Tourists Are Unknowingly Contributing to Cambodia’s Rising Number of Orphanages

Almost 75 percent of kids in the country's orphanages are there because their families can’t afford to keep them at home.
Cambodian orphans pose for a photograph at a nongovernmental orphanage in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo: Hong Wu/Getty Images)
Nov 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Logan Connor is a Washington, D.C. based writer who specializes in politics and culture of the developing world. His writing has appeared in Southeast Asia Globe, the Washington Post and WorldView magazines.

Most tourists who travel to developing countries do so to gain a broader perspective and see how another part of the world lives. For many, the itinerary might include a volunteer activity or a trip to a local orphanage. Once they see the children there and are struck with empathy, they may donate money. Often in these cases, however, they end up doing more harm than good.

In 2011, UNICEF released a study saying that the number of orphanages in Cambodia had increased by 75 percent in the previous six years, and only about 23 percent of children in these centers were orphans who had lost both parents. The rest had families who, desperate and out of options, saw the orphanages as an opportunity for their children and accepted the promise that they would be cared for and receive an education.

While there are legitimate NGOs and orphanages in Cambodia, it can be difficult to find a reputable one in tourist areas. The majority of these orphanages are akin to businesses. Rather than focus on the development of the children, they use them as snares to elicit money from tourists. “The orphanage problem in Cambodia is essentially created by the visitors,” says Tara Winkler, CEO of Cambodian Children’s Trust. “Well-meaning Westerners come while on holiday to visit and donate, but often the money isn’t going toward the children. This is a problem all over the developing world, not just Cambodia.”

Winkler was one of those well-meaning Westerners in 2005 when she traveled to Cambodia while on vacation. She visited an orphanage in Battambang—a city of roughly 180,000 in northwest Cambodia—and was shocked by the poverty. “I felt too uncomfortable being there, surrounded by so much poverty, not to do something to give back.”

She went back home to Australia and began raising money. “That’s when I learned that the director of the orphanage I visited was embezzling everything,” says Winkler. “The children there were being physically and sexually abused. They were starving, having to catch mice to feed themselves.”

Winkler came back to Battambang, and along with Pon Jedtha, a Cambodian-born social worker, founded CCT in 2007 as an “emergency response” to the orphanage crisis. More than seven years later, CCT has close to 100 staff members, mostly Cambodian, and their work has just begun.

At the heart of CCT’s operations is its youth center, a support network for 130 children from the slums of Battambang. Here, CCT ensures these children are receiving their core needs—food, water, health care, education, and security—while remaining in their families and connected to their communities. They want to keep children from being put into orphanages by desperate parents and relatives by helping the entire family escape poverty.

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In 2013, Better Care Network and Save the Children UK launched a global campaign emphasizing the importance of family-based care. Even in the orphanages with full-time, dedicated staff, they said, children do not develop at the same rate as children living with their parents or in other community-based alternatives.

Helping the children of Battambang escape the cycle of poverty while keeping them living with family is the fundamental model of CCT. “There are three things you need to escape poverty,” Winkler says. “You need your basic needs met: food, water, shelter, security, and family. Then you need an education. Finally, you need jobs.”

That’s where the CCT’s restaurant, Jaan Bai, comes in. Jaan Bai, meaning rice bowl in Khmer, staffs young adults from Battambang to provide them with hospitality training and professional experience. The restaurant has a warm, familiar ambience. The menu, designed with the assistance of celebrity chef David Thompson, features items such as Kampot pepper crab and pork belly bao.

“The reason we do the social enterprise with Jaan Bai is job creation,” says Winkler. “There just aren’t many jobs in this country. Even kids graduating from university find employment difficult. And oftentimes the workplaces don’t offer the best conditions.”

In conjunction with the University of Sydney and Grok Learning, CCT is also setting up a STEM education program to adapt the children of Battambang to an increasingly digital world. “This program has so much potential,” Winkler says, beaming. “We’re also planning the first-ever learn-to-code course, in Khmer, free for everyone. This is the pilot, and it’s just the beginning.”

CCT works closely with the children and their families to make sure the work they do is sustainable. According to Marnie Walters, executive assistant at CCT, the hope is that the children can be Cambodia’s movers and shakers. This next generation, Walters explains, can be the politicians and community leaders that break the cycle of poverty in their country.

“Our goal,” Walters says, “is to foster the educated, ethical, and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.”