There are fewer opportunities for volunteering than one might imagine in a country as impoverished as Cambodia. This is partly due to the sheer number of professional development workers based here, and development is a pretty lucrative industry these days.
Cambodia hosts a huge number of NGOs, some of which do require volunteers from time to time. The best way to find out who is represented in the country is to drop in on the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia in Phnom Penh. This organisation has a handy list of all NGOs, both Cambodian and international, and is extremely helpful. Siem Reap–based organisation ConCERT (www.concertcambodia.org) has a ‘responsible volunteering’ section on its website that offers some sound advice on preparing for a stint as a volunteer.
The other avenue is professional volunteering through an organisation back home that offers one- or two-year placements in Cambodia. One of the largest organisations is Voluntary Service Overseas (www.vsointernational.org) in the UK, but other countries also have their own organisations, including Australian Volunteers International (www.avi.org.au) and New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad (www.vsa.org.nz). The UN also operates its own volunteer program; details are available at www.unv.org. Other general volunteer sites with links all over the place include www.voluntourism.org and www.goabroad.com/volunteer-abroad.
In recent years, visiting orphanages in the developing world – Cambodia in particular – has become a popular activity, but is it always good for the children and the country in the longer run? Tough question. ‘Orphan tourism’ and all the connotations that come with it is a disturbing development that has brought unscrupulous elements into the world of caring for Cambodian children. There have already been reports of new orphanages opening up with a business model to bring in a certain number of visitors per month. In other cases, the children are not orphans at all, but are ‘borrowed’ from the local school for a fee.
Save the Children have said that most children living in orphanages throughout the developing world have at least one parent still alive. More than eight million children worldwide are living in institutions, with most sent there by their families because of poverty rather than the death of a parent. Many are in danger of abuse and neglect from carers, as well as exploitation and international trafficking, with children aged under three most at risk.
The Save the Children report stated: ‘One of the biggest myths is that children in orphanages are there because they have no parents. This is not the case. Most are there because their parents simply can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them'. From 2005 to 2010, the number of orphanages in Cambodia almost doubled from 153 to 269. Of the 12,000 Cambodian children in institutions, only about 28% are genuine orphans without both parents.
Many orphanages in Cambodia are doing a good job in tough circumstances. Some are world class, enjoy funding and support from wealthy benefactors, and don’t need visitors; others are desperate places that need all the help they can get. However, if a place is promoting orphan tourism, then proceed with caution, as the adults may not always have the best interests of the children at heart.
Child-welfare experts also recommend that any volunteering concerning children should involve a minimum three-month commitment – having strangers drop in and out of their lives on short visits can be detrimental to a child's emotional well-being and development. Some organisations, such as Friends International and Unicef, recommend travellers never volunteer at orphanages. Friends International and Unicef joined forces in 2011 to launch the ‘Think Before Visiting’ campaign. Learn more at www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting before you inadvertently contribute to the problem.
Jobs are available throughout Cambodia, but apart from teaching English or helping out in guesthouses, bars or restaurants, most are for professionals and are arranged in advance. There is a lot of teaching work available for English-language speakers and salary is directly linked to experience. Anyone with an English-language teaching certificate can earn considerably more than those with no qualifications.
For information about work opportunities with NGOs, call into Phnom Penh's Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which has a noticeboard for positions vacant. If you are thinking of applying for work with NGOs, you should bring copies of your education certificates and work references. However, most of the jobs available are likely to be on a voluntary basis, as most recruiting for specialised positions is done in home countries or through international organisations.
Other places to look for work include the classifieds section of the Phnom Penh Post and on noticeboards at guesthouses and restaurants in Phnom Penh.
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