On not visiting an orphanage in Cambodia

A long time ago, Chris and I worked in an institutional care setting as foster parents with a number of vulnerable children. We lived in the same house, and were responsible for their everyday needs. We were ‘foster mum’ and ‘foster dad’ . It was hard.

Anyway, not once did a mini van full of tourists pull up and come in to hug, kiss and photograph the children. I would have called the police!! And never, ever, did the children have to dress up and dance to earn enough money to buy themselves food and clothing.

No, they were considered vulnerable, and entitled to privacy and security. As a matter of basic human rights they also received education, recreation, food, clothing shelter and participated appropriately in the community. I cannot tell you their names or why they were in care. I certainly can’t put their photos online.  The child protection system in Australia has many shortcomings, but this much at least, I believe, was done right.

In Cambodia, however, its a very different story.

In Cambodia the number of orphanages has nearly doubled in the last five years, corresponding exactly with what has happened to the numbers of tourists visiting the country (ref UNICEF). In Cambodia, running a private orphanage can be a lucrative operation. In Cambodia, these institutions are not well regulated, and not government funded. In Cambodia, there is not a widespread understanding that children should wherever and whenever possible remain with their families, immediate or extended, and that institutional care should be considered a last resort.

In Cambodia, visiting orphanages is listed as a tourist attraction on Tripadvisor, right up there with temples, museums and restaurants.

Here are a few comments people have posted on Tripadvisor about their experiences of visiting orphanages.

Everyone visiting Siem Reap should go to XYZ orphanage. It’s a powerful experience.

Seriously, everyone? all 1.6 million people per year? (ref Lonely planet) What would that do for the children?  And what if they all gave $1? How on earth would a small unregulated organisation cope with the income? A powerful experience for whom?

Someone else wrote:

Find out the kids stories (and bring a handkerchief – the stories are tragic)… they’ve been abandoned, often living on the streets, escaping from terrible situations of abuse, etc…. but then see the joy in the children’s eyes as they perform and you interact with them before and after the show. It’s clear the orphanage is an amazing help for them… it’s an important stepping stone, and yet they deserve so much more.

Go there for the kids, but know you’ll walk away with a gift of a great sense of compassion and empathy that will make your experience in Cambodia far more meaningful than you probably ever expected.

Imagine if you had been rescued form an abusive or neglectful environment and had to retell (or hear someone else retell) your painful story every night. I don’t think there is any brand of therapy that would recommend daily public rehashing followed by compulsory dancing as a method of recovery.

Here’s another suggestion from Tripadvisor:

“Make sure you bring money to donate – the orphanage uses the show as a revenue-raiser. And you can’t help but fall in love with the kids, and you’d feel really bad if you didn’t at least give something to help out.”


So, if i give some money I can stop feeling bad about poor kids in Cambodia? And I get to fall in love at the same time?

Sounds like a great deal.

This guy has at least thought about the issue:

Ok so my wife and I understand the whole ‘children are not tourist attractions’ argument, but if you can tell us another way these places can get funding then please do.

The point is, these places shouldn’t be there in the first place, 269 of them was one recent estimate. Why so many orphanages? (ref Cambodian Beginnings)

One volunteer at xyz orphanage wrote about driving to a remote village to collect three children whose mother was giving them up as she could not afford to provide for them.

“It was sad, but we felt great that we were taking the kids to a better place”

Up to 3/4 of children in Cambodian orphanages are not true orphans and actually have close living relatives. Families in extreme poverty or after the death of one parent often must choose an orphanage for their children as that is the only way to get help.  And of course, most orphanages are in towns where tourists are, not near the families.

And of course orphanages are not cost effective anyway. It is much cheaper to support families to care for their own children at home, than to pluck them out, necessitating the funding of buildings and staff and administration (ref ThinkChildSafe).  So of course these places need funding IF they are to continue. But maybe they shouldn’t continue, and maybe more should not be opened. The tourist and aid dollar should be redirected to projects which support families and communities.

At one orphanage:

I was just able to walk in and start playing with kids. 

We would not allow that for our healthy, protected, well-adjusted children, why should highly vulnerable children be exposed to this?  The very thing they need is protection, and long lasting secure attachments to one or two safe adults. This cannot be achieved by the constant meeting of new visitors, even if they stay a week or two (ref ThinkChildSafe).

They really seem to be having a positive effect on the community. The best proof of this is in the children – at the end of the show, the little ones (the less shy ones) come down off stage hoping to chat to you so they can practice their english. One little girl even came and sat on my lap. You can tell they are really trying hard to educate themselves. They were also extremely polite. I definitely recommend a visit.

Children who are over eager in hugging and sitting on the laps of strangers are typically emotionally very needy (ref UNICEF).  It has also occurred to me that ‘learning English’ seems to cover a multitude of sins.

This is ‘aid’ in its awfullest form. When we are encouraged to give because children are hard working, or shy, or confident, or polite, or cute, or whatever attribute we attribute them.  The fact is, people need help because they are people who need help. Need, not appeal MUST be the determining factor.

And sometimes, the truly needy are rude and ugly and do not give you warm fuzzy feelings when you help them. Sometimes, the best way of helping is not to meet people at all, its to donate money from afar, to someone more local and with more of a clue of how to help (and who speaks the language and does not require photos of you with smiling, grateful recipient).

What’s the answer then?

Well its not what I did 15 years ago.

I was 21 and in India. I wanted to volunteer with children. I spent maybe 4 days ‘teaching english’ to some kids who lived in one of the slums of  Calcutta.  Here I am sitting with the children.

Here I am with a little girl on my lap who doesn’t have a clue who I am.

I also went a few days to a place offering care for the boys who lived and worked at Howrah train station. Here I am sewing up some ripped clothes for them.

Here I am playing on a see-saw.

Aside from probably not teaching them anything, I achieved the following:

  • nice photos
  • lots of feeling good
  • something to tick off my list and tell people about
  • A great deal of learning and growth and stuff to think about, no doubt which made me a wiser person, more compassionate more aware of the world around me.

These are mostly good things, and I am grateful for the experience. But I no longer believe it served any benefit whatsoever to the children. I was one of a constant stream of white faces drifting in and out of their lives.  For them, a neutral experience at best.

The answer?

There is no simple answer to the problems of extremely poor countries, but we will be choosing to respond in these ways instead:

  1. We will seek out agencies working ethically with families and communities and support them with donations but not visits. This will not result in lovely photos, unless you want a boring pic of Chris doing an online banking transfer.
  2. We will pray for an end to suffering and poverty. Because we believe in a God who both weeps, and acts.
  3. We will spend as much of our travel budget on local business, and direct to the producer, rather than on foreign owned goods and middle men. This is pretty tricky, but we’ll try. We also particularly like to buy things from people with disabilities wherever possible.

Inevitably, some istitutional care is necessary, but its not the best answer, even when it is very well done. But we won’t be visiting orphanages. Not in Cambodia, or anywhere else like it.  We should like to volunteer our time and energies, somewhere. It is going to be difficult to find an opportunity where we all can be involved, and that is actually helpful, and that is not long term.

Two questions for you.

Would you or have you visited orphanages?

Any practical ideas for our family volunteering? We are a large, loud and unweildy bunch at times…..


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46 Responses to On not visiting an orphanage in Cambodia

  1. Rosie May 10, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    This is a great article.

    I am in fact volunteering for 2 months at an orphanage in a small village in Cambodia in November. I have had numerous discussions about how this can be harmful for various reasons. And it is something that concerns me an awful lot. I have committed to this project now, but researched into the orphanage. It is run by a woman from the Isle of Wight, UK, where I come from. They employ 14 local khmer people and the work of the volunteers isnt taking away paid jobs from locals. Sue, who lives onsite. runs it and has sold her home in the UK to enable her to set it up, has invested heavily into the orphanage. Volunteers do not pay a penny, unlike some large companies that want thousands for the ‘privelidge of helping’. A lot of the work will actually be to help maintain the grounds, cook, clean etc rather than ‘teach’ the children. Sue will not take volunteers who cannot commit to at least one month, so as to try to make the revolving door of international volunteers not quite so damaging to the children. There is no corruption within this orphanage, and Sue suffered prior to this when donating money to a local run organisation; her money went straight into the pockets of wealthy business men.

    While this may still not be ideal, and I am by no means doing this project to enable me to go on a self-centred, glorifying mission to make me feel good. Independent research allowed me to find this orphanage and I was attracted by the fact that I would not be taking another person’s job; though there is the debate that if I instead donated money that it could be used to then employ another local. The orphanage also offer free education to local village children, rather than being solely inclusive to those residing at the orphanage, which allows children to stay with their families but still receive vital schooling.

    I am very aware of the numerous problems with orphanages in Cambodia, and agree that they are not the answer to the problems. I am concerned about my forthcoming project, and do not wish to be tarred by the brush of those who work in the orphanages for a few days to make themselves feel good and get some ‘cute’ pictures. I feel that after working there, I will have a more in-depth knowledge surrounding the issues with orphanage work and will be able to use this knowledge to enable me to work in a more beneficial way to the Cambodians. However, I feel that my forthcoming work is in some ways good and vital for this particular orphanage. Without the help of volunteers the standard of the orphanage may not be as good as it can, and Sue is aware of the issues surrounding orphanages and ‘volontourism’ – there are certainly NO dancing shows, and no hoards of tourists being dropped off by the bus load at the gates.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on my response, and once again thank you for writing such a great article,


  2. alfred August 23, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    While from a certain vantage point, I whole-heartedly agree with the writer, I do have a fair share of an opposing view not because I do not believe in human rights, but from an anthropological point of view, and following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when one hasnt even had the fundamentals of food and sanctuary in his or her daily life, the basis of rights seem to be more obscure than a developed country. Yes everyone has rights but in the reality, one needs to put “rights” aside so that he or she can have a “bite” first to survive. The kids probably need to do the extreme in many instances under those circumstances they are in, and rights will have to take a back seat at that juncture.

    Just a different perspective despite the fact that I will stand by your points if I am to ask to make a distinct one sided opinion on who I will agree.

    God bless.

  3. Joanne Joseph October 25, 2013 at 12:37 am #

    Hello Jill,

    I found your article very thought provoking and a bit disturbing. It makes me wonder how many times when we do what we think is an act of kindness, we are in fact causing harm. I would love to see an article based on interviewing the children when they become young adults. Did they resent the visits? Did any good come from the donations? Was the human interaction a plus or minus in their opinion? Thank you for making me think.

  4. Helen McLean January 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    What an interesting lot we are! Personally i visited a child care center in Siem Reap in Jan.2012.I was shocked that this group of children lived in such poor conditions.I visited daily bringing fresh fruit and vegetables.
    It was clear that the Pastor and his family was doing the best they could with what they had…no tuk tuk, no car ,certainly no wages but were sharing with these children their home and food.Sure not all were orphans,some were abused by a family member,others came from extremely poor families, some only a mother or father….but now they had a home,love a chance to go to school,and have
    regular food…
    In March 2013 we all moved into out new house which I lease…4 bedrooms,3 bathrooms,dining room and school room.30 go to regular school,learn English,everyone is healthy, wear good clothes and we welcome visitors.This is what we can do!!!I’m proud of our progress,not all centers are bad,but a lot of children are subjected to bad lives…..

  5. Matt G January 6, 2015 at 2:43 am #

    Recently someone from Cambodia got back in touch with me.  

    It got me thinking again about my experience in Siem Reap 5 years ago, and I wanted to add my experience.

    I arrived in Cambodia in Jan 2010 with my backpack, enthusiastic yet very naive.

    I had read a blog about some other backpackers who had recently volunteered at an orphanage near Siem Reap, who had a great experience, and said the orphanage was looking for English teachers.

    I met the director soon after arriving in Siem Reap and enrolled as English teacher, hoping to do some good and looking for that amazing travelling experience.

    About 2 weeks in though it started to suspect something was wrong, and left at the end of Feb 2010 (after 4 weeks) being convinced that the owner was corrupt and that the kids were being exploited for his selfish means.

    If beg anyone thinking about volunteering / donating to a Cambodian Orphanage to first research, research, research and very carefully think about it before you do anything similar.

    The people at my orphanage were very clever.  I would have sworn on my life that the place was legit after my first week there.  So please be careful about listening to people who have visited such a place for just a short time and therefore affirm it’s legitimacy.

    I ask you to please read the following links for more info:



    Of course this does not mean that all NGOs are Cambodia are corrupt, of course not, I just believe people really need to be careful

  6. Jane June 10, 2016 at 8:22 am #

    I know this was posted years ago yet….

    So good. So true. I’ve done some ‘volunteering’ in Eastern Africa (and am consequently, continually, convicted of my ways) and have come to these same conclusions. The attachment disorders, the explotation, and the turning a blind eye to what is actually happening has been shocking. The fact that western NGOs have implemented a societal system that encourages locals to create these institution is an injustice in itself. When wealthy nonprofits glorify instutional care through salary and wages and media, they are creating a pull system. NGOs need to be held accountable for the trends they have pushed and the swing that culture takes. (Ex. Ugandan villages traditionally would absorb children who were abandoned back into the folds of the community, now because of creation of orphanages, the pull effect influences the dropping of abandoned youth at the steps of orphanages). Thanks for your so many years back.

  7. Helen McLean January 29, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    January 29th 2017

    5 years since I last posted.I still support the children and lease the same house for 36 children and staff.
    Some of the older ones have gone back to families or now have jobs and about 10 younger ones have joined us.
    I have looked at every avenue re: the children living with family members or foster care but with so with much poverty and abuse these children are not guaranteed a safe life.Most of the children living at the center have been bought to us from the police,or relatives that are very poor or too old or ill to look after them.
    I personally fund this group ( with a few donations from family,friends and the local Lion’s club) so I know how all the money is spent.I visit x2 a year,welcome volunteers and think that visitors are helpful.The children look forward to meeting people from different cultures,practicing English and being made a fuss of..sure some of the centers get lots of money and are not honest but gradually they are being closed down or becoming accountable..if you are visiting a center and you are dubious donate food such as rice $28 for 50kgs.fruit, eggs, vegetables.Schools supply books and pencils…..


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