Volun-what ism?

Volunteer + Tourism = Voluntourism.

I didn’t even know this was a thing until about 5 years ago when I was researching our honeymoon to Cambodia. I wanted to visit and help at an orphanage whilst we were over there and I remember chatting to Rob about it. I was looking into how we could go and volunteer and the more research I did the more confused I was getting.

I thought this would be helpful, a good thing but as it turns out orphanages in Cambodia are big business. The internet was giving me mixed messages, as usual. So in the end, my very wise husband said let’s wait until we get there and ask some locals. It was a simple solution and that’s exactly what we did. We waited, we talked to people and in the end it didn’t feel right and we decided not to visit any orphanages on our trip.

It can be tricky to navigate this feeling of wanting to help with a solution that is actually helpful, so I’m going to hand it over to Sally from the Human and Hope Association to talk a little more about what voluntourism is.


Have you ever considered volunteering in a developing country? If it is for a short amount of time, this is called ‘voluntourism’, and is a billion-dollar industry. Although we commend your drive to want to help people, we are here to explain that voluntourism can do more harm than good, and there are more effective ways to help.

Human and Hope Association, a grassroots community centre in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is one organisation that is raising awareness about voluntourism. They are entirely run by a team of local Cambodians and are proving that Cambodians do have the skills, passion and knowledge to run not-for-profits without accepting voluntourists. Through their education, vocational training and community development programs, the team at Human and Hope Association are helping their villagers to break the cycle of poverty for good.

“It is important for NGO’s to be run by Cambodians. By doing so, we can help young generations show their ability to lead NGO’s.” – Ngoy Bunrong, Education and Community Assistant

There are many reasons why Human and Hope Association is speaking out against voluntourism, some of which are summarised below.

Empowerment of staff – The mission of Human and Hope Association is to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures. They believe in not only applying that mission to their beneficiaries but to their staff as well. It is crucial that they provide their staff with the opportunity to thrive in their roles and gain confidence. They have seen first-hand 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. They believe that local people are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know the country and traditions best. By promoting team work 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 the 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, given Human and Hope Association educates many students who come from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, 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 their students and visit the community, they can create a trust with their beneficiaries.

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.

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. Human and Hope Association’s local staff can effectively work with the community in a culturally sensitive way and therefore gain the best outcomes.

As you can see, there are many reasons why you should support the empowerment of local staff as opposed to partaking in voluntourism. If you did want to learn about further reasons, be sure to check out this post on Human and Hope Association’s website.

The good news is, there are effective ways you can help developing countries such as Cambodia!

Purchase a handicraft – We sell gorgeous elephant toys, crayon rolls and stationery kits that are made in Cambodia by women who have graduated from the sewing program at Human and Hope Association. These handicrafts are made at the homes of their seamstresses for a fair wage, enabling the women to look after their children at the same time. All proceeds are sent back to Cambodia to provide education to marginalised children.

Fundraise for the cause – Once you find a reputable not-for-profit to support, fundraise for the cause at home! Many of these organisations lack the funds to raise awareness about their good work, so any assistance you can offer on your home soil will be much appreciated.

Donating blood – Donating blood is an incredible way to help people when you visit developing countries. Just like in countries such as Australia, the lab staff will run a few quick tests to ensure your haemoglobin levels are high enough and blood pressure is within a safe range to donate. The best part about this is that it doesn’t cost you any money to make a big impact on someone’s life!

Shop/Dine/Stay at Social Enterprises – There are many social enterprises in developing countries that you can shop/dine/stay at. These social enterprises usually support the work of an NGO (non-government organisation), or simply just care about fair wages and conditions for their workers. By supporting these social enterprises, you are contributing to a sustainable income for these workers.

If you find yourself a little lost like I was about volunteering on holiday. I hope this insight helps.

Elise xx

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