A long time ago, Chris and I worked in an institutional care setting as foster parents with a number of vulnerable children. We lived in the same house, and were responsible for their everyday needs. We were ‘foster mum’ and ‘foster dad’ . Gosh, it was hard.

Anyway, not once did a mini van full of tourists pull up and come in to hug, kiss and photograph the children. I would have called the police!! And never, ever, did the children have to dress up and dance to earn enough money to buy themselves food and clothing.

No, they were considered vulnerable, and entitled to privacy and security. As a matter of basic human rights they also received education, recreation, food, clothing shelter and participated appropriately in the community. I cannot tell you their names or why they were in care. I certainly can’t put their photos online.  The child protection system in Australia has many shortcomings, but this much at least, I believe, was done right.

In Cambodia, however, its a very different story.

In Cambodia the number of orphanages has nearly doubled in the last five years, corresponding exactly with what has happened to the numbers of tourists visiting the country (ref UNICEF). In Cambodia, running a private orphanage can be a lucrative operation. In Cambodia, these institutions are not well regulated, and not government funded. In Cambodia, there is not a widespread understanding that children should wherever and whenever possible remain with their families, immediate or extended, and that institutional care should be considered a last resort.

In Cambodia, visiting orphanages is listed as a tourist attraction on Tripadvisor, right up there with temples, museums and restaurants.

Here are a few comments people have posted on Tripadvisor about their experiences of visiting orphanages.

Everyone visiting Siem Reap should go to XYZ orphanage. It’s a powerful experience.

Seriously, everyone? all 1.6 million people per year? (ref Lonely planet) What would that do for the children?  And what if they all gave $1? How on earth would a small unregulated organisation cope with the income? A powerful experience for whom?

Someone else wrote:

Find out the kids stories (and bring a handkerchief – the stories are tragic)… they’ve been abandoned, often living on the streets, escaping from terrible situations of abuse, etc…. but then see the joy in the children’s eyes as they perform and you interact with them before and after the show. It’s clear the orphanage is an amazing help for them… it’s an important stepping stone, and yet they deserve so much more.

Go there for the kids, but know you’ll walk away with a gift of a great sense of compassion and empathy that will make your experience in Cambodia far more meaningful than you probably ever expected.

Imagine if you had been rescued form an abusive or neglectful environment and had to retell (or hear someone else retell) your painful story every night. I don’t think there is any brand of therapy that would recommend daily public rehashing followed by compulsory dancing as a method of recovery.

Here’s another suggestion from Tripadvisor:

“Make sure you bring money to donate – the orphanage uses the show as a revenue-raiser. And you can’t help but fall in love with the kids, and you’d feel really bad if you didn’t at least give something to help out.”

So, if i give some money I can stop feeling bad about poor kids in Cambodia? And I get to fall in love at the same time?

Sounds like a great deal.

This guy has at least thought about the issue:

Ok so my wife and I understand the whole ‘children are not tourist attractions’ argument, but if you can tell us another way these places can get funding then please do.

The point is, these places shouldn’t be there in the first place, 269 of them was one recent estimate. Why so many orphanages? (ref Cambodian Beginnings)

One volunteer at xyz orphanage wrote about driving to a remote village to collect three children whose mother was giving them up as she could not afford to provide for them.

“It was sad, but we felt great that we were taking the kids to a better place”

Up to 3/4 of children in Cambodian orphanages are not true orphans and actually have close living relatives. Families in extreme poverty or after the death of one parent often must choose an orphanage for their children as that is the only way to get help.  And of course, most orphanages are in towns where tourists are, not near the families.

And of course orphanages are not cost effective anyway. It is much cheaper to support families to care for their own children at home, than to pluck them out, necessitating the funding of buildings and staff and administration (ref ThinkChildSafe).  So of course these places need funding IF they are to continue. But maybe they shouldn’t continue, and maybe more should not be opened. The tourist and aid dollar should be redirected to projects which support families and communities.

At one orphanage:

I was just able to walk in and start playing with kids. 

We would not allow that for our healthy, protected, well-adjusted children, why should highly vulnerable children be exposed to this?  The very thing they need is protection, and long lasting secure attachments to one or two safe adults. This cannot be achieved by the constant meeting of new visitors, even if they stay a week or two (ref ThinkChildSafe).

They really seem to be having a positive effect on the community. The best proof of this is in the children – at the end of the show, the little ones (the less shy ones) come down off stage hoping to chat to you so they can practice their english. One little girl even came and sat on my lap. You can tell they are really trying hard to educate themselves. They were also extremely polite. I definitely recommend a visit.

Children who are over eager in hugging and sitting on the laps of strangers are typically emotionally very needy (ref UNICEF).  It has also occurred to me that ‘learning English’ seems to cover a multitude of sins.

This is ‘aid’ in its awfullest form. When we are encouraged to give because children are hard working, or shy, or confident, or polite, or cute, or whatever attribute we attribute them.  The fact is, people need help because they are people who need help. Need, not appeal MUST be the determining factor.

And sometimes, the truly needy are rude and ugly and do not give you warm fuzzy feelings when you help them. Sometimes, the best way of helping is not to meet people at all, its to donate money from afar, to someone more local and with more of a clue of how to help (and who speaks the language and does not require photos of you with smiling, grateful recipient).

What’s the answer then?

Well its not what I did 15 years ago.I was 21 and in India. I wanted to volunteer with children. I spent maybe 4 days ‘teaching english’ to some kids who lived in one of the slums of  Calcutta.





Aside from probably not teaching them anything, I achieved the following:

  1. nice photos
  2. lots of feeling good
  3. something to tick off my list and tell people about
  4. A great deal of learning and growth and stuff to think about, no doubt which made me a wiser person, more compassionate more aware of the world around me.

These are mostly good things, and I am grateful for the experience. But I no longer believe it served any benefit whatsoever to the children. I was one of a constant stream of white faces drifting in and out of their lives.  For them, a neutral experience at best.

The answer?

There is no simple answer to the problems of extremely poor countries, but we will be choosing to respond in these ways instead:

  1. We will seek out agencies working ethically with families and communities and support them with donations but not visits. This will not result in lovely photos, unless you want a boring pic of Chris doing an online banking transfer.
  2. We will pray for an end to suffering and poverty. Because we believe in a God who both weeps, and acts.
  3. We will spend as much of our travel budget on local business, and direct to the producer, rather than on foreign owned goods and middle men. This is pretty tricky, but we’ll try. We also particularly like to buy things from people with disabilities wherever possible.


Inevitably, some istitutional care is necessary, but its not the best answer, even when it is very well done. But we won’t be visiting orphanages. Not in Cambodia, or anywhere else like it.  We should like to volunteer our time and energies, somewhere. It is going to be difficult to find an opportunity where we all can be involved, and that is actually helpful, and that is not long term.

Two questions for you.

Would you or have you visited orphanages?

Any practical ideas for our family volunteering? We are a large, loud and unweildy bunch at times…..

Further reading



Blog by Jill on MAY 24, 2012

Many thanks Jill for the courtesy.