A young lady on a gap year holiday

Giving up the ‘gap yah’: how to make sure you volunteer responsibly

We caught up with VSO’s Responsible Volunteering Specialist, Clare Hawkes, a long-term volunteer who teamed up with ICS volunteers in Cambodia. Find out how they're working together to raise awareness about orphanage ‘voluntourism’ and responsible volunteering.  

My passion was kickstarted by visiting an orphanage

Woman standing outside next to a river looking out to the water
Becky Mursell/ VSO
Clare's passion for responsible volunteering was kickstarted by a visit to an orphanage

Currently in Phnom Penh on a two-year placement with VSO, Clare found her passion for responsible volunteering while on two previous VSO placements – kickstarted by a trip to a local orphanage.   

“I volunteered for VSO in Nepal from 2005 to 2007 and then again from 2014 to 2016. It was in Nepal I became aware of the problems around orphanages and voluntourism after I visited a friend who was working in an orphanage close by.

“She talked to us about all the concerns she had and how as she was finding out more about the children, they weren’t orphans at all. Most of the children actually had parents and had been brought into the city from remote hill regions,” she added. 

Orphanages in Nepal, Cambodia and many other parts of the world are under long-standing criticism. Eighty percent of children in these institutions have at least one living parent and although decades of research has shown that children are better cared for within a family setting, money and volunteers continue to flow into orphanages.  

A group of young schoolchildren laugh together
VSO / Thomas Roos
Orphanages are opening to capitalise on the demand from western volunteers

Orphanages are expanding to satisfy the demand

The issues surrounding voluntourism and orphanages arise where institutions often attempt to meet the growing demand for voluntary work. The high demand for voluntary placements within orphanages means that there are not enough children to satisfy the demands within the institutions. As a result, new orphanages are opening their doors and encouraging vulnerable families to place their children in care, opening them up to serious harm. 

We recognise the valuable and compelling academic research that demonstrates the detrimental impacts that volunteer contact can have on institutionalised children.
Philip Goodwin

Volunteers who lack the proper skills, experience and background checks to work with young children add further to the risk for these already vulnerable children.

“VSO has been working with volunteers for nearly 60 years to help address poverty and social exclusion across the globe," said Phillip Goodwin, CEO of VSO. 

"We recognise the valuable and compelling academic research that demonstrates the detrimental impacts volunteer contact can have on institutionalised children.

"This is why VSO does not support such placements.” 

A Nepalese house looking inside through the door
VSO / Suraj Shakya
Children are taken from families and trafficked into orphanages

Resettling children trafficked into orphanages

Following Clare’s visit to the orphanage in Nepal, she became increasingly aware of the work carried out by Next Generation Nepal, a charity which works to resettle children living in orphanages with their families. Clare researched the detrimental impacts that orphanages can have on young children. She found that whilst orphanages can be necessary as a short-term solution following a crisis, they should not be viewed as a long-term solution and children should stay with their families wherever possible.  

two women sat on a step outside a building talking to eachother with a laptop
Sovanvatey Khoun
Clare and Chakreya are based in the VSO Cambodia office

So why does it happen? 

Girl standing in front of a classroom, presenting
Chakreya is a national VSO volunteer raising awareness on responsible volunteering

Chakreya Bout is a national volunteer and works alongside Clare in VSO’s Phnom Penh office. She highlighted the harmful nature of orphanages in countries such as Cambodia and why parents in difficult circumstances face no choice but to send their children to such institutions. 

“Parents who are in extreme poverty often think that they have no choice but to send their children to orphanages, where their children can access a free education. However, it’s more complicated than this. Extensive research highlights that children’s development can really suffer if they are placed in these institutions,” Chakreya said.  

“First and foremost, we should focus on supporting communities and families - the root of the problem.

“Working with VSO Cambodia, I want to inspire people to carry out volunteer work, whilst raising awareness about responsible volunteering. In the future, I hope to see responsible volunteering as the main concern when people are thinking about doing a volunteer placement.“ 

ICS volunteers sit in front of a big group of children in Cambodia
VSO / Cesar Lopez Balan
ICS volunteers in Cambodia were keen to get involved with Clare's work

"And that's when the importance hit home"

It’s here in Cambodia where Clare and Chakreya teamed up with ICS volunteers, including Daphne Tapfumaneyi, to raise awareness surrounding the importance of responsible volunteering. This was carried out through different projects, including campaign videos and through volunteers’ Action at Home.  

The ICS volunteers were so enthusiastic. It’s so important to have them on board.
Clare Hawkes
Responsible volunteering specialist, VSO Cambodia

Daphne, 27, is from Luton and volunteered with ICS in Cambodia. She worked with Clare and other volunteers to help spread the message on ways to ensure positive impacts when working with local communities.  

“I met Clare at an annual conference in Cambodia. She’s so inspirational and became a support network for us all. When she came to visit us to ask if we wanted to get involved in raising awareness for responsible volunteering, we were all really up for it and that’s when the importance of the work really hit home," said Daphne.

group of volunteers standing in front of a school holding a banner with cambodian writing
Daphne and her team during their ICS placement in Cambodia

“She did a training session for volunteers on responsible volunteering and we learnt more about deterring people from volunteering in orphanages and it brought on discussions around what is good and bad volunteering." 

So, what is Clare's advice to make sure you're volunteering responsibly?

“What you need to ask yourself before taking part in any voluntary work is: is this voluntourism, or am I going to be volunteering in a community-driven development project? Why do they want me to be involved? When I finish the placement, what am I handing over or leaving behind?" said Clare.

 “I’ve seen some really amazing work being carried out by ICS volunteers. They’re raising awareness and mobilising the community about important issues like sexual health and inclusive education. I’ve also seen case studies where young people have helped start small businesses or helped to diversify what they’re producing to make a higher income. With these examples, you’re leaving knowledge in communities to improve chances.” 

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