Nicole Takeda

Good Intentions: Volunteer Work In Developing Countries

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Picture of Shally Toun, BEA’s co-founder and managing director

Shally Toun, BEA’s co-founder and managing director

Since the opening of my school in Cambodia, the Bayon English Academy, two years ago, I’ve had to turn down many offers of “help” from well-intentioned volunteers who want to spend an afternoon “teaching” at my school. The reason I decline these offers is simply because this isn’t considered acceptable behavior in developed countries. There are standards to protect students and their learning environment in advanced countries. Why is it that such standards seem to disappear in the developing world simply because somebody wants to be a volunteer?

In my fifteen years of teaching, not once has there ever been somebody come into my classroom and use my lesson as a playtime with the intrusion of camera flashes. If I do have visitors, my supervisor needs a good reason why they’ll be in my classroom, and once they arrive at the university, they need to sign in and show their identification to the security guard at the main entrance gate. In the classroom, they are either there as a guest speaker about their field of expertise or as an observer who sits quietly in the back of my classroom. If somebody were ever to take over my teaching responsibilities, they would need to be a qualified teacher with experience.

Some may see me as being like the Cambodian pangolin – a type of anteater armored with a hard shell of scales – but it is only because I want to protect the kids at my school from becoming another tourist attraction here in Cambodia. Not a day goes by here where I don’t see tourists snapping pictures of poor children either begging in the streets, hawking postcards around the Angkor temples or studying at NGO schools. There are also those tourists who come to “help” at orphanages and other charitable organizations under the guise of the all-altruistic volunteer. They play with these kids as if they were baby animals in a petting zoo believing that a couple of days of song-singing and alphabet-teaching will lift them out of their lives of poverty.

Cambodia has more donor and NGO organizations than any other place in the world with over 2,000 of them. The country’s poverty attracts well-meaning volunteers of all ages hoping to play their part in improving the lives of the impoverished. However, there’s a very fine line that distinguishes these organizations from just another tourist attraction in cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Many of these volunteers don’t realize that their “help” may actually be undermining the local staff and often creating a heavier work burden for them. Especially at NGO schools, the foreign volunteer often appears to be an exotic and fascinating creature, and deemed to be an expert on teaching their own language even if they have never stepped foot in a classroom in their own country. Before setting up my own NGO school, I was a volunteer teacher trainer at a local NGO school in Siem Reap. When I would sit in the back of classrooms observing teaching practices, students usually peered over to look at my notebook or whispered a multitude of questions in my ear during their lesson. My presence distracted the students and some left without learning anything from their teacher. As part of my teacher training programs, I would also spend a lot of time team teaching with Cambodian local teachers. During these team lessons, I would always give way to the local teacher to answer students’ questions. Although the local teacher would give a completely adequate response, the students seemed to be skeptical of his explanation since he was a non-native speaker. A few students would often chime up “Is he right, teacher Nicole?” Unfortunately, Cambodian students often think a foreign teacher, whether trained or not, is better than their local one even if they are trained and experienced. As a result, even though I was a trained professional, I did undermine the authority and expertise of the local teachers as a volunteer.

Before setting up my own NGO, I realized from that experience that my Cambodian NGO partner had to be the “face” of the NGO, and that I would work in the background supporting him. In this way, our students would respect his authority, expertise and experience. Although I’d much rather be in the classroom teaching, my personal preferences can’t be allowed to dictate what’s best for the students and their language education. My NGO partner’s standing in the community and as a role model for our students takes precedence. Because of this, students look up to him and see him as the school’s head teacher. At times my ego gets a bit bruised when we are teaching together in the classroom. I instinctively turn when a student calls out “teacher” for help, but it usually isn’t to ask for help from me, but from my NGO partner. Running an NGO has definitely taught me the need to shelve my own ego so that the students can be empowered from a Cambodian rather than from a foreigner.

Picture of student at BEA

Student at BEA

Through my experience as a volunteer and as a director, I’ve learnt how to avoid undermining my Cambodian NGO partner in front of our students. I now know that if we did have troupes of volunteers at our school, our students would be in deference to my NGO partner as their teacher and role model. However, volunteers are incredibly costly to host organizations, especially if they aren’t well funded and sufficiently staffed. This is the challenge facing my organization and others in Cambodia. My NGO has no permanent funding, and depends on my university teaching salary from Japan and a few donations that trickle in throughout the year from family and friends.

While I’m in Japan, I’m inundated with requests from university students to do volunteer work at my school. The main reason they give me for volunteering is that they want to gain experience – the altruism of volunteer work is often supplanted with a self-serving need to pad a resume before graduation. The problem is that my NGO has no need for volunteer “teachers” who want to take over our classes for a few days. They believe they’d be making a positive contribution to our school, but they’d only be interrupting our methodically planned program and taking away valuable lesson time from our students. Regardless, this is the crux of the matter: how do small organizations get funding without publicity, which often comes about through word-of-mouth from volunteers? No longer wanting to turn down potential publicity for my organization, I finally designed a program that wouldn’t have volunteers in our classroom, but in our library with small groups of students for culture-based information sessions about the volunteer’s country. We ran our pilot volunteer program last July, and it was a success with both the volunteer and our students. The volunteer could learn the names of our students and learn about their lives through her Japanese culture classes, and our students could interact with her on a one-to-one basis and learn about Japanese society and culture, which is especially relevant to those students wanting to become tourist guides since the Japanese are the second largest group of tourists to the Kingdom. Both the volunteer and the students benefited from this intercultural experience.

Nevertheless, this small program was a tremendous amount of work since it had to be designed from scratch. Also, it involved arranging accommodations, conducting an orientation, scheduling the volunteer classes, and wrapping up the program with an evaluation. My NGO partner and I weren’t paid for this additional workload to our already hectic and overloaded schedules. We only have a skeletal crew to run our school, and are not in the position to hire a volunteer coordinator. NGOs are non-profit organizations, but volunteers should not expect the local staff to put in extra hours to accommodate them without getting paid for their time and effort. Those who work at NGOs are not volunteers.

Since survival of small NGOs depends on charitable contributions, volunteers need to pay for their experience so that these NGOs can continue their work. NGOs that host volunteers are indeed providing a service, and volunteers should be willing to pay for this service, especially since you would pay for a service from any profit-making entity. The “why should I have to pay if I want to help” sentiment isn’t justified if you have to be orientated, scheduled, and even trained for a volunteer placement. As the old adage goes – time is money.

Volunteers do burden local staff with extra work, but there is a much greater issue at stake, especially those that volunteer with children. Most volunteers are oblivious to the effect they have on children who form a bond with them after a few weeks. The rate of domestic violence in Cambodia is one of the highest in the world with over one-quarter of the nation’s men beating their wives and children on a regular basis. Many of my own students are from broken homes: some living with their mothers because their fathers have either died or abandoned them; some living completely on their own with no adult in their lives; some living in orphanages; and others living with an adopted family who have no other need for them than manual labor. Add domestic violence to this family breakdown, and you have children who are desperate for love, affection and stability. When volunteers form bonds with children and then leave just after a few weeks, you end up with devastated children. Volunteers feel that they’ve helped improved the plight of these children, and in turn feel special as a result of the attachments they’ve made with them. However, they’re not around to answer questions about why they left and when they’re coming back. The worst offenders are the ones that say they might come back only because they don’t want to face a disappointed child if they tell them the truth – that they’ll be just be one of the nameless children in their photos. Not much different than from those of tourists snapping pictures of the destitute.

This is not to say that volunteer tourism should be completely avoided all together. Those with expertise and experience are always needed in developing countries, but volunteering needs to come from a genuine desire to help others without the expectation of getting something in return. Self-sacrifice and not self-fulfillment should be at the heart of the matter. Essentially, volunteerism has to focus on the needs of NGOs, and not on the wants of the volunteers. Additionally, volunteers need to pay the local organization for the time and effort that goes into accommodating them in the form of volunteer participation fees. NGOs need funding to keep their operations up-and-running, and their bottom line needs to be the priority. They have to benefit from hosting volunteers since they are offering, in most cases, a unique and eye-opening experience.

The fee I paid for my very first volunteer placement at a thatched-roof shack as a volunteer teacher was worth every penny. That experience started me on an incredible journey – one that led to my own NGO, and a life-long commitment to Cambodia and its children.

Photographs Copyright © 2012 · Nicole Takeda.

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