03 March 2009 ~ 1 Comment

“Changing the World on Vacation” – a film highlighting PEPY’s mistakes and lessons learned

It is sometimes uncomfortable to talk openly about the mistakes you have made, and definitely embarrassing when they are shown on a big screen for everyone to see, but that is exactly what we are doing at PEPY with “Changing the World on Vacation.” This documentary, by filmmaker Daniela Kon of Deeda Productions (http://deedaproductions.com/), reflects on the “politics of compassion” and the impact of volunteers and volunteering.

The film focuses on footage taken from the first year of PEPY Tours on trips in December 2005, March 2006, and December 2006. Now, over two years since the last clips of the documentary were shot, we look back on so many of the decisions we made and actions we took…. and it makes us cringe.

“What were we thinking?” is a phrase heard among our staff over and over while watching this film. What were we thinking, not having a strict clothing policy for rural Cambodia? What were we thinking designing our trips based around traveler ideas for education, not education coming from the local populations to the visiting guests? What were you thinking when you said “Cambodia has a limitless supply of fish”, Daniela? Ummmm…. I’m not so sure.

What I do know is that watching the film makes me realize how far we have come and how much we have learned, it highlights areas where we can still improve, and overall it is a vivid example of many things NOT to do in volunteer tourism. Our hope, by being part of this project, is that this film will prevent others from making the same mistakes we did and will act as a conversation starter around this important topic: “How can you best support positive change while you are in a foreign culture?”

For those who have watched the film, and even for those who haven’t but are interested in the topics of traveler’s philanthropy, voluntourism, and NGO work, we’d love to elaborate more on the lessons we have learned as they relate to the Daniela Kon’s documentary.

1) Poverty voyeurism is bad and can add to the problem. Johnny was right. We agree very much that Steung Menchey (Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump) is not a place travel groups should visit, no matter if they are going with a NGO or not. We had brought our first year of PEPY participants to Steung Menchey with an NGO partner we were working with at the time and, as I state in the film, we thought the visits were justified at the time. The last trip we did to Steung Menchey was that trip shown, December 2006, as we realized that, no matter how “well” we thought we were doing the visits, how much money we were funding into groups working with children from the dump, nor how much learning it provides to the travelers, we would still be adding to a type of tourism we do not believe in. Tour buses now visiting Steung Menchey stop at the top of the site, allow people to get out and take pictures and then head off to lunch. People traveling with an average operator which is not funding development projects in Cambodia often feel overwhelmed at Steung Menchey and want to “help”. With no education on how best to do that, some hand out food (resulting the chaos like in the documentary) or money.

Consider that life on the dump means an average of ½ dollar in revenue for a family. Consider that many of the people working on the dump are children who have either been sent to the dump by their families to make money or, in many case, “bought” by someone, sometimes with honest explanation and sometimes under another guise, to work in the dump. If this is the case, and tourists start handing out dollars, double the expected daily income, it all of a sudden becomes that much more profitable to move and work on the dump. This makes the problem the giver set out to counter all that much stronger and further incentivizes parents to send their children to work in this dangerous and scary place.

Throughout the coming weeks we will be following up with other responses to the film. Starting tomorrow, click on the “Critical Views” tab on the PEPY Team Journal to see all of the posts. Stay tuned and please give us your thoughts.