Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage?

This article is copied from Trip Advisor – though actually I wrote it and it has been reviewed and positively commented on by others. It was written to encourage potential volunteers to think about the issues before they turn up to “help the children” in Cambodia.  In 2011-2012 there was orchestrated bad-press towards orphanages; used to help push the Cambodian Government to take steps to clean up the local scene.


Around Siem Reap there are many orphanages and many visitors of the 2 million who come through the town each year feel that they would like to make a difference. What’s the best strategy? How does one know the orphanage is above board? Is it even a wise thing to do – or is visiting an orphanage a morally dubious activity that perpetuates poverty?

First, be very clear that most children (at least 75% or more) in Cambodian orphanages are not strictly orphans: they may have one or both parent – but these families are simply unable to provide the food and care that the children need. Without any government safety net, the community itself has to come up with its own solutions to assist these children.

One option for a parent is to literally sell their children – generally to a family who might put that child to work in a cafe or restaurant. That child will get food and roof over their head – love even – though it is likely they won’t get an education.

The other option is to place the child at one of a network of orphanages. By and large these are under-resourced, but actually a lot better environment for the child than their actual home. Bear in mind that Siem Reap province is, according to Cambodian Government figures, the second poorest region in the nation. (The town is comparacitvely wealthy – but even here there is a conspicuous income gap.)  In the province, around 30% of families are below the poverty line which is set at $US30 income per month.

So that is the context and reason for so many orphanages.

They are a legitmate response to a big social problem. However some orphanages are more legitimate than others. To provide a measure of protection for the children, the Cambodian Government has a licensing system, and to qualify and be registered local orphanages need fulfill a range of conditions – for example with clean pump water, and a demonstrable level of resources – the standard of proof being that the organisation has $US5,000 in their bank account at the time of registration.

In 2013 the Government has started tightening up protocols and standards and introducing a lot more paperwork – for example to develop clearer responsibilities on the part of the orphanage.  Good hearts are one thing – but these organisations need good management, good systems.

How can visitors assist?

Volunteers are less useful than they used to be, and had better be ready to do a lot more than simply turn up, take photos and report their experience to thier friends on FaceBook.

Think seriously about what you can offer. Volunteers can assist through a range of activities including teaching, involving children in play or sport activities, or getting involved in practical projects. There are many good centres and volunteers have carried out projects as diverse as building a new toilet block, assisting by building a fish pond for the orphanage to raise their own food, planting fruit trees, building furniture, teaching, putting up a much loved and used volleyball net, and assisting with the website. In other words whatever skill set you have – any orphanage may find a way to employ you.

Many NGOs and experienced volunteers will tell you that to make a worthwhile contribution time-wise, you need to spend several weeks (some say more than 6 months) with the project. Then, and only then can you make a true difference.

How can you be sure it is a legitimate project?

Frankly there have been stories of some unscrupulous people using poor children as a front – a way to get tourist dollars. To make sure, ask for proof of the organization’s registration. If they are not registered with the Government then steer clear.

A better step is to do your homework first and to conduct a web search, contact the organisations and contact previous volunteers and ask them about their impressions – both upside and downside.

And don’t forget, the orphanage wants to be sure YOU are legitimate also. There have been cases of paedophiles turning up to volunteer in some places, and the local orphanage directors are well aware of the potential problem. Increasingly volunteers will be asked to present a Police clearance form from their own country, or similar verification. You should also bring a copy of your passport ID when you volunteer, and expect to be accompanied (not in a bad way) by other local adults. Try not to put yourself in a compromising position either – for example it is better to volunteer with a friend or partner.

Make a donation.

One of the truly disappointing things a tourist can do is turn up, spend a short while, get a photo of themselves with the children, and then move on without leaving even a donation. This happens, especially at orphanges near the temples or the town. Look: be serious – if you truly wish to make a difference, then give seriously.  It takes $32 to feed a child for a month – then give 3 or 6 or 12 months worth. Go with the staff and buy sacks of rice.

NGO directors discuss these issues frequently, and one strategy many are adopting is to welcome volunteers (preferably those who can stay more than a few weeks) but also to charge a minimum donation. This is to discourage any inconsiderate “Facebook Volunteers” who turn up, take photos, disrupt routines and give nothing in return.

Even if your chosen NGO doesn’t do this; before you visit, work out a fair donation – one you’re comfortable with – and discuss that with the the orphanage director. Ask, “I’d like to assist you with a $xx donation – how will that be spent? What do you need?” Generally it is easier to raise and set expectations up front rather than have that awkward feeling where the director doesn’t wish to feel greedy and meanwhile you’re wondering “when’s a good moment to talk about money?” Another tip would be, give just a little more than you promised. That way everyone gains face.

If you wish to be careful that the money goes to help the children, a simple strategy is to suggest that you’d like to buy $xx of books or stationery (or whatever is needed) and would the director llike to come shopping with you to buy this?

What the children need.

Budgets will vary depending on the size and conditions of each orphanage, but the budgets worked out at one centre in 2010 might be a guideline.

Food and shelter for each child. $US32 per month – about a dollar a day. That covers food, petrol for the generator, staff.

Education for the child. $US15+ per month. Local primary and secondary schools now seem to charge for children to attend, so education is no longer free. This, of course, will make a big difference to the child’s future.

When you discuss needs with an orphanage, keep an eye out. Do those kids need new clothes? Is there a classroom and is it equipped? Are there books, toys or volleyballs?  Do the beds – the children sleep many to a room – have mosquito nets?

Maintain your connection.

Visiting and volunteering for a few days is a very good experience but ought to be part of something more serious. Remember, these orphanages are being run for the sake of the children, not for the sake of visitors seeking a “third world moment.”  One thing that you might consider doing is – if you have a good experience, and feel very comfortable with what you’ve seen, maintain contact – for example by sponsoring a child or sending a regular donation. A serious commitment will reward you.

Arguments against visiting orphanages.

There has been increasing press in the last 5 years arguing against the support of orphanages. One argument; that since these children have parents, then isn’t it better to support the families?

A second argument is that short term visits by volunteers simply destabilise the home life of the children who need structure, rather than a parade of strangers coming and going and taking their photos. (Some orphanages now ban cameras.)

A third argument is that by supporting orphanages one is supporting a system of human trafficking – whereby unscrupulous directors get an income stream through having the lure of poor children.In some instances this has been the case.

  1. In my view support for families is always best however this comes back to employment, having a social welfare safety-net (many children have a solo-mother who cannot cope by herself,) and dealing with the endemic social justice challenges facing Cambodia. In the meantime there is a long tradition in Cambodia of sending children from families where there is hardship, to monasteries.
  2. In terms of the destabilising effects of having visitors, this is best countered by having a good well structured home for the children that is not overly visitor dependent. It also comes with having good rules around what visitors can or cannot do. Are they here to teach for example: then what is destabilising about that?
  3. The human trafficking argument has been dealt with largely by the registration of orphanages and the mandatory requirement to have clear documentation that demonstrates the relationship between the orphanage and their family of the child. This has been a welcome development at the SOC.

For those considering a stint of volunteering, the three key questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Is the institution you are visiting truly geared for the benefit of the children (and their families?)
  • Are you, as a visitor, truly committed to make a permanent and positive long term difference to at least one child?
  • Three: would you be prepared to do this and leave your camera behind? Are your motives about you? Or about the children?

 See also:

  1. A link showing holidays in Cambodia 2014
  2. Five things I love about Savong’s School – Cambodia