Orphanage tourism: cute kids, cashed up tourists, poor outcomes

Written by Ashlee Betteridge

Tonlee Orphanage 1Recently I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I took a trip to Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and home to several floating villages. The lake is so expansive it seems like an ocean and it is a significant source of protein, micronutrients and livelihoods for Cambodian people.

After mere moments at the Chong Khneas village, the engine of our boat was switched off and our captain told us a heart-wrenching tale of suffering, helplessness and poverty. Apparently, hope doesn’t float.

The good news was that all we had to do was to go to the floating general store, buy some rice or pencils (at 10-20 times the Siem Reap prices) and then drop these off at a nearby waterborne orphanage.

Others on the boat were keen and I couldn’t see any land to swim towards, so I had little choice. When we got to the orphanage, I refused to go inside, but I could see the whole deal from the sidelines. In the time we were moored there, four other tourist boats arrived – in total, about 30kg of rice was donated in 15 minutes along with enough pencils to last a month. Apparently, tours of the lake start at 7am and go until sunset seven days a week. That’s a lot of rice and pencils.

The floating orphanageThere were about 25 kids inside the ‘orphanage’. Every time a tourist boat pulled up and people went in to deliver their bounty, the children would stop what they were doing and shout a greeting or a thank you. Doing that every five minutes throughout the day is surely going to impact on your education.

It was obvious that the children were being used for profit. Yet boat after boat of people were pulling up to get their holiday feel good points by gawking at children trapped in a floating cage, chorusing multilingual greetings like polished professionals.

These days there seem to be a significant number of tourists who feel they haven’t ticked all the holiday boxes unless they rock up at an orphanage to drop some dollars and pick up some warm fuzzy feelings.

But if an individual is truly engaged in an act of giving when visiting these orphanages, why is there the expectation that the children give something back – either through being photographed, giving hugs, interacting or performing? These arrangements are transactional, often facilitated by a profit-making middleman such as a tour operator. And where does it end? In Cambodia, for example, there have been numerous reports of orphanages being used as a front for sex tourism and trafficking. Short-term volunteer stints in orphanages have also been found to be damaging for children’s emotional development (see also recent PhD research on WhyDev examining orphanage volunteering from a child’s perspective). Fairfax newspapers also recently reported on orphanages set up by Australians in Cambodia that are operating illegally.

There are many genuine organisations doing good things for children in Cambodia. It is extremely difficult to attract funding and resources for these activities, so it is understandably tempting to try to compete for funds from the steady flow of foreigners passing through the country.

It’s also natural for people to want to help when they encounter poverty and to give something back in exchange for the experiences they gain through travel.

But child protection is critically important, as is providing children and young people with education or training to earn sustainable livelihoods rather than teaching them to trade on handouts, their cuteness and a few catchphrases of English.

So what can be done?

First, aid agencies should work in partnership with developing country governments to strengthen child protection systems and to improve regulatory frameworks for orphanages and schools. Cambodia has [pdf] minimum standards for residential care and a policy that institutional care should be a last resort for children, though monitoring and enforcement capabilities are still weak.

The development of standards and guidelines within the tourism industry could also help.

Second, tourists should stop signing up for this stuff and do their research. Traveller education is key. Supporting orphanages and organisations that work to help children can be a very positive thing, but not when the children themselves are used as a prop.

Admittedly, I ended up at this tourist trap because I didn’t do my research – there was no power in Siem Reap when I arrived so I couldn’t Google and relied on word of mouth recommendations. But travellers need to be aware of child protection issues so they don’t actively seek out exploitative experiences and so that when they encounter them, they are shocked rather than snap-happy.

In the challenging contexts of developing countries, fledgling education, law enforcement and regulatory systems are struggling to play catch-up and can be slower to develop than mass tourism. Thus, reducing the demand for exploitative travel activities might be the most effective shorter-term approach to assist children to access their rights to protection, dignity and basic education.

Ashlee Betteridge is a Research Officer for the Development Policy Centre.

Ashlee Betteridge

Ashlee Betteridge is the Program Manager (Research Communications and Outreach) at the Development Policy Centre. She was previously a Research Officer at the centre from 2013-2017. A former journalist, she holds a Master of Public Policy (Development Policy) from ANU and has development experience in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

18 Comments

  • One problem is also that voluntourism companies have close connections to review and advertising platforms which make it hard to find a good program based on reviews.

    We have written a series with absolutely new findings and industry insights about this problem. You can follow us on our Facebook page for more updates on voluntourism.

  • Thank you Ashlee for your article, i m in Siem Reap right now and was planning to visit the Tonle Sap with my family tomorrow. I was doing my research and thanks to you i know what i have to do and what i have to avoid.

    Kindly, Philippe

  • Hi Ashlee – Very good article. I was caught in this orphanage tourism con/scam, it is a major issue in Cambodia. We have to look at what the Khmer Rouge period did to this people and the societal loss of parenting skills, the abject failure of the UN in the eighties and nineties in dealing with rebuilding Cambodia and basically handing the nation over to a gangster and his cronies. In receiving aid the Cambodian Government is held to very little accountability from the large NGOs or the wealthy nations that give money. The orphan industry is not only a Khmer issue but one of Westerners who establish orphanages for nefarious reasons, or just because they are looking for a place in the world themselves.

    I have actually just published an ebook on my experiences in Cambodia, I spent a year there and I was taken to school and received an education.

    I would implore all tourists to refuse to go to these places, children are not for performance or dollies to be played with. We do it with the best of intentions but the issue is that we are supporting a system that is essentially slavery, that is enforced institutionalization (even the so-called good Western run ones), that is not supportive of Khmers learning ongoing parenting skills that are handed down through generations. I’m starting to get angry again at myself and at Cambodia, so I will finish.

    Please all, do not support orphan tourism in any part of the world.

    Regards
    Ron

    • Hi Ron,
      4 years ago i visited Siem Reap as a tourist.I was asked on the street if I could donate a bag of rice to an orphanage.. I visited the Heart and Love Center,At the time 25 children lived full time with a christian Pastor and his family.. The conditions were terrible!! Now I sponsor this center,,,I live in Cambodia for 6 months every year,have rented a house for staff and 43 children..They go to school. learn English,have access to medical and dental. I pay the rent, food, electricty, wages and anything else that I consider necessary. I have fund raised and purchased a new motor bike and tuk tuk….I have a few people who help me and many people who have visited the center and helped us ….Every cent of a donation goes to improving the lives of staff (all live at the center with their own children) and the children I pay all my own expenses….I will be in Siem Reap from november 27th…
      Helen McLean,,,proud to be sponsor of the Heart and Live Center

  • Hi Ashlee,

    I am a Master’s student at Lund University studying International Development and Management. I’m toying with some ideas for my thesis and was hoping you (or anyone else) could help give some input on the feasibility or carrying out the research in Cambodia. Ideas: (1) Perceptions of voluntourists from children at orphanages, (2) How orphan tourism hinders the protection of children, or (3) The prevalence and expansion of orphanages in a given area (using GIS mapping).

    Thanks so much for a great post and any assistance or advice you may have!

    • Hi Fiona,

      Thanks for commenting. I would say it could be challenging to get the cooperation of some of these less legitimate operations to research some of those topics, since they probably wouldn’t want to expose themselves to criticism. However, someone based in Cambodia may have more of an insight. There is a growing volume of research material on these issues. It might be worth contacting child rights NGOs operating in Cambodia (Plan, World Vision, Save the Children, UNICEF, etc) as they may be able to provide more information and insight, as well as data from any studies that they have done.

      Thanks,

      Ashlee

  • “Second, tourists should stop signing up for this stuff and do their research. Traveller education is key. Supporting orphanages and organisations that work to help children can be a very positive thing, but not when the children themselves are used as a prop.”

    With regards to the above quote, *where* can tourists find this information? What do you recommend for tourists be better prepared when they’re out there, with no access to information, and a tour operator takes them to one of these places? I don’t see how you could have avoided it in your case?

    • Hi Sabina,

      It is great question. In my case, you are right, I couldn’t avoid it — I was literally on a boat in the middle of an expansive lake, it truly was the ultimate tourist trap! But I didn’t participate by buying the rice or going in to the orphanage, I recognised it for what it was and I wasn’t interested in interrupting children’s ‘education’ to get photos etc. The tour boat guide became very angry and quite rude to me when I refused to participate in the whole charade. One of the aspects that I found surprising was that other people on the boat seemed to acknowledge that there was something fishy going on, but still participated in it — the people operating the scam played heavily on guilt. So there needs to be a readjustment of travellers’ principles so they don’t feel guilty for asking questions in these situations.

      If we can stop people willingly seeking out these exploitative travel experiences, and also stop people from participating when they are ‘trapped’ into going on orphanage tours etc as I was, then we will be making the operation of unscrupulous orphanages less profitable and less desirable. But it is easier said than done.

      There is still a fair way to go on traveller education, which is why I highlighted the need for it to expand in the blog post. There is a lot of information online, but travellers have to actively seek it — so there needs to be prior awareness before this is useful. There are a number of NGOs and donor agencies running tourist awareness campaigns about these issues in Cambodia specifically, which is a really good start. The Cambodian government has also been involved. Tourist-sending countries really need to step up the information campaigns before people get on the plane, however. Sites such as DFAT’s Smart Traveller would be a place where this kind of information could be disseminated (I just did a quick look there and didn’t see anything on it).

      There is a lot of scope for public information campaigns on this issue — I think social media could be a low-cost vehicle for these. Ultimately, a behavior change communications campaign or viral social campaign by tourist-sending countries, combined with the efforts of government and NGOs in Cambodia, would be the best tourist education approach in my mind.

      • I am sure that the visitors to Tonle Sap lake believe what they think they saw. However a couple of days in Siem Reap does not give a true picture.
        4 years ago on a holiday,I visited a small, very poor orphanage. Today I sponsor the same orphanage except we now care for 40 children, 6 paid staff and rent a comfortable building…
        If you could see some before and after photos you too would see how far these beautiful children have come.I am very grateful to any tourists who donate rice (we eat at least 200kgs a week) and 35 children go to school 6 days a week…See Heart and Love center Siem Reap….Helen Mclean, Victoria Australia

    • ConCERT Cambodia is a great source of information, both online and in person, for information about what to do and how to respond to the issues of poverty in Cambodia.

      There is a main office and a drop-in centre at the Sister Srey Cafe on the riverside near the Old Market in Siem Reap.

  • If it’s obvious that children are being used for profit then there’s an obvious question to ask. Why do charities help sustain the orphanage culture when there are so many indicators to suggest that a loving family home is a better outcome.

    Instead of helping the unscrupulous who exploit children, why not use business to fund the placement of all children in family homes. That at least was what was suggested 6 years ago, but we were treading where nobody wanted to go.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for sharing your views. I think it is important to always consider institutionalised care (whether family homes or other) as a last resort. Children should always be given the opportunity to stay within their extended family and community (as long as that is safe) wherever possible. In Cambodia, and in many other places, the potential to profit out of orphanage tourism means that many children in these institutions are not genuine orphans – they often have one parent alive at least, however parents send them to orphanages due to their poverty and the promises of the costs of education/food/etc for the child being covered.

      It is also important that any institutional care — whether private sector funded family homes, charity run orphanages or state care — meets standards that ensure children are being protected, cared for and educated. Operating outside of the state system doesn’t mean that frameworks in place for child protection can be ignored, yet many individuals and organisations that set up orphanages illegally or outside of the government’s frameworks are not meeting any kind of minimum standard, nor being monitored.

      Just because a country is developing and the enforcement of policies may still be weak doesn’t mean that outsiders should come in and ignore those frameworks, no matter how good their intentions may be.

      There is a lot of scope to work together with business and the charity sectors to improve care and educational outcomes for children, but child rights must be at the centre and these initiatives must work in harmony with government frameworks at all levels.

      Ashlee

      • Ashlee, I comment in the context of this blog on development policy rather than the specofic situation in Cambodia, but the situation with economic orphans and parents unable to support them was much the same. As my deceased colleague related however, having argued the same case for protecting child rights and collaboration between government, NGOs and business was to discover these would be partners became a considerable obstacle.

        “Opening up the reality of that situation resulted in threats against me and anyone else interfering with that system. I came under direct assault by tax police, government’s primary enforcement arm if anyone steps out of line. This is not a research activity where many, if any, other people dared to participate. UNICEF was willfully blind to the matter because it was just too dangerous to bother to intercede. Powerful interests remained entrenched with enforcers to make it dangerous. Jurists were correct, in my view. It was more a mafia operation than anything else, aimed at misappropriation and laundering of large money. That was perfectly congruent with how Ukraine operated before the revolution. USAID wanted nothing to do with it, nor would they fund any organizations or activists who might try. Some things could be done and some things could not be done. Helping these children was something that could not be done. So, I exposed it and made it the central focus and metric of Ukraine’s microeconomic development blueprint. In that context, it was far more difficult to ignore, dismiss, or argue about.”

        If both your government and mine are investing resources in international development, should we not be concerned when such human rights issues are pointedly brushed aside?

        • Hi Jeff,

          Of course human rights and child rights are the key concern — I acknowledged that in my response and my post. I think we agree that children are best raised in families rather than orphanages.

          I can only speak to situations I am familiar with in Southeast Asia, unfortunately my knowledge on the Ukrainian situation is limited.

          In Cambodia this issue is not being pushed aside by organisations such as UNICEF etc — it is a core concern in their work and they have very much advocated children staying within their families and within their communities as far as possible. The Cambodian government has laid this principle out in policy.

          But when individual actors start their own care facilities without registration or approval, around these fledgling government systems, this doesn’t help. The rapid growth of the orphanage tourism industry in Cambodia has only exacerbated this.

          The government and donor community are working on this issue, but policy change, implementation and enforcement has been slower than the growth of tourism. I think in this case, the donor community is working towards policy which better supports child rights — but while there is demand for orphanage tourism and the potential for profit, the number of unregistered and unauthorized orphanages is increasing. Multiple approaches are needed.

          Ashlee

  • It’s also important to ask who gets the money from these tours? I was on a similar tour and paid around 20 dollars per person. Our guide told us a rich businessman owned the tour boats and the community didn’t really benefit from these tour fees.

  • Excellent piece highlighting a number of concerns regarding the charity tourism industry. Voluntourism is an increasing problem, and most people are unaware of the negative impacts.

    I’ve seen some youth-focused sites discussing the issue – I particularly like this series.

    Perhaps a good message is that charity is for life, not just a holiday. Like all commitments, it needs to be done consciously and over the long term if it is to have an impact – not just a stop-off on an organised tour.

  • Thanks for posting this. Orphanages.no has a lot of material about this issue, should anyone want to learn more about the problem of orphanage tourism in Cambodia (and many other parts of the world as well, unfortunately!).

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