Focus: Living it Down Abroad: Travel as Vocation not Vacation
There has been an increasing kickback in recent years against volunteer tourism, with accusations that volunteers do more harm than good while abroad, that it's more about the experience as perceived by the volunteer than the people that they're supposed to be helping, and, at its most extreme, accusations that this relatively new gap year/volunteering industry is a new form of cultural colonization, casting the host countries as victims and volunteers as saviours.
In this light, over the past few months eRenlai has decided to focus on volunteering in Southeast Asia. Suspicions about Somaly Mam's background have dominated the headlines over the last few months and undermined the credibility of AFESIP, her NGO which protects women from sexual slavery. eRenlai contributor Clare Tan, who worked for Mam's charity in Cambodia, talks about her feelings about the recent revelations, and her hope that Mam as an indivual won't overshadow the cause. Clare previously shared her ambivalence about her encounters with street children in Cambodia, and the inspiration which Mam had given her. We then talked to veteran volunteer and blogger Leanne McNulty, who has volunteered for long stints in Cambodia, Australia, Vietnam and Taiwan, about the issues surrounding volunteer tourism and her experiences working with HIV/AIDS charity Harmony Home Foundation in Taipei. She also writes about what you can do to make a real difference when volunteering. We also dug through the archives to unearth two articles by Alice Lin on volunteering, the first is an interview with Cambodian psychologist Van Kamol about his work with children affected by HIV, and the second is her interview with Mech Sokha, a Cambodian man who helps rescue orphaned or abandoned children working at the infamous Steung Meanchey landfill, and reflections on her visit to the Center for Children's Happiness, which he runs.
Leanne McNulty is originally from Ireland and she is currently living in Taipei where she does volunteering work besides her job as an English teacher. Since she's been residing and travelling in Asia, she's been volunteering in various places and organizations in Australia and Cambodia. Last year she spent three months in Vietnam helping first at a shelter and also at an ecological and educative center. While preparing her trip, she realized the scarcity of information in English about volunteering in Vietnam and decided to start a blog to present the main issues she encountered: Volunteer in Asia. In the following interview she raises the problem of orphanage tourism and suggests pragmatic ways to volunteer in South East Asia while avoiding the 'gap year' cliche.
In Taipei, Leanne McNulty has been involved with the Harmony Home Association, a non-profit organization that shelters and supports children and adults affected by HIV/AIDS and migrant workers. She tells us about her work there, the challenges and the way HIV is still stigmatized in Taiwan.
For more info about the harmony Home Association, visit: http://www.harmonyhometaiwan.org/
Read Making your Time Count as a Volunteer by Leanne McNulty
(Originally published on Volunteer in Asia)
Aid work, volunteering, development are very complex subjects. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal- to eradicate extreme poverty and to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. If you are thinking about donating or volunteering, you want to know that you are maximising your money and time.
I recently heard the term "voluntourist". When I first volunteered in Asia 5 years ago, I was on my way to Australia for a working holiday and wanted to travel SE Asia but was a little nervous to go alone. Volunteering was a great option for me at the time; I met fantastic people, saw things off the beaten track, did something worthwhile and had a great time doing it. I didn't do nearly as much research last time and from what I have seen, most people who volunteer have a similar story. However, as I have gained more experience and knowledge of the complexities of international development, my ideas about volunteering have changed. Of course, I want to see as much of Vietnam (my current location) as I can in my free time, and get a good understanding of their culture and people but what is much more important to me is that I would like my time in Saigon to have a lasting effect. I would like to start something, or contribute to something that can continue, and grow. The people of Vietnam deserve long term solutions to poverty and sustainable projects. That's not to say that short term volunteer work doesn't work, of course it does, but there are many important things to consider. I am here for three months; some people come for longer, some for less time. The amount of time you spend here really matters when you choose what kind of work you do. One of the most important things to consider if you are thinking about volunteering is you skills and expertise. What can you share?
I recently met two girls here in Saigon for six months, volunteering at an orphanage. I asked them what they do. They said their main role was to care for the children, to play with them and to help the younger kids with them with basic things like changing diapers and feeding time. My immediate thought was, when you leave it will be devastating for the kids who you leave behind. Six months is a pretty long time, especially for very young children and if you are their primary care-giver, they will bond with you very quickly. And then you leave. Then, most likely, someone else comes for one, or two, or six months and another bond is formed. Then another adult who loved and cared from them leaves. It is not fair to the children. As orphans or children who were abandoned by their parents, who may have even suffered abuse, they probably already have issues with trusting adults, and will eventually build up walls and stop trying to get close to people. This is something that devastates me. Children need stability, they need routine, and they need people in their lives who will not leave them after a short time. Now, I'm not suggesting, we all drop our lives and go live in Vietnam, but what I am saying, is that volunteers need to be utilized more effectively and in a way that will not be counterproductive. The permanent, Vietnamese staff should be the primary care givers, the ones who form bonds and trust with the children and the volunteers should have different roles. Maybe a volunteer can be teacher who comes an hour a day, or a couple of times a week, or even a little more often, but in such a way that when they leave, the kids still have their main caregiver and they don't have their routine upended. So, if an orphanage volunteer placement is something you would like to do, please ask the management about this so that you know you are going an institution who has the children s best interests and welfare at the heart of what they do. An amazing example of this is Allambie, a place where orphans have a real home, and a family. (see my previous post, and their website, www.allambie.co.uk )
Teaching English is just one way to help. As long as the children are getting Vietnamese lessons and a balanced schedule, then teaching is English is great. It will definitely help them to get better jobs. But, I really feel that NGO's and charities need to take on teachers with TEFL certs, or experience. Or lacking that, you should have to perform a demo, or be able to show your pre-planned lessons so that it is clear you can do the job well. The thing about teaching English is that it must be built up to and will only be effective when the basic needs of the children/adults have already been met. So, if you are planning to teach English, you must consider whether the organization you choose has already built that up. The people they are helping are healthy, they have food and shelter and stability. Then education is the next step. Of course, just chatting to them in English is also effective so they will likely learn some from you regardless of the type of work you are doing.
If you don't think teaching is suitable for you, think about your talents and interests as this can be a fantastic way to volunteer! Art projects, I have seen amazing projects set up by artists, photographers and dancers. The sense of pride that one feels when they finish a project and can show it off is such an amazing confidence builder. Art classes, dance class, small performances, these are also creating happy memories and wonderful ways to share your talents. This is a perfect option for short term volunteers and many NGO's will ask whether you have specific talents you would like to share.
This is an example of what I mean! It is a parody of Gangnam Style done by performed by 160 children from the slums of Phnom Pehn. I love it!!!
Also, along these lines is sport. Kids love to play sport and a short term sport camp would be an amazing experience for children. It's great exercise and a lot of fun.
IT and social media is another area where volunteers can make a big difference. Most office staff in NGO's are so busy they don't have the time or know-how to keep their websites updated. Teaching the staff how to use the internet effectively, how to update blogs and websites will help keep their organisation in the lime light.
Fundraising and event planning is another excellent way to make a real difference.. Fundraising and event planning can be done both from your home country, and wherever you volunteer. If you have experience in sales and marketing, PR, customer service or event planning at home, this is the perfect way for you to make a real difference! NGO's and projects will always need more money, and this way you can use the skills you already have to help them, you can also teach locals and staff the basics so they can continue after you leave. The aim of development is to enable the locals to help themselves.
Volunteers play an integral role in the survival of development projects and do amazing work. My aim is to just help potential volunteers to choose the right project, to maximize their efforts and to avoid any counterproductive activities.
Clare Tan was a volunteer for AFESIP, the Cambodian organization which protects vulnerable women founded by Somaly. In this article, orginally published on her blog, she talks about feeling torn between the inspiration which this woman once was for her, and the revelations which have emerged over several years about who her hero really may have been.
There are many articles flying around, I have lost track of what I have read in recent days because they are all basically saying the same thing about Somaly Mam in different ways. They have attracted huge international media attention, since as most things, when something well known and American gives it attention, in this case Newsweek, the rest of the world then gives it attention. A quick Google News search shows articles from the last week or two about Somaly's 'lies' and resignation in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, German, Russian to name but a few. However, articles casting doubts on the credibility of Somaly Mam have been appearing in Cambodian local papers for the last couple of years or so, discussing false kidnapping claims and inaccuracies at a UN speech, girls trained to lie on camera and her reputation amongst the NGO world, and in general here in Cambodia, has not been of someone so saintly here for a while now.
I became a huge supporter of Somaly Mam a few years ago. If you'd have asked, I'd have said she was my hero. I was a huge supporter. I didn't know anything about, or to be honest, care too much about Cambodia before her book, yet now I live here and have made my family here. Somaly Mam opened my eyes to the world of sex trafficking, which led me to read more books, talk to more people and discover the whole world of modern day slavery I was completely oblivious too. I then did what I could in my limited power to try to make a tiny difference. Her book,the book that contains stories that are allegedly fabricated, started that. I learnt as much as I could about human trafficking worldwide, worked as an advocate against it, raising awareness in Singapore with Emancipasia, and I cycled 500kms across Cambodia to raise money for a certain foundation, of course, The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF). Had her book not caught my attention, which it may not have if it had read, 'I was well-known and popular in the small village, a happy, pretty girl with pigtails' as Newsweek's article claims she was, I may not have followed the path I did that brought me to my life now.
The bike ride across Cambodia changed my life, it was hellish, both physically and emotionally. I approached friends and family, filled my Facebook page with videos and stories and quotes, and I managed to raise over $5000 for the foundation, and the cause... or was it just for the foundation? Forgive me for feeling a little bit duped now, when I think back to the most emotional lunch of my life, where we met many of the girls from Voices for Change, the girls who have come to work as advocates for Somaly's work, themselves trafficked, and having come to AFESIP, the Cambodian, on the ground organization that Somaly founded initially, supported, (I later learned) in part only, by SMF. The girls stood in front of us, supporting each other, tearfully telling us their stories. All of us were in tears listening. Even though some of us doubted whether telling their stories was good for them, they all claimed it was part of their healing process. Many of their stories were true. But now, such a huge shadow of doubt has been cast over one of the girl's, Somana's stories, that of course, it makes you wonder? At the time and since then, I have wanted to know what happened to all the money that was raised, because the girls in the shelters, as lovely as they are, in my opinion, even if in keeping with local culture and standard of living, could be living in much nicer conditions.
After spending some time in Cambodia, I learnt that 'sister' and 'brother' is the way Cambodians refer to their elders, whether they know the person or not. The word 'bong', the same for male or female, is used to address not just your actual sister, but waiters and waitresses, tuk tuk drivers, anyone you speak to who appears to be older than you or in a position of seniority. Us, ignorant westerners, at the time, mistook this as the girls thinking of us 'as sisters.' We got all touched and gooey thinking we are so important to these girls that they think we are their sisters. In fact, they referred to us as such because it was out of respect, also, they didn't know our names. I also wondered why these girls from VFC, now 'free', did not have their own phones, were not allowed Facebook pages, and whilst they all hugged so hard and said they missed us and called us sisters, trying to spend time with them out of their working hours was virtually impossible. In the last few months they've slowly been appearing on Facebook. They refer to Somaly as 'mum'. If we as supporters feel disappointed in her, imagine how those who did not know about any of this, will be feeling right now.
I don't care to say that Somaly has lied. There is no proof of it and for many of the papers to slanderously start claiming so is a little premature, bearing in mind there is a law firm doing a full investigation, that I hope will get to the bottom of this once and for all so that us loyal supporters can get some clarity one way or the other. However, I cannot take the stance that many of her supporters are taking that is: it doesn't matter whether she lied or not, she has made such a huge difference, it is the cause that is relevant. In my opinion, that's neither here nor there. Of course it is about the cause, the problem I see is, it always should have been. It is about the cause, not Somaly Mam, not The Somaly Mam Foundation, but sex trafficking, human trafficking, slavery.
Can these potential lies or truth stretching be justified because of the greater impact she has had? In my humble opinion, not at all. That does not justify anything. Anyone who thinks that is more or less saying it's not how you got there, it's what you achieve. I might be thinking this because I'm a teacher and a new mother, but who wants to teach that to their children? It's also a little insulting in my opinion to suggest that had Somaly not had a dramatic story published into a book she could not have achieved what she had done? There are many women, like Somaly, with similar backgrounds and without who are fighting and making huge waves in the battle against sex trafficking, Rachel Lloyd, Sunitha Krishnan, Anuradha Koirala, to name a few of the more well known advocates, but then there are I'm sure plenty of others working tirelessly day in day out fighting or preventing the cause in their communities who may not get a hashtag with their name attached and their own foundation, but who are affecting hundreds of thousands of lives as well. If it is really about the cause, let's support and raise awareness of these other women and other foundations.
Unfortunately, the introduction of a lie, however big or small, belittles anything that has been done and casts doubt on Everything that has been said. It leads people to think, well, if she lied about this, who is to say she didn't lie about that. And that is only talking about within the foundation. But what about 'the cause?' A big concern is that these allegations could make a laughing stock of the whole cause that is sex trafficking. Does this not put at risk those many girls who really have suffered and have horrific stories to tell. How can people ever start to trust they are real if someone so well known was possibly lying to us all this time.
If the allegations turn out to be true then I see them realistically and most like just as very naïve and misguided choices at the time, when Somaly was much younger, more easily influenced, and also unaware of the greater implications which might lie ahead. These then caught more momentum than expected as they were told and retold, and then when the lie was heard by too many people, it was impossible to turn back. I don't think that makes her a bad person, but it makes what she did extremely bad, especially because of the way the sex trafficking, human trafficking, or any other cause could now be affected.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by the lukewarm, if that, response from Nicholas Kristof in regards to the whole fiasco. He and I shared the same hero, and I guess I was hoping that he, as an accredited, well informed, well researched, well respected journalist would provide me with some educated view on the situation or something I hadn't already heard. Kristof sang Somaly Mam's praises, featured her in his documentary Half the Sky, even tweeted live as they raided a brothel; he brought attention to Somana's case, and in both cases probably brought a lot of attention to the cause and the Somaly Mam Foundation. Now that the truth is uncertain, it brings doubt to the credibility of his story, which as a renowned journalist, I'd say, is somewhat, well, embarrassing, to say the least, and detrimental to his credibility as a journalist and his career at the worst. I am glad to say the editor of the New York Times shares my opinion and I hope to see something read-worthy on the topic before long.
Supporters of Somaly Mam claim she doesn't deserve all this media attention, why don't the papers pick on someone else? In response to that I say; Somaly's celebrity status and lifestyle has been visibly sky rocketing over the last few years. Her travelling and work schedule has been insane. When I was working at AFESIP for 3 months, I saw her all of maybe 3 times, she was busy flying around the world- and don't ask me who pays for it, but a little bird told me she doesn't fly economy because flying hurts her ears. Each time I saw her, she was thinner and thinner, visibly exhausted and stressed, but I remember noting the beautiful and expensive clothing she was wearing, and as an unpaid volunteer I was certainly envious to say the least. But every time she came back from a trip, be it Australia, Korea, New York, or all three in a month, she would take the time to talk to me and lament how exhausted she was, and how she missed her girls in the shelters, and her son and daughters. Before working at AFESIP she would Facebook message me directly and made time to meet me when she traveled to Singapore. Perhaps she thought I had money or was more influential than I turned out to be. I didn't suck up to her while I was there, or hang on every word she said as many people did do there, and maybe it's because of that, or because I'm not a celebrity or high end donor, I haven't heard two words from her since and she's ignored any messages I've sent.
Many a photo has appeared on her Facebook page in glamorous situations: red carpets and events, but also a lot of partying, having fun and jetting around. I'm not saying she can't have fun, but most people know if you have a public online image, you should manage it carefully or people will get the wrong (or maybe right) idea and not everyone will be happy about it. One particular post, which finally led me to block her posts from my newsfeed because, to be honest with you, they made me feel uncomfortable; was her on a private jet, donated by a generous donor, who must have felt better about himself after hosting this hero, with her status, 'I miss my girls in Cambodia', or something along those lines. I believe that this statement was true, I'm sure she did miss them, but why didn't she not politely refuse saying that's really not necessary, or did she have no choice but to accept the donated flight? I have to question how a flight on my private jet would help 'the cause' or benefit anyone other than the person riding on the jet itself. Her birthday party was always held somewhere celeb filled and glamourous in New York. Why not at the shelters with her girls, or at home with her family? The foundation justified that her worldwide travel was necessary for the cause, but in my opinion, one or two appearances a month less would not have hurt the cause (but perhaps the foundation), then she could have spent time with the girls which I do believe is really where she'd rather be, and spend time with her young son, who I knew barely got to see her and missed her a lot.
What I'd like to know is, if she really wanted that, why did she not put her foot down? Did she have someone making the decisions for her? Did she have no choice? Or did she really, actually prefer the glamorous jet set lifestyle but felt the need to defend it by saying she'd rather be with her girls? Talk of being free and empowering women; it seemed she herself was not really free, or was this a sacrifice of her own personal choices for the greater good of the cause? Okay, I'll ride on the jet, even though I'd rather be at the shelter, because I know it will lead to a huge donation to the foundation.
Allegedly, Somaly went from earning nothing in 2008, to earning in excess of $100,000 a year in 2011. For $100,000 a year (which, correct me if I'm wrong, comes from donor money??) I too could sacrifice a few personal preferences for the greater good. I believe any director of any non profit organization deserves a decent, competitive salary that can provide them a good quality of life to ensure they can do their job well, which in turn often leads to much more monetary support, but in a country where garment workers are fighting and some have lost their lives in a bid to earn a meager US$160 a month as opposed to the $80 they earn now, and most of the girls coming out of her shelters are at that level of the food chain, I cannot see how you could sleep at night taking home that amount of money.
The fact is, she has brought on the media attention herself, or at least by her foundation. She has not shied away from the camera when it has meant she has been able to hob knob with stars such as Susan Sarandon, Hilary Clinton and a trail of other celebrities who have probably read her book and genuinely see the hero in her, as we all did, but I'm sure they are also not unaware that being chummy-chummy with a sex slave survivor will certainly not hurt their celebrity status either. How could you not get caught up in the lifestyle and the attention? Somaly herself has become a celebrity, whether it was her doing or not, and celebs take the rough media attention with the smooth, good press and bad press. Had she wanted to shy away from the media or slowed down the glamorous lifestyle, she could have done so, way before now. Truth or lies, resigning from your own foundation days after such allegations are publicly made against you, is going to do you no PR favours. I have no regard for the Somaly Mam Foundation, but I do have a lot of regard for everyone who thought of Somaly as their hero, who is now confused and disappointed; for the girls in the shelters who she has helped and depend on her and for the Voices for Change girls, who although 'independent', will be lost without their 'mom'. Somaly owes us an explanation and an apology. It shouldn't be written by someone else, edited for grammar mistakes and vetted to make sure it is politically correct and can't do her any more damage, it should be, as her many speeches around the world have been, unscripted, from the heart, with her bad English and all. Somaly Mam, as a hero to thousands, you owe us this.
Clare Tan is currently working on a voluntary basis for AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), targeting criminals exploiting sex workers in human trafficking, working on HIV and AIDS outreach, training victims of rape, domestic abuse and human trafficking in vocational skills, and aiding them in reintegrating into society. She graduated from University of Leeds in Chinese Studies and gained an MBA from National Taiwan University. She's currently supporting herself with a job teaching english in order to fund her commitment to her volutary work with the charity. What follows are a series of extracts from her blog, detailing her life in Cambodia, and her struggles in trying to find sustainable ways to help the street children she encounters in Phnom Phen To keep up with Clare's experiences in Cambodia you can check out her blog here.
People scavenge at each waste disposal, working till late for a good day’s pay of 1.50 USD, just enough to get by and not enough to alter one’s own circumstances. It is at this site that Mech Sokha, a Cambodian man who was himself orphaned after the Khmer Rouge regime, has rescued over a hundred children whom were either orphaned or whose parents were financially unable to care for them. The children whom were lucky enough to have been rescued by Sokha, now find themselves in the safe haven of CCH- the Centre for Children’s Happiness.
I set out on a relatively sunny day to CCH and returned drenched in rain. I was blissfully unaware of it as I had after all, the pleasure of spending an afternoon with marvellous Cambodian children and made the acquaintance of a man whose heart was big enough to subdue the odours of the garbage dumps. It was not difficult to recognise Mech Sokha on our first meeting for he had an ageless quality about him, and looked as he did about five years ago on their official website. He smiles quietly as I introduced myself, surrounded by three or four smiling adolescents. There was a very warm and fatherly quality about Sokha and I could not imagine him in any other setting than here in this orphanage.
The orphanage itself consists of one large building with a courtyard and a dining area in the middle on the ground floor, flanked by boys’ and girls’ rooms. On the second floor, there is one large room, which is both classroom and library. In front and along one side, there is a garden. In the back, there is a kitchen, a water tower and a place to wash clothes. The standard of living is not what I’d be accustomed to, but then again my misfortunes pales in comparison. There is a sense of warmth in the centre and it radiates from the children, Mr. Sokha and the working staff, enough to make one wonder- just how does one do this? From garbage-picking at the Steung Meanchey landfill to the comfort of the orphanage, it is hard to imagine a present and future so full of promise for the children.
The children at CCH call Mech Sokha ’Papa Sokha’ for a reason, he has been the children’s main source of parental attention for the last seven years. When he is not in Phnom Penh and working with the children, he is overseas raising money with Friends of CCH. Ravuth, currently the head of the boys dormitory tells me with love and concern in his eyes that " Papa Sokha is tired, he works too much..." We studied Sokha from afar and I had to agree.
It had not occurred to me that Sokha was only human, and needed more than a couple of helping hands to run an orphanage of so many children. He is however, not alone in taking in Cambodian children in precarious situations, orphanages such as the Lighthouse Orphanage and the French ’Pour un sourire d’enfant’ are all dedicated to caring for the many children in need.
From 2005 to the end of 2008, Kamol conducted a project to help children infected with HIV, usually acquired through birth from HIV-positive parents.
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