I read this piece today on volunteering in Cambodia and added some comments about voluntourism in the area. The comments are “awaiting moderation” so in the meantime, they are posted below.
For those people looking to give back when they travel to Cambodia, there is also the possibility to “voluntourism”, typical designed as more short-term tourism combined with volunteer work. Some of the benefits of choosing voluntourism is that those who do not have a long time for their vacation can see the sites they want to see while still giving back.
For me, if you choose your voluntourism operator wisely, I think voluntourism can often be the best option for a first visit to a place as the best voluntourism operators (in my opinion) offer a chance to LEARN first, and give second. In a place like Cambodia, with one of if not still THE highest NGO to population ratio, it sometimes feels like there are just as many development agencies doing good as there are those doing harm. By taking a trip designed to teach you about development issues in the area and expose you to well researched NGO programs, you will hopefully walk away with a better understanding of how and where you might want to volunteer more long-term in the future.
This is how we design our tours at PEPY (www.pepytours.com). There is a chance to physically support the projects you visit, but that is secondary to the learning incorporated into our trips. In addition, there is funding provided to the groups we spend the our volunteer time with on our tours. Why? Because a) we wouldn’t be partnering with a group unless we had researched them and found that we wanted to support their work in the long-term, not only for a few days of volunteers b) we recognize that volunteers are not free. Taking the time to train someone, bringing the Executive Director away to give a talk about their programs, etc, are all at the expense of the opportunity cost of lost work which is more in line with the core of their mission. We want the impact of our volunteers to last far beyond the duration of their stay so we invest funds from their trip in these groups and commit to updating our travelers on their impact of their stay for years to come.
As you can see in the documentary film “Changing the World on Vacation” by Daniela Kon, in most cases volunteers “do not change anything. They START something, they spark an idea.” and those are like seeds which need to be tended to and need time to grow. You can see the selects reel from the film here: http://deedaproductions.com/trailer.htm
In other words, I’m very skeptical of short term volunteering and “voluntourism” if it is marketed as THE change agent. Instead, as travelers to a new place, if we recognize that we need to learn first in order to support the development of the area/programs in the most sustainable way, I believe we can have a better impact.