Cambodia: My Selfish Altruism

There had been no training, no police check, no request for my CV – just a dried up whiteboard marker and twenty pairs of Cambodian eyes peeping out from haystack hair, expecting some kind of magic.

“Right class,” I said. “First we will do word search.” Magic indeed.

As I handed out the papers the kids sang number one hits from two years before, turning Akon’s “Sexy Bitch” into “sexy fish”. A little boy at the front in stained clothes two sizes too big for him put his hand up.

“Please, what is the difference between ‘we will’ and ‘we are going to’?”

I tried to remember my 72 hours of online training and drew a blank. “Uh, ‘we will’ is more definite.”

“Oh,” the little boy said, looking as unconvinced as I was.

“Please teacher,” a little girl in faded Disney Princess pyjamas piped up, “’I’m going to’ means you decide in the past. ‘I will’ means you decide right now.”

Heat flushed to my cheeks and all around me the kids started waving their finished crosswords in the air.

I was the only volunteer at the orphanage in Phnom Penh that week. The other classrooms were staffed by Cambodian men in pressed shirts and ties, progressing through a textbook about adverbs and past participles.

Scraps of paper with scratchy doodles littered the wooden desks after class. I’d given up and let them draw. Mr. Sakun, the owner of the orphanage, approached me as I tidied.

“Have you ever made report before?” he asked.

I nodded, thinking of sales reports at the bookshop.

“Good,” he said, looking like I’d just given him another £700. “After lunch you can help me with report for government.”

“But what about the kids?” I asked.

“Oh, ha ha, they have real school in afternoon.”

The clunky old desktop computer whirred and spluttered to life. A crack in the screen’s corner looked like a fat black fly.

“I think you can make it better,” he said.

Mr Sakun had used spellcheck, but only to make things worse. I had no idea how to make the report better. I knew nothing about funding applications or compliance with government legislation. I was useless, as a teacher and an office assistant, but Mr Sakun was patient and his smile never wavered. He insisted I had a nap in the afternoons and took me out to lunch for hours.

I realise now that he was trying to distract me while the kids were with their real teachers. While he shared stories of new government protocols tightening up on illegitimate orphanages, I yearned to be back in the classroom singing songs and helping the kids with their wobbly handwriting. While he was complimenting me on how fast I could type as he dictated a business plan to me in that stuffy office, one selfish part of me thought, “This isn’t what I paid for, my TEFL skills are going to waste!”

I was a voluntourist, a gap-yah of the highest order, but I really thought I was going to help the kids if I could only get out of that office. Anybody could type – I was there to teach, I was there to change the lives of 30 children, in a fortnight.

UNICEF has reported that while the number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased, the number of orphaned children has decreased. Around 75% of children residing in orphanages still have one or both living parents. Orphanages still exist for a legitimate reason; many impoverished parents cannot support their children and with no welfare system, no government safety net in place, the community came up with their own solution.

Life in an orphanage provides (by law) clean pump water, shelter and some form of education, even if it is an idealistic Scottish girl handing out wordsearches. However, what should have been a temporary solution to a legitimate social problem looks more like a permanent fixture. With the help of high priced, short-term voluntourism it has become a full blown industry and, with no background checks and little government legislation to protect the children within the industry, short-term volunteer programmes can end up opening up those children to more harm than good.

The website advertising my volunteer programme showed a smiling girl in front of newly painted friendship mural, arms around smiling children. She was my aspiration. What hadn’t crossed my mind was that, if my hiring process was anything to go by, she was a stranger with no background check, no previous teaching or social care experience and she was left with these vulnerable children unsupervised. Friends International revealed that a number of private orphanages paid impoverished parents for their children in order to get a cut of the voluntourism market, and suggest that such institutions that exist purely for profit have opened a gate to child abuse and trafficking.

Not only are short-term volunteers fuelling an industry that leaves children open to harm, but they are also disempowering the local community by taking the responsibility and power of education away from local Cambodians. It costs roughly $15 a month to send a child to school in Cambodia, so imagine if my £700 was invested in that, or a proper qualified teacher instead of an inconsistent set of lessons, the cost of my grubby guesthouse accommodation and tours to the temples. Perhaps a better volunteer scheme for those with experience in teaching or social services could be long-term projects working with orphanage staff to improve education, standards of living and the implementation of a proper recruitment process.

I don’t want to suggest that all volunteering in Cambodia has a negative impact. Voices from local NGOs speak out against short-term voluntourism. However, they fully encourage long-term project work sharing specialist expertise and empowering local Cambodians to develop their own skills. The orphanage in Phnom Penh didn’t need my sub-par teaching skills, but it did need help. It needed someone to assist with compliance and legislation, but it’s difficult to attract tourists to such worthwhile projects when the feel-good factor of working with children is so strong. I fell into this trap. After all, sitting in an office, sweating under fluorescent lights doesn’t make for a picture perfect travel moment and I already do that at home. Giving something truly worthwhile isn’t always picture perfect, and it’s not always immediately rewarding. It takes time, commitment and research.

**This piece was first published at http://www.darrow.org**

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