As we waited at Siem Reap airport for our flight to Bangkok a few days ago, I overheard American tourists on their phones telling friends back home about their Asian adventures. A highlight of their trip, they said, had been visits to orphanages in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. These have to stop.
It was another similar conversation I overheard between young Asian-Australian travellers in a Battambang hotel a few months ago that motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust. CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, which we’ve been writing about since it opened last October. Here’s why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia…
Grantourismo: Q. Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?
Tara Winkler: A. Orphanage tourism is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries like Cambodia. It simply means tourists visiting orphanages as part of their travel itineraries.
Q. Orphanage tourism is closely linked to voluntourism — they both come from a desire to give back to the places visited.
A. While voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, it can cause serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia — problems that most people are not aware of. Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. We need to think before visiting an orphanage. Children are not tourist attractions.
Q. So orphanage tourism is big business?
A. Absolutely. Because there are so many tourists who want to come visit orphanages, it has become very lucrative for orphanages to exist and to be open to tourist visits. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphans has declined. It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and well-meaning foreigners are the customers.
Q. What’s wrong with orphanage tourism exactly?
A. The majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope that they will find a path out of poverty to a better life. Yet these families do not fully understand the negative impact that living in an orphanage can have on their children. At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.
Q. Why is that?
A. Part of the reason for this is the rotating roster of carers and visitors to orphanages. It is important for children’s development and mental health to have long-term, stable relationships, rather that short-term periods of bonding followed by separation. So to answer your question, because orphanage tourism provides an incentive for these orphanages to exist, it is not a good thing at all. With the best of intentions, people who visit orphanages are being more harmful than helpful to children.
Q. Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
A. I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?
Q. What are the alternatives to orphanages in a country like Cambodia where UNICEF estimated there were 600,000 orphans? Are residential care centres and children’s villages better?
A. Residential care centres, children’s villages, and orphanages are all types of institutionalised care. The best place for a child to grow up is in a family environment, not in an institution. That’s why all the children that CCT works with live in a family, whether it is with their biological parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, or foster parents. Cambodia has a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children within kinship care, and to this day, the majority of Cambodia’s orphans live within the extended family. The rapid increase in residential care facilities threatens to erode these existing systems and places children at risk.
Q. If altruistic travellers want to help to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, what are some better to do this?
A. A great way is to support social enterprises run by charities that support children. In Battambang, we run Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains youth from our programs, with all the profits coming back to CCT to support our programs. There are similar social enterprises throughout Cambodia, like Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh and Marum restaurant in Siem Reap, which support Friends International’s work with children living on the street. In Kampot, Epic Arts Café supports Epic Arts’ work with people with disabilities.
Q. Why was CCT established and what does it do exactly?
A. CCT was established in 2007 when Jedtha Pon and I, with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, rescued 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Battambang. Since then, we’ve grown to support more than 300 children and their families through our community, education and social enterprise programs. These programs work together to ensure children and their families have the comprehensive support they need to thrive. We enable children in Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.
Q. How does the CCT differ from an orphanage?
A. All children supported through our programs live in a family. We believe strongly that families are the best place for children. There have been a few cases where we have reunited siblings and parents and children who have been separated when the children were living in orphanages, and it is incredible to see the difference this makes in their lives. They are doing so well.
Q. What about travellers considering a volunteer program?
A. Think before volunteering overseas. When travelling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might inadvertently be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train and empower local people. Then, instead of taking jobs from local people, you’ll be empowering them and helping them to become more employable.
Q. Any tips for travellers who wish to donate money or gifts?
A. Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Support organisations that promote family based care and empower the people they are working to help. Think before sending donations of goods to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.
Q. In other words, do some thorough research first.
A. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the ways in which we are helping are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.
Q. Are there any specific organizations, projects or businesses you recommend travellers visiting Cambodia donate to or support?
A. In addition to those I mentioned already, PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.
Cambodian Children’s Trust
You can also donate to Cambodian Children’s Trust here.