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Crossing Cambodia & Voluntourism

As of late a video and news article about Cambodia and issues involving orphanages and “voluntourism” has been making the rounds about the internet. It was first published in April, but it keeps popping up from time to time. It surely is an important reminder of the dangers that are present in working with children in a developing nation and to illustrate why we must be careful when we set foot into another country and culture and what kind of effect we have on the people. And while Crossing Cambodia does not run an orphanage and we have no plans to ever do so, we feel the article warrants a response from us to explain how we are hoping to reach out to children in a responsible and respectful way.

Voluntourism in short is the concept of doing some small volunteer project while on vacation, or using a volunteer opportunity as a form of vacation. Often times this transforms into organizations seeking to connect with tourists as a method of raising support for their causes. In itself this is not necessarily always bad as it may help to support certain issues that are not on the mainstream radar for international aid. However, the ethical line sometimes becomes difficult to discern when it begins to involve children. This is where much of the criticism and concern begins. Instead of just coming and visiting tourist venues, tourists are offered something like a day trip where they go spend time at an orphanage and meet the adorable children living there. The purpose may originally have been to try and raise attention and awareness, but many places have become dependent on this and abuse of the system has become a big issue.

Some orphanages (certainly not all) encourage unknown adults to come into their premises. They teach the children to sing and dance to impress tourists and give them a unique vacation experience. And in the end people drop money into the coffers and some promise to keep supporting the facility from afar. Many people have taken advantage of the trusting nature of tourists and exploited the children in these situations for their own gain. Thus voluntourism has begun to take on a very negative connotation here in Cambodia.

At Crossing Cambodia we choose not to participate in “voluntourism” as our kids are not a sideshow nor are they something we hope to profit from. We do not invite people to come and see our kids so that they can give us donations to keep our projects running. Our organization is supported by committed and informed donors from across the world who have chosen to give in spite of the fact that many of them have never been to Cambodia and possibly never will. We do not solicit funds from tourists as it is my job as the Mission Director to travel to and from North America and connect with donors and churches to raise the support necessary and find resources for our local staff to conduct outreach and share God’s love with these children.

When we do have volunteers that come out, we expect them to work and we are not expecting any financial return from them. They are here to serve, they are here to make sure our kids know that they are loved, and our full-time staff are here as well to make sure that we are mentoring and guiding these children. We do not want these children to have unrealistic expectations of foreigners, so we use the efforts of short term volunteers to build a strong foundation of love in the lives of children we work with and continue to empower our local staff to build on that foundation. We hope that our kids will therefore have a healthy understanding of God’s love that motivates people to travel half-way around the globe to meet them and spend time with them.

Any volunteers coming for a short term of less than one month will only be working in close communication and supervision of our staff and all volunteers who come for more than one month are required to submit a criminal history report to us prior to their coming.

Crossing Cambodia is not an orphanage, but we do work with the poor and broken. We work with children who are vulnerable. And we hope to do so responsibly and in accordance with both God’s law and Cambodian law. We have sought the permission of local level government and we are fulfilling the requirements for our official NGO application.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

We are seeking to keep these children with their families whenever possible and by putting God’s love into action we hope to see Him heal the brokenness that affects them and their families. We hope that God will continue to give us opportunities to serve them and make known His love.

It sometimes can be easy to forget about rules when we have good intentions. But as Peter reminds and encourages us in his letter, we must submit to the government so that we will not be blamed, and when others see the work we do as God pushes us forward they too will know of His awesome love.

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