Ethical travel, Human and Hope Association, International Volunteering

So You Want to Volunteer in Cambodia

Hope Handicrafts is run by Human and Hope Association Inc., the Australian fundraising arm of Human and Hope Association.

In 2014, Human and Hope Association stopped their foreign volunteer program. By mid-2016, they were entirely Khmer operated due to their commitment to local empowerment and capacity building. This is why they don’t recommend you participate in voluntourism activities in Cambodia and other developing countries.

Empowerment of staff – Our mission is to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures. We believe in applying this
not just to our beneficiaries, but to our staff as well. Therefore, it is important to give our staff the opportunity to thrive in their roles and gain confidence. We have seen firsthand that when volunteers come into organisations, this can often be disempowering, as the local staff believes that they cannot fulfil their jobs without the support of foreigners. We believe that local people are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know the country and traditions best. By promoting teamwork amongst the locals, they can learn from each other and not become reliant on foreigners.

Consistency – When volunteers come and go, it creates an inconsistency with our education system which follows lesson plans and a curriculum planned well in advance. In the past, students complained of the volunteers who didn’t teach them effectively. Furthermore, we educate many students who come from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, and having strangers come and go in their lives creates an unstable situation on top of what they already experience at their homes. By having full-time staff to teach our students and visit the community, we can create a trust with our beneficiaries as we are seen as being reliable.

Child protection –Child abuse is prevalent in Cambodia, and our staff and visitors must adhere to a strict child protection policy. By inviting large numbers of temporary volunteers, the risk of abuse is heightened. Our local staff have been trained in child protection and are equipped to deal with this issue in a local context.

Culture – The Khmer culture is unique, and there are often complex factors contributing to situations. Often volunteers who come for a short period of time inadvertently offend the local staff and students by not adhering to the culture. Our local staff are able to effectively work with the community in a culturally sensitive way and therefore gain the best outcomes.

Detachment issues – In the past, the staff have formed good relationships with some volunteers. When the volunteers left, the staff ended up feeling quite down, and this has affected their work. This has also been the case for some of our students, who already have challenging lives.

Language barriers – The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which all of our staff speak. However, as our projects aren’t just focused on the English class, we have numerous who speak minimal or no English, and communication can be very difficult. This often proves to be frustrating for both our staff and volunteers and can result in strained relationships for all parties involved.

Sustainability – Having volunteers come and go isn’t sustainable. What IS sustainable is training local staff, who can, in turn, train more local staff as part of a succession plan.

Time –
To run an effective volunteer program takes a lot of time, with the pre-arrival, volunteer duration and post-departure. In the past, we have found it very time consuming to look after volunteers, with staff members commenting they have spent more time concentrating on the volunteers than on our beneficiaries. This takes time away from our crucial work with the local community and capacity building the local staff.

Due to our commitment to empowering local staff, we became entirely Khmer operated in July 2016. Our local team who are the subject matter experts, continue to develop our community and help villagers break the cycle of poverty. We are leading the way for locally run organisations in Siem Reap, and are raising awareness that voluntourism and volunteering for short amounts of time aren’t what Cambodians need.

“Local people need to be empowered and valued. When local people are empowered to help their own community and their commitment and accomplishments are valued, it is an obvious evidence to prove to the other potential beneficiaries to trust and be inspired to transform their lives and not rely on foreigners. Foreigners are encouraged to help Cambodia, however, in terms of day-to-day operations, local staff should take responsibility.” – Salin, Education and Community Manager

Stay tuned for our next blog in a couple of weeks, when we tell you about the various ways you can help when visiting Cambodia without participating in voluntourism activities.