A business built on guilt: the dark side of doing good

Ever thought about going abroad and spending some time as a volunteer doing good for the local community? If so, you are not alone – especially when you had Cambodia on your list. The number of volunteers coming into the country has skyrocketed during the past decade. While most of them might come with the best intentions, a closer look suggests that more harm than good is done by this trend of ‘Voluntourism’.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. During the devastating Khmer Rouge regime’s rule (1975-79), up to a third of the population died from executions, overwork, starvation and disease. Despite ongoing border conflicts with Thailand, Cambodia is now looking back on a decade of relative political stability and tremendous GDP growth, albeit from a low base. Tourism makes up more than a third of the country’s economy and remains the fastest growing industry. Today, more and more people come to Cambodia not only for its mind-blowing temples, but to pay a visit to one of the many orphanages that have mushroomed across the country.

Where there is a need there is a market. In 2008, there were 258 orphanages, 237 of which were privately owned (up from 140 in 2005). While the country was full of orphans after the war in the early 80’s, this is no longer the case. Government figures suggest that only a quarter of the children living in orphanages have lost both parents. Evil to him who evil thinks. In fact, “renting out” children to orphanages has become a source of income for poor families and a very lucrative business for those who operate the establishments. Beyond these perverse incentives, operation of orphanages by profit-seeking businessmen has a multitude of negative repercussions on children’s wellbeing.

Psychological problems. Many volunteers/ visitors stay at the orphanage for a very short period, sometimes only a few days. This means a constant coming and going of attachment figures, in many cases leading to psychological problems. In the extreme, when tourists just make a short stopover, orphanage visits get the resemblance of an excursion to the zoo. Sweets are offloaded, children cuddled and pictures taken – “look guys this is myself with that cute bunch of graceful poor kids”.

Little oversight. If the agenda is moneymaking rather than childcare, orphanages have an incentive to attract as many visitors as possible. This means little is done to ensure child safety. As Ian Birrell put it: “what would we say if unchecked foreigners went into our children’s homes to cuddle and care for the kids? We would be shocked, so why should standards be lowered in the developing world?” To bring in a little personal experience here: when I volunteered in an orphanage/ English school near Siem Reap, no background check nor interview was performed beforehand.

Of course, not all Voluntourism happens at orphanages. Volunteer agencies, some of which are large international companies, charge hefty fees for project placements ranging from the construction of schools to teaching and farming. As a consequence, wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs rather than helping the local community. While I did not pay for my volunteering term, my assignments (apart from teaching) included doing minor construction works and helping out on the farm – tasks that might as well be performed by local paid labor.

I am convinced that many individuals and organizations are contributing invaluably to the local community. But the majority should ask themselves if they are led by their hearts or their heads when deciding on a social endeavor. Coming home with a backpack full of heartwarming pictures and a good feeling is tempting, but not necessarily compatible with doing real good.


Three months of volunteering in Beng Mealea, Cambodia (2010)






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3 Responses to A business built on guilt: the dark side of doing good

  1. Anonymous says:

    Guilty as charged. I also went to Cambodia on a volunteering program a few years ago. While I was there, I met with several other organizations and saw the important work they did. There are specific groups of people who need assistance and not getting enough from the government such as HIV patients, orphans, handicapped people, etc. If an organization has a clear vision and a quantifiable goal, I think there’s a role for that. However, I do agree that how to help the poor is a difficult question. Hasty action by the energetic young can distort the market and have unwanted consequences.
    As a side note, this is what I wrote about my experience in Cambodia with SealNet


    • Laurents says:

      Thanks for your comment Vina. I’m with you that many organizations are doing a great job helping people in need, especially those who don’t get enough support from the government. With more than enough privately run orphanages (as substandard as they might be) though, I don’t see any incentive for the Cambodian government to provide such services and facilities. At some point, international organizations have to get the Cambodian government involved so that it can stand on its own feet. The question is, do aid organizations have any incentive to do just that and pull out at some point? I know this was not part of my blog but it’s a big issue in Cambodia (and probably many other countries) these days. A good book that slightly touches on this catch is: http://www.amazon.com/Bottom-Billion-Poorest-Countries-Failing/dp/0195373383

      • Anonymous says:

        I would recommend “Poor Economics” by Banerjee and Duflo as well (I am actually teaching on this next semester). Haven’t read the other one but will take a look, perhaps I can add it to the reading list. Thanks.


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