Millions of people around the world volunteer their time for the benefit of others, both in their home communities and abroad. In Cambodia, many people are moved by what they read about the country, or witness with their own eyes during a visit, and are motivated to give up their time, and invariably their money, to come and help in some way. To realise that so many of the basic things that are taken for granted, (sufficient food, clean water, housing, education, healthcare, electricity, sanitation, state support for families in crisis etc), are not guaranteed for many people in Cambodia often has a very profound impact. Recognising that there are fellow human beings in great need and then trying to do something about it is without doubt a very positive action.
Volunteering can bring benefits for all concerned. The best placements enable the volunteer to have a rewarding experience whilst also bringing useful support to the project and the people it serves. By contrast, inappropriate volunteering can undermine local people’s confidence, impose the volunteer’s agenda, increase the dependency on outside help, unwittingly support and perpetuate questionable projects and practices, and create more problems than it solves.
Volunteering in Cambodia is serious stuff. It can certainly be enjoyable and great fun but it’s also important to remember it is work without pay, (and we all take our normal paid jobs seriously enough!) Your work could well be with people who have very challenging lives. You’re likely to be exhausted at the end of each day and emotionally drained at the end of it all. If all that hasn’t put you off, then read on!
So, what do we think makes a good volunteer placement?
Firstly, you need to ask some questions. When you volunteer, especially in a foreign country, you rely heavily on the guidance and support of those in charge. You quite reasonably assume many things about the project where you’ll be working, and you need to be sure that these basic requirements are in place:
1. Does the project where you’ll be working meet a real need, and is it the appropriate response to that need? (There is, for example, much concern from projects such as UNICEF, Save The Children, Friends International and others, that, in many instances, orphanages are not the right response to the needs of poor Cambodian children)
2. Does the project operate on sound principles; is it well managed, and financially transparent?
3. Is the programme run by people who have extensive knowledge of the issues that their project is trying to address?
4. Is your volunteer input really needed and will it contribute to improving the situation? (Or does the project really just want your money...)
5. Do effective screening and matching processes take place to ensure you can bring skills that match the needs of the communities where you’ll work?
6. Is the placement duration appropriate to the task, and long enough so that you can make an effective contribution? It may be possible for you to do something useful in a few days (when undertaking manual tasks for example). However, placements that work directly with people, (whether adults or children), need to be long enough for you to learn your role within the team, and to form appropriate relationships with the people you will be working with.
7. If your work is with vulnerable people, (such as children, young adults, people with learning or other disabilities, or people in extreme poverty), are there appropriate security measures, both within the application process and during your placement, to protect both the vulnerable and you?
8. Will your volunteering be taking away jobs from local people?
9. Will you have adequate supervision and guidance, and will your tasks be clearly explained?
10. If required, will you have general support to cope with life in a country where so many things are different, and have reasonable steps been taken to ensure your safety?
11. If you book through a volunteer programme:
- Ask what has been achieved by previous volunteers
- Look at their responsible tourism policy
- Do you know very clearly how your money is being used? How much of the fee goes to the project?
Be wary if they
- Resist putting you in touch with previous volunteers or local people
- Don’t clearly explain where and how you fit into their overall plans
- Don’t ask many questions about you (except how you’re going to pay)
It is particularly beneficial where volunteers can develop the capacity of the local staff in an project. An example would be where a professional teacher volunteers to work with the local teaching staff in a school or centre, rather than teaching the pupils directly. In this way the volunteer is less disruptive to the pupils and can pass on their skills and knowledge, enabling the local teachers to do their jobs better in the future.
There are also a few things that you can do:
- Plan ahead - think about why you want to volunteer, what you want to achieve, how long can you volunteer for?
- Research volunteering opportunities and make contact with your chosen project in plenty of time. The sooner you get in touch, and the longer you can stay, the more options you will have, and the more successful your placement will be
- Find out what you can about Cambodia before you arrive. Researching on the internet or reading some of the many travel books will pay dividends, especially in understanding local customs and in avoiding innocent misunderstandings
- Be sensitive to the Cambodian culture; dress and behave appropriately. Wear modest clothing; nothing skimpy, particularly women as Khmer culture is very conservative in the way women dress. Men should always wear a shirt whilst teaching or in other similar situations
- Try to ensure that your stay brings benefits to the wider community - help the local economy by buying local products in preference to imported goods
- If you want to make a donation, ask what your chosen project needs - it’s best not to assume and just buy things before you arrive
- Use water sparingly - there is an ever increasing demand in Siem Reap
- Play your part in the government’s attempts to keep Siem Reap clean - dispose of your litter carefully
- Remember you are a role model and ambassador for yourself and your home country. Set a good example at all times in the way your dress, your behaviour, and your time keeping
Download the Responsible Volunteering Guidelines (PDF)
ConCERT gives you two ways to arrange your volunteering experience:
Look through our member projects and find a match on your own.
We will find you a suitable placement that matches your skills and experience to the project’s needs.
Please be aware!
Whilst the vast majority of people involved in supporting the most vulnerable are genuine, there will always be a small minority who take advantage of people's situations for their own benefit.
You can play a vital part in combating child abuse and other problems.
In addition to the steps taken by the projects themselves, as someone from outside the project, you have a parallel responsibility to be vigilant during your placement. Don't hesitate to report any wrong doings or suspicious behaviour relating to child maltreatment or abuse, or any other malpractice.
If you fail to get a satisfactory response from the management, report your concerns to ConCERT who can put you in touch with the relevant authorities.
Problems can occur even in the best run projects.