Since Cambodia’s return to peace in the 1990s, tourism has boomed with more than two million visitors every year. For many of these travelers, a visit to an orphanage has become an essential part of any Cambodian tour. The directors of these orphanages warmly welcome visitors, and in particular their money. Yet increasingly, abuses have been reported by international and national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The ChildSafe Network, an initiative of Friends-International for the protection of children, stresses that not only are tourists “offered a victimizing image of children that misleads their overall perception of orphans in Cambodia,” but their visits can actually cause harm to the orphans.
With its campaign “Children Are Not Tourist Attractions,” the ChildSafe Network wants to raise awareness among travelers about the harm they may cause. Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors. Therefore, directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children in order to secure funds from sympathetic foreigners. Children who appear underserved are more effective in convincing visitors to donate than children who appear well fed and cared for. By visiting orphanages and making donations, tourists may be reinforcing a system that exploits children.
However, these short visits are not the only way in which orphanages have become big business in Cambodia. One of the fastest growing forms of tourism, voluntourism, may also be contributing to the problem, as “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” a documentary broadcast on the Al Jazeera program People & Power, revealed.
Most voluntourists come to volunteer in Cambodia with good intentions; they want to help the country and its poor orphans. But as the Al Jazeera documentary illustrates, these volunteers have inadvertently helped to create a rise in the number of orphanages, as impoverished parents are tempted to send away their children in the hopes that they will receive a Western education. Although the socioeconomic conditions have improved in Cambodia during the last decade, the number of children in orphanages has more than doubled. Over 70 percent of the estimated 10,000 “orphans” have at least one living parent. Even more disturbing are the stories exposed by Al Jazeera of Cambodian children who are being exploited by some of the companies organizing the volunteers or running the orphanages.
According to the Al Jazeera documentary and NGOs such as ChildSafe, the majority of orphanages see tourism and volunteering as a way to generate income for their owners rather than as a way to help children. ChildSafe stresses, however, that this does not mean that foreigners cannot make a positive contribution: “Orphanages do not offer a long-term sustainable response to the situation of vulnerable children. By investing in families and communities, we are laying the foundation for better conditions for children.” In other words, travelers who want to help vulnerable children can do more good by volunteering for or donating to projects aimed at strengthening community-based work in order to create alternative options for poor children and their families.
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