Written by on November 12, 2010 in Learning and Volunteering, Notes By The Way with 0 Comments

We help Japanese people come to Cambodia to serve in simple ways and learn life changing lessons. We created a non-profit in Japan and bring small groups and individuals throughout the year.

So I’m challenged by articles like these: The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Aid and In S. Africa’s Orphanages, Is Doing Good Really Bad?

A Japanese participant shares a meal with a local family during a homestay

I know some people are going to question what we do, and that’s okay. We need to have answers for them. We are constantly rethinking what we do and how to make it genuinely participatory and grounded in long term relationships. It’s not enough to use these words if we don’t live them out.

Now I think coining a term, voluntourism, and making it an automatic pejorative is misguided. Perhaps it comes from the need to blame someone. But as one commenter on the second article says, it’s “not a zero sum game.” There are many programs that help people experience the two thirds world in a life changing way beyond mere site seeing and play. These programs may be respectful, based in relationships, educational, and self-aware. Or they may be voyeuristic, exploitative, and blind to their negative impacts.

Visiting orphanages presents a pointed problem in itself. We have increasing evidence that orphanages are not ideal for children. They are, however, easier to initiate and fund than family and community based options. People who visit orphanages tend to come away with idealized images (and lots and lots of photos), but they tend to miss or ignore the deeper questions. I don’t want to cover all the problems with orphanages right now–I’ll do it another time. Suffice it to say that most of us, if we died, would not want our children to end up in an orphanage but in a loving family–and most “orphans” have one (or two!) living parents not to mention grandparents, uncles and aunts, etc.

The problem is that anything to do with humanitarian work–and especially orphanages–has tended to get a free pass on hard questions and accountability. But now critical books, articles, and studies are mounting up. Here in Cambodia, there will be a campaign starting soon to counter “orphanage tourism.” For years people on the field have known about problems with orphanages, but there’s a growing backlash that can’t be kept in the bag. I just hope people become better at discerning the kinds of partnerships and programs that really make positive differences and better at holding organizations and people accountable, rather than becoming withdrawn, unwilling to donate to anything, and cynical.

As for us, we emphasize long term relationships in our work. We are challenged to work with and alongside Cambodians rather than imposing our activities on people. It’s easy to come in with money and generate results quickly, but (as a friend said), things that happen quickly rarely last. Frankly, it’s much harder to work through relationships (and we’re learning as we go), but we trust the results will be worth it.

I’m very honest about the benefits our Japanese participants receive. I want them to be grateful and truly consider how in their future lives they might give back some of what they’ve received. Most participants in our programs return to Japan with changed perspectives. They see Cambodians as real people with great challenges and potential. They also see their own wealth and poverty in Japan. As one young women said, “In Japan we have so much stuff, but we also have emotional poverty and a poverty of relationships.”

I don’t mean to be defensive. We have a lot to learn. Read the articles above and join me in opening your eyes to the needs and pitfalls of  helping and caring.


About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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