Experiencing the Alternative: Come and Learn about Family-based Care in Cambodia

Responding to: How Can We End Orphan Tourism?

By: Stacie Ellinger

June 3, 2019

In 2017, Children in Families (CIF) launched “Rok Kern” (meaning “Discover” in Khmer). Recently funded by GHR Foundation, Rok Kern offers an alternative program to community groups that would ordinarily visit orphanages in Cambodia. As one of the largest family-based care NGOs in Cambodia, CIF has a role to play in educating visitors about the long-term results of institutionalization on children, and the negative effects of voluntourism. Rok Kern educates volunteers about the causes and effects of institutionalization, and gives them the tools they need to advocate for better care for children around the globe.

Orphanage voluntourism is a growing industry. Studies have shown that 1.6 million people participate in voluntourism every year and that 25 percent of faith-based organizations involved in supporting residential care also sent mission trips or volunteers. Furthermore, up to 16 percent of Australian secondary schools raise funds for or send trips to orphanages. Cambodia’s proximity to Australia, and the relative low cost and safety of the country, mean that many of these groups visit Cambodia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large number of U.S.-based religious organizations also support and visit residential care institutions in the Global South. 

Most people who volunteer in orphanages do so with the intention of caring for vulnerable children. However, in the experience of CIF, orphanage volunteering is generally sustained and motivated by misinformation and misunderstanding. Volunteers frequently do not fully grasp the roles of institutions and their place in the continuum of care, research surrounding the harms of institutions and viable alternatives, and best practices in development and child protection. Combined with culture shock, and the confronting nature of wealth inequality in the Global South, this can lead people to support residential care so as to “do something.” 

Research into volunteer trips highlights other concerns that Rok Kern aims to address. Laura Ann Hammersly found that attitudes of cultural superiority in participants, dismissal of local knowledge, and simplified responses to complex issues were reinforced by short-term trips, concluding: 

The learning value of projects, whether of the self, of others or of the world, is enhanced when volunteers are given the tools to discuss and think about those experiences in order to link what has been encountered on project into an experiential continuum for those involved….[Volunteer sending organizations] need to incorporate a stronger and more structured educational approach pre- and post-project which centers on volunteer reflection of global development issues relevant to their local level experiences. 

Similarly, LiErin Probasco discovered that “high school participation in an international mission trip has no significant association with adult volunteering or giving when other factors are taken into account,” but that domestic trips focussed on linking issues to participants’ communities did.

The Rok Kern project seeks to respond to these issues. Replacing mission or school trips, Rok Kern offers groups a 12-day study tour of Cambodia. Visitors learn about how issues surrounding institutionalization of Cambodian children fit within Cambodia’s development context. Participants visit key cultural and historical sites and attend workshops with NGOs providing family-based care or reintegrating children from orphanages. 

However, the 12-day tour is also part of a wider study program. Participants are encouraged to complete a three-month preparation course focusing on development best practices, understanding poverty, the role of outsiders in development, and cross-cultural awareness. Resourced with practical tools, participants reflect on their personal responses to poverty and child protection, evaluate the strengths of various models of care, and are equipped to become advocates about these issues in their communities. Following the trip, Rok Kern staff offer extensive debriefing and support as participants implement their advocacy and fundraising plans. By focusing on the factors leading to institutionalization and on wider development theory, and reflecting on care for vulnerable children in both Cambodia and their home countries, Rok Kern links global issues with local issues and gives participants tools to respond personally to both.

By bringing together development theory, relevant local and international case examples, and experiential visit opportunities, Rok Kern offers a program that does not inadvertently harm children (in the way orphanage voluntourism does), while allowing participants to engage with issues in their own lives on returning home. This in turn supports CIF’s broader work of seeing children grow up in healthy families.

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Experiencing the Alternative: Come and Learn about Family-based Care in Cambodia