of taking action without the knowledge to back that up, as if that were a GOOD thing.

So why do we allow this when it comes to KIDS—real humans—rather than wells? And why do we incentivize it by making people heroes, thereby encouraging others to do the same? After seeing too many cases of people who have been praised as heroes who then leave the project they started after a few years when it gets too hard, I think we need to redefine a hero as someone who takes the time to research, learn, and make sustainable choices in an effort to make their project NOT all about them, but about the impact the media seems to always overlook.

The media is not afraid to dig deep into the hero story. They are looking at THEM with a microscope – interviewing their parents, finding out about her past – but they are not looking at THE WORK they are apparently being praised for with the same microscopic lens.  Where is the interview of the the stakeholders? Where is the discussion of long-term plans for the wells, for the schools, for the kids?

It is interesting that, for all of the general population’s talk about wanting to understand the impact that an organization has before we make a financial contribution, we seem to say one thing and yet do another. We get blinded both by great advertising and by fame, yet we state that we understand the responsibility of donating. When we donate, we are voting with our funding – we are voting for what we want to see repeated. If we don’t do our homework and we fall victim to flashy branding or tear-jerking stories, we are voting for something we know little about. In this case, the media voted, and more teenagers are coming to Cambodia to start their own orphanages.

Let’s focus on impact rather than on the “hero” if we want to praise successful models which we’d like to see repeated. This is not to discredit the entrepreneurial spirit – I love people who see a problem and come up with new and previously unimagined solutions to the world’s problems – we need those people! But I’ve learned that those of us who are inclined to jump into action with our ideas need to take a breath, look around and ask questions, and examine other possible solutions which have already been tried and tested, ESPECIALLY when it comes to kids. We continue to dole out praise for this type of work at the same time that the mainstream media is finally recognizing that orphanages and orphanage-based volunteer work can cause such negative impacts!

Kjerstin Erickson, founder of Forge, gets it right when talking about the focus on “The Social Entrepreneur.” Her complaints from her SocialEdge blog against focusing on the founder’s story can apply here:

“…the mythology of The Social Entrepreneur revolves the whole story around the individual. Through a shrewd sleight-of-hand, our attention is turned away from the collective movement and toward an individual onto whom a Hero’s Journey is imposed. The drama of such a tale is high, but at what cost? Kings and Queens are made, and many a speaking career launched…but what is sacrificed? What collective narrative, what real representation of holistic social change, what inclusive vision for proudly joining hands as small cogs in a big wheel?”

She knows all about the problems of focusing on the “hero” rather than the work because she herself went to Africa as a teenager and then started up a development organization.  She too was recognized around the world as a talented young woman who had every opportunity available to her through her Stanford education and yet she chose to “do good.” It must have been frustrating for Kjerstin to get praise around her hero’s journey all of the time when she was probably more proud of the cases when people dug in deeper and learned about her work enough to praise her for her IMPACT, not her decision to put her pretty face into a poor country.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THESE HEROES CAN’T OR DON’T GO ON TO DO GREAT THINGS!  If anything, let’s hope the praise and fame incentivizes them to continue to improve their work.  In my own story, once all of these people had donated their hard-earned money to help us build a school and praised us for our efforts, I felt a need to prove them right.  When we realized a school does not teach kids, people do, we could have walked away with a pretty building with our name on it, but instead we stayed.  We started off unqualified, and in my opinion, NOT worthy of praise.  I would NOT recommend anyone to move to Cambodia and start an NGO when they know very little about the people/place/systems.  We didn’t deserve praise when we got it. BUT, now, after five years, there are parts of our work and our programs that I think can and should be viewed as repeatable models, and many other organizations are coming to look at or train with our programs to see them repeated.  In other words, for all of the heros we have commended for how they STARTED, we should check in and check in to commend them for how they IMPROVED as, we don’t want to provide incentives for unqualified people to start things.  We want to inspire people to support or learn about models which work to positively impact their goals and target areas, and that takes a lot more time/effort/know-how and commitment than just the heroic act of starting something.

There is a debate going on in the comments of this blog right now which has gotten into this “hero’s journey” dilemma as well. One of the commenters admits that his respect for the popular organization, charity:water is due in part to his love for the founder’s “leaving big fancy job to save the world” story. If we are going to focus on impact, we need to dig deeper and know what we are funding behind the famous face.

We need to dig into the WHAT of these organizations, not just the WHO, to be sure we are promoting responsible, educated, long-term efforts which can be models for replicable positive change. We should be praising people who go out and learn – who go out and educate themselves on the responsible ways to have an impact before they act, ESPECIALLY when it comes to taking kids in. If we don’t and if the media continues to depict acts of young people with little or no qualifications working directly with kids as heroic, then we are providing incentives for more development disasters with other young people “getting a few cute orphans of their own”?  What a shame.

Watch what you promote.

NOTE: This post was changed to remove a name/organization, but the message and previous examples are still the same with additional examples added in.  The point is still the same: Promote good impact. Not just good and interesting people.

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE: I recognize that criticism is less helpful than suggestions for improved future actions. Read this next post about actions you can take as a budding-do-gooder and a wanna-be-responsible-donor which can help us avoid funding or starting irresponsible aid projects.  This is by no means a complete or thorough list – please add your thoughts!

Resources:

How to evaluate an orphanage, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do, by Ian Birrell

Cambodian Orphanage Tourism, on Aljezeera

Orphanage Tourism: The Catch-22 of Orphanage Funding, by Eric Lewis

Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia: Good Intentions are Not Enough, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

A Protest Against Orphanage Tourism, and other orphanage tourism related posts on this blog

Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund reminds us to be generous and use our heart, but to “ask the tough questions”

  • Peter

    Hi Leigh. So are you saying that there is no such thing as a good NGO? That it is as black and white as that? They are all bad? Everyone of them is involved in ‘horrific incidents of abuse and exploitation’? If so there there is no point discussing this with you. If not then what makes you assume that CCT is in the ‘bad’ category? Because you simply believe the views professed by Daniella? What research or genuine investigation into CCT have you conducted? Don’t believe everything you read. Even if it is from someone who professes to know it all.

  • n/a

    from an “investigation” perspective, you can probably investigate transparency and governance. which means already a lot. but this is also a basic.nnhow can you estimate the results? your estimate is just a measurement of the adequacy between the results and the plan. you assume that you know what to do and where you go, and if you stick to the plan that’s a good work for you. that’s ideological and not practical at all. nnCCT states: “It is hoped that through the safe, secure and loving environment created within our CCT homes, combined with access to education, good healthcare, proper hygiene and nutrition – sometimes for the first time in their lives – we can help the children overcome their past situations and move forward towards a brighter future.”nnsounds like for CCT and NGOs in general, action is based on hope. is “good work” simply maintening a decent level of “hope”? nnwhy so many orphanages in Cambodia? What will happen if we drasticaly reduce the numbers of orphanages in the country and push other solutions like the integration to extended family for instance? why orphanages are not considered as a good solution in the developed world and have reached here the proportion of a commercial business (i m not implying that CCT runs a commercial business, please)? Just google orphanage cambodia and the list is longer than the distributor of Nokia phone in the country…nnnnn

  • Eddie

    Sorry to chime in, but I think the debate here is getting sidetracked. I don’t think Daniela intended to insult CCT, but use it as a platform for debate. This is an excellent post that we should engage.nnNo poster is trying to suggest the children are being treated as animals (at least at CTT). They are just trying to explain proper and improper ways to act in orphanages. Also, I don’t think it’s the fault of the tourists who want to participate in orphanage tourism, but the NGO’s who allow it (irresponsibility) in an effort make money. CTT does not do this—it does not rely on donor visits to pay to make the money–but too many orphanages, especially those run by Cambodians, earn money this way. Money is made off the kids and not raised for the kids. nnI’m not referring to CCT, but to orphanages in Siem Reap specifically. Like Daniela said, some orphanages, especially the Cambodian run ACODO, literally pimp the kids on the streets. They make them dress up, walk around at 10:00pm when they should be sleeping, and pass out flyers telling them to visit our show because “it’s the kids life”. Misguided tourists participate and contribute to a corrupt organization which “operates without a sponsor” because it spends it’s money inappropriately. nnThis is what’s wrong with orphanages in Siem Reap and Cambodia in general. This is the story that needs to be told…and we need to find better ways to make this public so tourists aren’t trickednnI think CCT sounds like a fabulous organization. Maybe Daniela could have framed it in a different manner– after all this is about volunterism in general.

  • Eddie

    Peter I think your coming off too aggressive. Daniela has clarified her position. She probably shouldn’t have used CCT as an example since she doesn’t know Tara personally. Then again, she has tried to reach out to her. nnEveryone now agrees CCT is doing great things…I don’t think this post was meant to be about it. And I don’t think this post will in any way hurt the organization.

  • Alia

    Leigh, you are obviously as unaware as Daniela is of what CCT actually does as an NGO. CCT does not follow a formula of insitutionalisation. CCT divides the children in its care into as small as possible groups with a Cambodian house Mother and Father, where they are raised in family-like unit and are encouraged and supported to follow the education/vocational training of their choice. CCT also has worked with 17 impoverished families in the community (so far) to help them set up small businesses so that they do not traffic their children or keep them out of school to beg, or give them up to orphanages.nn Additionally, CCT runs a drop-in centre where children from the community can come and get food, education, a shower, wash their clothes and receive vocational training if they want it. Nobody makes them come, nobody makes them stay, and yet dozens of them show up every day, eager to get the education they would otherwise miss while picking up recycling all day to survive. Did you know that CCT has facilitated the successful prosecution of child rapists? The right to have someone challenge your rapist is rather a key one, I believe.nnn My question for you is; why criticise an organization that not only follows the same principals you advocate, but goes beyond talk and itself fights for the safety and wellbeing of children in Cambodia, and strives to ensure they have good lives as far removed as possible from an institutional model? Yes, CCT utilizes publicity to generate the awareness and funds to achieve this. Why bitterly criticise the success of other organizations in raising funds to achieve goals you say are desirable Undoubtedly there are problems in Cambodia and with its NGOu2019su2026undoubtedly CCT is not perfect, but I suggest you research before you speak, you are preaching to the choir Leigh.n

  • http://onlyincambodia.blogspot.com Nikki

    It would be wonderful if those of us in Siem Reap could gather to collect these ideas and share our experiences kind of like a mini TedX.nnI have recently been introduced to a small group of young Cambodians who have started assisting a poor, shanty-town village on the edge of Siem Reap town, so these points about how best to help is very timely for me. They’re involved in trying to help provide education, nutrition and various skills to children affected by families suffering the effects of poverty, gambling, addiction and HIV infection. They have BIG dreams and ideas for their projects.nnI have come alongside the one in charge and have started to begin walking him through this thought process, being sure to listen to his ideas more than I share my own. I want to make sure his is not re-inventing the wheel, while at the same time using his resources in the most efficient and effective way.nnThank you for sharing your lessons learned. I hope to avoid the common pitfalls that might plague others who have merely come in on the wings of their dreams.

  • http://twitter.com/MomMostTraveled CanCan

    I don’t understand who is “giving” these young single girls orphans? I live in Laos and have seen 4 (count ‘em) FOUR Lao children adopted by foriegners. In the 9 years I have lived here. It is a painstaking process, expensive, tons of legal hurdles, and they all lived in country with their babies until the paper work was completed, which took about 11 months from the birth (they fostered from day 1).

  • Anonymous

    Peter u2013 Iu2019m sorry I didnu2019t make the connection earlier that you are Tarau2019s father. I know that my father would jump to my defense if he thought I was being wronged, and I appreciate your support for Tara in doing the same. I am sure you are very proud of your daughter, and it sounds like she is a strong and brave young lady.nnThis post has gotten way off track and far off from the tone and motives from which it was written. If you re-read the original post, and perhaps try your best to remove a rightfully protective fatherly view of it, you might see that I am not criticizing was CCT is, I am criticizing people who support organizations they know very little about, and ASK very little about, apart from the story of the founder. This piece, asking people to look at the u201chow and the whatu201d is not saying the how or the what is BAD, nor GOOD, it is saying you canu2019t know that, unless you check! You are challenging me to do the same if I was going to form an opinion on the what/how of CCT now u2013 and that is exactly what I am challenging others to do. I am trying to point out that there are a lot of organizations and people here who get funding/recognition/support because people love the story of the founder u2013 and it is all fine and well for that person to use that support to generate income for their projects u2013 but I want to challenge the people who are voting with their dollars to ask better questions u2013 not of your daughter only u2013 but of all the people/places they give their money.nnAll of Tarau2019s family and friends on here who have written to support and defend her u2013 and Tara yourself if you are reading this u2013 I am not trying to attack what CCT is. I am sorry if I offended you in any way. I would LOVE to meet up with you Tara as I said in my email to you, though I am not sure if it got past your father who is the one who responded to me, and I know a lot of people who have spent many years working in childrenu2019s rights and protection here in Cambodia who know about your work and would love to meet you too. They, like you and I, want to see a brighter future for the youth in Cambodia, and I am sure that we could all learn from each other and share ideas if we were able to meet. nnPeter, if your daughter is mature enough, and brave enough, to take children into her home and work to create a better future for them, Iu2019m sure she is also able to defend herself if she feels she needs to. I also hope and believe that, with the best interest of the children she cares about in mind, Tara would want to engage in debate and discussions with those who also care about these things. nnWhat none one of Tarau2019s supporters have yet to touch on significantly is the main point of this post: Tara u2013 do you want others to follow your path? Do you think it is wise for other young people to come to Cambodia or places like it and start their own orphanage? It sounds like all of you at CCT are taking on some great practices (working with families, etc) u2013 but do you feel like you were doing everything right from the start? Are there mistakes you made that you would want others to avoid? Do you think you should be praised for how you were doing things at the start of CCT, or how you are doing things now? What would you do differently if you were able to give yourself advice a few years ago? nnFor those who support Tara, do you think other young 20-somethings should go to a country other than their own and take people into their home? If you donu2019t, what do you think Tara should be commended for, rather than her story of STARTING CCT. You clearly all have lots to say about what CCT is doing great right now, so wouldnu2019t it be better if those who were dolling out praise were focusing on those things, rather than the fact that Tara left Australia to u201csaveu201d kids? What makes Tara unique, and what advice would you give other young Aussies looking to follow in her shoes? nnPeter, I came out to Cambodia in 2005 and funded the construction of a school through another NGO. My friends and I thought that was a great accomplishment, and of course, so did my parents. If others told my parents then, and probably even now, that I was A) not qualified to do that and B) not taking the most responsible approaches by building a building rather than investing in people, Iu2019m sure my father would still to this day jump to my defense. He would be wrong though. I wasnu2019t qualified to start education programs in Cambodia. And lots of others had already failed before me by thinking the education system could be repaired by building buildings rather than supporting people. I have worked for the last 5 years to find the best Khmer leadership for our work, change how we operate so that it fits in with best practices around community leadership and development work and changed our practices to focus on people. I do NOT want others to follow in my footsteps. I would have benefited from learning a lot more before I took on the roles I took on at a young age, and I hope that others learn more before they act. nnJust because we started with unqualified leadership, does not mean that what we are doing NOW isnu2019t great. I think some of what we are doing is now indeed worthy of copying, and some still has a long way to go. There is no point having people make the same mistakes others have made before them, ESPECIALLY when it comes to human lives, if those can be prevented by sharing what we have learned. This post and blog overall are intended to share the lessons we are learning so that others can avoid having to go through their own trail and error process as much.nnTara, I hope you will join in and share the lessons you are learning. Do you feel the same way I do u2013 that young people looking to support the education and protection of kids in Cambodia u2013 should learn before they decide how to help? What advice do you want to share from mistakes you have made or successes you have had? Do you think people should be copying how you started? Or should they be copying and praising you for what you have learned and what you do now? Where do you still want to grow and how can others help you?n

  • Peter

    Daniela. Your patronisation is almost beyond belief. Your lack of any research into what you are saying about CCT is palpable. For example while it is true that I am Tara’s father I am also on the board of the Australia Cambodia Foundation. That foundation supports a number of projects in Cambodia including projects that you have praised in your blog like Green Gecko and Mu2019lop Tapang as well as CCT and many others like Sunrise, and New Hope for Cambodian Children. nnYou say, u201cI am criticizing people who support organizations they know very little about and ASK very little about, apart from the story of the founderu201d and yet you are prepared to criticise an organization that you obviously know very little about and ASK very little about, apart from the story of the founder (gleaned from a quick perusal of a 26 minute documentary two years ago). From my point of view that amounts to hypocrisy. nnDaniela, Tara never, repeat never took the CCT children into her own home. For goodness sake get your facts right.nnSomehow you think that 5 years in Cambodia running a bicycle tour company makes you more of an expert than the people you criticize including Tara who first went to Cambodia 6 years ago and speaks fluent Khmer and others who have been in Cambodia for decades. This is the height of arrogance.nnCCT did not start with unqualified leadership. It started under the directorship of Pon Jedtha. A highly skilled, respected and qualified Cambodian NGO director. There were several other qualified and experienced Cambodian staff from day one. Again please get your facts right.nnIf you had wanted to develop interagency cooperation and dialogue I suggest that starting with an attack blog without any contact with the organization or the person you planned to criticize is not a good way to start. Are you so blinded by self importance that you could not see that?nnTara is of course perfectly free to join in your blog if she thinks she can find the time. I am in no way her gatekeeper.nnFor me you and your blog now fall into the u2018Life is too shortu2019 category. I will not be spending more time on it. I have work to do which is aimed at real development in Cambodia and not diatribes of self-aggrandizement.nnAs I said before I wish you well in your work with the community in which you work and in the development of your business plan via your Pepy Tours Adventure Travel Company. n

  • Peter

    Hello Alia. I don’t know who you are but I’d like to thank you for helping to put the record straight.

  • leigh

    Peter, i assume you are Peter Winkler – Tara’s father. If that is correct (and please let me know if i am assuming incorrectly), then i completely understand your desire to protect and defend your daughter from criticism and hurt. However, i think that in your rush to defend Tara and CCT from every bit of criticism, you seem to be missing my point.nnNowhere in my comment did i say there is no such thing as a good NGO. There are many wonderful NGOs in Cambodia and all around the world. My personal favourites are those working in human rights, child rights and education…as these issues are they key to breaking poverty. As you well know, nothing is black and white when i comes to aid and development – we are all motivated by different things and nobody is completely altruistic.nnI never ‘assumed’ CCT was a ‘bad’ organisation, nor did i explicitly say this. I think we have all moved away from one of Daniela’s original and key points, which is the fact that Tara was awarded NSW Young Australian of the Year for setting up and orphanage…I understand the publicity is good for you and will help you meet your funding goals etc, but Daniela’s point is that by winning this award, Tara is now in a position where she is a role model and inspiration to other young Australians who want to ‘do’ something. Thisis where the danger lies, and this is what Daniela was making a point of.nnI’m sure we all agree that an orphanage is a place of last resort. In an ideal world, orphanages would not be allowed to be run by foreigners, would be tightly regulated by the state, and the government and NGOs would work closely with families to ensure children are safe and protected and do not need to live in an institution. This is what happens in Australia, this is what we should be aspiring to in Cambodia. I again raise my point that orphanages have been proven to be the wrong approach for healthy child development – so why is ok for those of us who come from countries where orphanages do not exist to go and set up and encourage the industry in Cambodia?nnPeter, i do not ‘simply beleive the views professed by Daniela’ – i agree with them wholeheartedly. I have lived and worked in Cambodia and formed my own views from a wide range of experiences, research and my work with many different NGOs. I have had a good loook around your website, i feel that i understand what it is you do there – yet it doesn’t change my opinion or agreement with Daniela on the fact that we should not be encouraging others to come to Cambodia and follow Tara’s lead in setting up and orphanage.nnDaniela does not profess to ‘know it all’ – the writes from experience, knowledge and a place of collaboration. The very fact that her blog is called “lessons i learned” shows that she is always learning.nn

  • leigh

    Alia, nnThanks for your comment. I would not say i, or Daniela are unaware of what CCT does as an NGO. The very fact that it is run as an orphanage defines it as an institution. The fact is, these children are living in an artificial community (i am not denying that it is better than where they were before) created by foreigners. I applaud that CCT tries to create a house like environment as this is one of the tools to minimise the harm orphanages do to children.nnIn response to your question – i am not criticizing CCT alone, i am criticizing the orphanage industy in Cambodia and agreeing with Daniela that Tara is now a role model to thousands of Australian youth – and with that comes a big responsibility to educate and share ‘lessons learned’ to ensure that the belief that you can just walk into a country and set up an orphanage in two weeks is possible, and ok.nn

  • n/a

    Que eres pura weona.

  • Peter

    Leigh, do you think it imperative that Tara has to do this education of other idealistic young people through Daniel’s blog? Do you assume that she is not doing this but in her own ways and through her own channels? How do you make such assumptions? What is it about Daniela’s self serving blog that makes it the designated avenue for such such high minded actions from Tara or anyone else for that matter. Get real and see the motives behind her diatribes of self-aggrandizement.

  • Peter

    Leigh, do you think it imperative that Tara has to do this education of other idealistic young people through Daniel’s blog? Do you assume that she is not doing this but in her own ways and through her own channels? How do you make such assumptions? What is it about Daniela’s self serving blog that makes it the designated avenue for such such high minded actions from Tara or anyone else for that matter. Get real and see the motives behind her diatribes of self-aggrandizement.

  • Peter

    Yes Eddie. Glad you see it that way. I find Daniela’s blog a very curious way to reach out to Tara and CCT. Reaching out is good. Ill informed attack blog is not.

  • Peter

    Hello n/a. OK then conduct the proper investigation and seek information and then pass judgment. Fair enough. But this ill informed self serving blog by Daniela did none of that. It is an opinionated diatribe based on no proper investigation whatsoever. Not even contact with the NGO or the person who is the subject of the blog. Outrageous.

  • Peter

    Hello Eddie. Yes agreed. Maybe Daniela could have framed it in a different manner. Well said.

  • Peter

    Charming n/a. Why did you have to put it in Spanish? I guess my response would be n/a.

  • Peter

    Hello Leigh. I’m glad Daniela is is always learning. She has a lot to learn about developing inter-agency dialogue and cooperation. This blog was very ill conceived if that was her intention. Hopefully she’ll learn one of her lessons.

  • Peter

    Daniela, What makes you think it imperative that Tara has to do this education of other idealistic if misguided young people through your blog? Do you assume that she is not doing this but in her own ways and through her own channels? How do you make such assumptions? What is it about your self serving blog that makes it the designated avenue for such such high minded actions from Tara or anyone else for that matter?

  • Peter

    Hey Daniela…. Olive branch. How about you rewrite your blog espousing the fundamental principles that we all actually agree with but don’t use CCT, Tara or any of the projects that are supported by the Australia Cambodia Foundation for which I am on the board of directors and we’ll call a truce? nnWe don’t disagree with the fundamental principles that you espouse. We are just outraged that you would consider using CCT , an exemplary project and Tara as your examples.nnIf you can consider doing this we can put this behind us.nnPeter.nDirector, Australia Cambodia Foundation. n

  • Anonymous

    The blog has been edited with some names removed. If anyone would like to have any of their comments removed, please let me know via the contact section of the blog.nnIt should be noted that the people who have commented here, and many who haven’t here in Cambodia, talk about this topic and these issues often, and that this is not the first time these ideas/organizations/stories have been part of our discussions about how to promote responsible solutions to the problems we all see here every day. nnI am glad a lot of people are interested in thinking about these issues.nnThe main topic is still on the table for any to address: What would you say to some young person who wants to come to Cambodia to start a non-profit organization? What skills do you think they need to have? What lessons would you share? What advice would you give them that might help them increase the positive impact of any actions they take?

  • Peter

    Hello Daniela. Thank you for this gesture of reconciliation. I take it that you have discovered that your choice of NGO and founder was not a good illustration of the point you were trying to make. That is appreciated.nnI would consider asking you to remove my comments below if all others were to do the same but for now in the interest of balance I’d prefer mine to remain.nnPeter Winkler.nDirector, Australia Cambodia Foundation.

  • Peter

    Hello Leigh. The aspect of your comment that concerns me is your rendition of the Australian Current Affairs Show story. That of course was Today Tonight. This program is, as I’m sure you know, a muckraking tabloid and disreputable program. I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say that under scrutiny they withdrew all their allegations and in fact never went to air with their proposed program. Please consider not spreading this stuff after more than 3 years when you don;t know the context or the outcome.

  • Tony

    I think this would be a good read …nhttp://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/ethicsoutlook/2005/heroes.html

  • Peter

    Hi n/a. Just having a little Sunday afternoon light reading and came across this one from a few days ago. Gee, it must be tough being this jaded with everything. Pretty hard to see any way forward when everything is as wrong and bleak as this. Are there any positives going on anywhere that you think are heading in the right direction?nnHey, next time someone suggests you check out a website please remember you don’t have to if it makes you so unhappy.nnCheers,nnPeter.nnnn

  • Scott Neeson

    Daniela,nI read your initial narrative on the dangers of “hero worship” in the non-profit sector – where the individual’s story takes prominence, with scant mention of the policies, practices and experience of the organization. nI gather my name and organization, Cambodian Childrens Fund (CCF) was used as an example, then removed. There was no need to remove my name and the issue you raise is valid and worthy of discussion. nAfter more than 6 years in Cambodia, and with programs, practices and staff that achieve significant results in the community, media approaches are still generally focussed on my former Hollywood days. While the interests of CCF, me and the non-profit sector as a whole would be best served with a focus on work practices, it’s naive to think that the general public – and the media that reflects their interests – would choose matters of worth over the easily-digestible, snappy by-line of an individual’s story. nThe other, more direct and specific risk of “hero worship” is sustainability, ie what happens to that organization when the “hero” has gone. nAs the producer of the then-#1 US entertainment show once explained to me, “there are 100,000 other children’s charities out there – why would anyone be interested in yours”. nThanks for raising the issue and your insightfulness on the risks of tabloid heroes. nScott Neesonnn

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Scott! I appreciate you chiming in!nnMy original post didn’t include you or your name – I only removed the name of an organization requesting such. You were brought up in a comment from a reader as an example towards the top of this looooong chain.nnI know the media WON’T change, but hopefully discussions like this will get some of the public to think differently.nnI appreciate you adding this comment as you helped make the point I was trying to highlight: people should praise organizations, like many listed above, for what they DO, what they LEARN, and how the IMPROVE, not because they were started by someone famous or with a great story. Then maybe we will incentize people to do well, learn more, and improve quicker rather than trying to repeat the founders story!nnYou also bring up a very good point about how focusing on the hero story can lead to future problems of sustainability: if the donors are donating to CCF because they believe the success is linked to YOU, then what happens when you leave? If any program could convince that producer of the US entertainment show you mentioned that the answer to “there are 100,000 other children’s charities out there – why would anyone be interested in yours” – is because of the great/exceptional/high-impact/successful/innovative work a group is doing, rather than the personal riches-to-rags story of a founder leaving fame and fortune, we’d be on the right track to promoting the best solutions!n

  • Peter Winkler

    Hello Scott. I think youu2019re very right to point to the main problem of having a high profile founder upon whom the mediau2019s interest depends. The usual response to this in a well-managed organization is to have succession plans. That of course is no easy matter. The Australia Cambodia Foundation is involved with several NGOs that face this dilemma and discuss succession planning and related issues regularly. Are you able to share your and ACFu2019s thoughts on this?nnEven though I can see the validity of Danielau2019s original point I donu2019t think the answer is her black and white statements like u2018I am against the spread of orphanages in Cambodia, especially those started by foreigners, PERIOD.u2019 (See her reply to Laurenkatz 4 days ago). That attitude denies the valid role that people can play with local Cambodian partners. It also denies the fact that most responsible u2018orphanagesu2019 involving foreigners like yours have a much wider program and are not at all limited to institutionalized residential care. nnOf course we would all wish the media and public would look at the substance of our work rather than focus on the founderu2019s story. But we live in the real world and need to work within it to bring in the funding necessary to develop NGOs utilising industry best practice.n

  • Jacqueline

    Peter,n I would love to hear from Tara on several subjects, including the one mentioned above. What philosophies does she subscribe to? What has she observed from her time in Cambodia? Does she have a blog or an outlet where she shares her opinion/thoughts/experiences? Many thanks in advance for relaying the message.n

  • Andy Hill

    DanielannThank you for an interesting blog, even if it got a bit hijacked along the way.nnNo real point to make, other than an interesting observation. How many orphanages do you think there are in Cambodia? Apprently 258, of which 237 are privately owned, and self regulated. Now guess how many there are in Australia? None! That’s right, they don’t allow them. Family reintegration and fostering are the norm, in keeping with the International Right of The Child. nnLike I said, no point to make, just a casual observation.nnandyn

  • Andy Hill

    hi DanielannThanks for the blog, even if it did get a bit hijacked and unnecessarily personal along the way.nnJust an aside (and I know this was not the original theme of the blog), but do you know how many orphanages there are in Cambodia? 258, of which 237 are privately run by NGOs, and, for now at least, without any enforceable regulation. nnSo how many do you think there are in Australia? Well, it’s none. In keeping with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, family reintegration and fostering are the interventions of choice. Institutionalizing children is just not done.nnAnyway, I thought it was an interesting observation, and I wanted to share, with no real point to make.nnGoing back to your question, one bit of advice I might give to somebody coming to Cambodia to start a non-profit would be: don’t try doing something here that you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do in your own country.nnandyn

  • Peter Winkler

    Hello Jacqueline. Thanks for your interest. I can’t guarantee if Tara will find the time to participate in this particular blog. If you want to find out more about The Cambodian Children’s Trust I suggest you go to the CCT website. There are contact details on the site if you have specific questions.

  • Peter Winkler

    Hello Andy. Your observation about Australia is correct in a sense but needs clarification. The word u2018orphanageu2019 is very much out of favour with child welfare organisations in Australia. Like those few well-run and progressive child welfare organisations in Cambodia child welfare organisations in Australia focus on all sorts of other interventions and programs and use residential care as a last resort. But most of them do in fact have residential care facilities if they have no other options for a particular child. Of course in a rich country like Australia other options abound. This of course is not the case currently in Cambodia. Nevertheless good NGOs in Cambodia are developing many programs that are alternatives to residential care.nnThe Cambodian department of Social Welfare is introducing a regulatory regime for u2018orphanagesu2019 and is aiming to make those regulations mandatory. I think weu2019d all agree this is a good step that is very overdue. n

  • Peter Winkler

    Hello Andy. At first glance your advice u2018don’t try doing something here that you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do in your own countryu2019 seems wise, moral and logical. But taking Cambodia and Australia as examples, wouldnu2019t you agree that the historic, social and economic circumstances of these two countries are so vastly different that having a rigid rule like the one youu2019re suggesting does not take into account the vastly different context and needs of each country?nnIf Cambodia were a rich country with a well-developed social welfare sector that had not experienced a recent genocide and an economic collapse then it would be reasonable to say that people should only do what theyu2019d do in Australia or other such rich counties. Each countryu2019s needs should evaluated on itu2019s own background and circumstances. n

  • Jacqueline

    Thanks Peter. I’ll be sure to do that.

  • solid_helios

    Dear Daniela,nnI really enjoyed this post and it certainly got me thinking about how NGOs are viewed and where we as outsiders are missing the point. I definitely agree with the need to focus on what the organization is doing and whether they are effective in that goal, rather than the story of the founder.nnHowever, what stirred in my head up more is the challenge of determining whether an NGO is effective or not. In the case of orphanages, there is a strong case that institutionalization should be viewed as a last resort to finding caring, adoptive parents in the extended family network or community. However, the situation on the ground is always more nuanced – whether you are dealing with an environmental NGO or a human-rights one.nnMy analytical side says that the correct course of action is to diligently research an organization before deciding to support. It seems that your blog is also in favor of this method. For many organizations with weak transparency this is highly difficult, but even for an organization that is highly open it is rarely an easy task to evaluate effectiveness. (And perhaps my time would be better spent trying to convince my government or businesses to be more responsible.)nnAs someone who is already skeptical of the benefits of NGOs, how do I avoid slipping into complete apathy? Many potential donors fall into this category and are only shaken from their complacency by a fluff piece that focuses on the founder’s personal history. Even for people who want to do better and look deeper, the answer is not always clear.nnThank you for your feedback and thank you for writing this blog and sharing the lessons you have learned.

  • VC

    For what its worth Daniela, you are a legend and your post was excellent. Having been in Cambodia for a number of years, speaking the language (which seems to resonate and deserves constant repetition with some contributors), and had varying degrees of success in the NGO sector I have to say I’ve found truth to much of what you say. Keep on writing. You have a very important point of view.

  • Allie Hoffman

    I think you got it right, when you put out a ‘call to action’ (ref: your next post). But I would take it a step fartheru2026nnTonight, Nik and I were at an event that quoted, in no particular order, Kek Galabru, Vaclav Havel, Wangari Maathai, Dianna Ortiz, Archbishop Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, and the list goes on. nnCollectively they spoke out about their experiences being tortured, raped, imprisoned u2013 their experiences suffering for a set of beliefs, for a cause – they were willing to die for. nnTheir work brought on a mini-epiphany: nnWorking in development in Cambodia is hard. Its grueling, its sticky, sweaty, youu2019re operating in an unpredictable world under circumstances that are far from comfortable. nnu2018Hero worshipu2019, u2018good intentions gone awryu2019, u2018inexperienceu2019 are all features of the work. But we do ourselves, and the WORK, no service by cannibalizing each other. Yes, there needs to be an open forum for criticism, which you have created. We need to transparently and openly discuss what qualifies and quantifies good work, and we need to openly critique each other u2013 even when those critiques get intensely personal. nnBut we also need to focus MUCH MORE on the CALL to ACTION instead of the critique. In other words, we need to stop attacking, and start supporting each other. It was pointed out to me recently how competitive we all are u2013 jealous of each otheru2019s donors, media attention, acclaim, access to flashy resources u2013 and I havenu2019t even started my own [grassroots] NGO. nnI feel like most of these posts fail to see the bigger picture. Weu2019ve been brought into an unfamiliar space by work we fundamentally believe in; weu2019re fighting to improve the lives of people who (to various degrees) need access to the resources we have. Its noble work, and it gives our lives meaning. In many cases, weu2019re fighting on behalf of those who are vulnerable, whose voices have been silenced, who donu2019t know how to speak out, or havenu2019t found an effective way to be heard. nnSo instead of attacking the forces that created the situations we are attempting to counter u2013 hunger, injustice, poverty, abuse u2013 weu2019re attacking each other? Makes NO SENSE. nnSo another open call to action: nnTo Tara: come to Siem Reap, sit with other founders/managers/directors of grassroots NGOs, and share your opinions, ideas, struggles, challenges, vision for the future, etc. Help people understand and appreciate your choices, and feel the support of others who have faced similar challenges. nnTo Daniela: Host such event – openly and gently u2013 and share your experiences in a similar way. Provide feedback (as only you can) but also attempt to understand directly what others have gone through, and the approaches they have chosen to take. Share your resources. nnTo Scott: Break out of your self-induced recluse [when it comes to Cambodia-based relationships, at the v least], and share with the group some of the knowledge, resources, access, information, ideas and marketing skills that have led to the impressive success and growth CCF has seen u2013 cause it is unique and special. nnTo Leigh: Discuss your own lessons learned, why and how you made the decision to close FCF. Discuss what youu2019ve taken from the experience, and looking back whether youu2019d do anything differently. nnThis is only a short list of the people who have been involved in this post u2013 Iu2019m sure there are hundreds of other individuals who would appreciate a spot at the table. Can one meeting change everything? Definitely not. But itu2019s a really good start. nnWe work in a rough world, under rough circumstances. We do ourselves, and the work (which is a much greater cause than we acknowledge) no service by cannibalizing each other. Its tough enough out there, at the very least we should remember what weu2019re fighting for. n

  • Andy Hill

    Allie, you make a good and powerful point.nnYes, we are, mostly, driven by a ‘call to action’, and sometimes that can make us skeptical, and even resentful of others, who may share a similar conviction, but a rather different approach.nnBut this is what worries me. Underlying all our approaches is a broad assumption that ‘development’ is something that can be done. We ‘do’ development, and (through consultation, participation, empowerment, capacity building, and all the boxes we have to tick), we bring development to our primary stakeholders. But the reality is, people, communities, and societies actually develop, mostly, by themselves. Development is a natural, and never ending process that happens without us. We can’t actually develop anybody (except – and I think this is where Daniela’s blog is perhaps pointing toward a very powerful reality – for ourselves). All we can do, as development agents, is at best intervene in an otherwise natural process. And, despite all the best intentions in the world, and no matter how driven our ‘call to action’ is, we can never fully anticipate or appreciate the consequences of our interventions. Thus it is a learning cycle, in which our own personal (and organizational) development is inexorably bound. nnSo my point really is this: I think we often delude ourselves as to how much impact and influence we, or our NGOs and development agencies actually have. At best we might just end up learning something about ourselves.nnSo thanks again Daniela, for providing a forum for precisely that.nnandyn

  • leigh

    Well said, Allie.nnI think it’s a great concept that you have put forward, and i would definitely take up my spot at the table! This kind of dialogue is so important and absolutely needs to be said. Let’s do it!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Allie & Andy for your last two posts. I had stepped away from this conversation for a while, but I want you to know that I appreciate your thoughts and perspectives, and Allie, I 100% agree that meetings and sharing ideas is the way to go rather than what (as in this case) sometimes turns into a war of words. I’d happily host this meeting, and actually a few of us here in Siem Reap meet up semi-regularly to discuss just these issues relating to child protection issues, so if others want to join, we’d be delighted to have them.nnI saw this article today which is worth noting as it relates to some of the stream of these posts. http://www.voanews.com/english/news/asia/southeast/UNICEF-Concern-Prompts-Cambodian-Investigation-of-Orphanages-118493469.html

  • RjK

    HinI’m currently on a mission to raise funds & items for the children of Siem Reap. I’m due to touch down on May 7 2011. Reading this blog has helped me make a decision about who I should give the funds I have raised & items I have collected from donors. However I was hoping I could directed on how I can get the best bang for my buck. If I were to use the money I have raised & buy items from the local market, given I’m a foreigner they would naturally ask for a higher price compared to someone that has been living there & know the tricks of the trade. Can someone assist me, tell me where to go & buy rice, & typical items of need for a child’s welfare & education. Even better, can someone meet me in Siem Reap & show me the market I should shop at to buy such items? I would imagine if I had a local with me, I would be given a better price & get more for my dollar?nAny advice would be greatly appreciated!nRjKn

  • Anonymous

    Hi RjK – when you say “the children of Siem Reap” – is there a specific organization you are looking to support? If you are asking which organizations to support, I am sure there are many people on this list who can add their thoughts on that. Once you have partnered with an organization that you think is having a positive impact and that you want to support – meet with them or talk to them and let THEM tell you what is needed. Perhaps rice/etc is not what they need right now. They will have someone on their team that does purchasing who could surely help you. Giving away rice or other items randomly to kids on the street is not going to help people in the long run – so if you are looking for long-term impact, you should partner with an organization committed to that. I hope that helps!

  • RjK

    HinnYes, I am in contact with 1 or 2 organisations in Siem Reap. Initially ACODO orphanage, but after reading this blog the Green Gecko Project really resonated with me. Am waiting a response from Green Gecko to my first email sent 2 days ago. So I won’t be handing items out on the street to the kids willy-nilly, it will be well planned. I know the Green Gecko have people that do the purchasing. I really want to be involved rather than just handing the money across given i’ve worked (& still am) so hard raising it. I want to take part in seeing it being used/distributed.nAlso, have you heard anything good & bad about ACODO (Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organization) located in Siem reap. I am aware of the coruption in Cambodia particularly with orphanages & want to be sure my effotts are going to a good cause. I’ve started talking to ACODO but am starting to have reservations given it took them a couple of weeks to send me their financial records (they state on their website their financial records are available upon request). The reports don’t cover the global accounting standard (which could be due to their lack of knowledge on these things).nAny advise, wisdom & direction is extremely appreciated.nThanksnRjK

  • Pingback: Greg Mortenson: Proving there are no “heroes”. They’re all just like you. | Lessons I Learned

  • Peter

    Hi Daniela,

    With regard to your lead story in this blog :

    “I heard a disturbing story this week. A friend who works in
    Battambang, a northwestern province of Cambodia, told me that she had
    recently met a young traveler from Australia in her late teens who said
    she was starting an orphanage.

    When asked why she came to Cambodia, she said:

    ‘I was so inspired by a story I saw on TV that I
    decided to come here myself.  Cambodian kids are SO cute!  Now I have
    three of my own!’ ”
    I have asked all the CCT team and several other colleagues living and working in Battambang to keep and eye out for this girl. No one has ever seen or come across this teenager collecting Cambodian children. Did you or your friend invent this story? If not I would very much like some evidence of this person’s existence so that if she exists she can be helped to understand the folly of her ways.Do you think it’s likely she could be ‘collecting’ Cambodian children and not be noticed? I suspect she does not and never did exist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nikki.biddison Nikki Biddison

    Contact Michael at ConCERT Cambodia who can help direct you to several legitimate organizations all with clear needs if you have the ability to take care of them.  Additionally, he can provide a lot more useful information about volunteering in general.  His email is [email protected]  The office is located just around the corner from the Golden Temple Villa and is open M-F 9am-5pm.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621965764 Kari Pilcher

    I don’t know how to reply all, so I am sorry Peter, yours just happens to be the most recent comment this isn’t directed at you specifically.

    I think it is great that this article has prompted so many passionate responses, it certainly stirred up quite a few feelings within me. When I feel challenged like I do after reading this article I find it very important to think to myself: What assumptions have just been challenged? What values of mine are being confronted? What can I learn about myself from this process of being challenged?  Can I use these reflections to change my practice in any way?

    I have reflected on this article and answered those questions and find that I don’t need to critique ti as I have just critiqued myself and no where my issues with the article come from