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Get Real: What’s the Value of Volunteers?

“Get Real” will be a regular post  about real challenges we face daily in the operation of Ponheary Ly Foundation.

By Lori Carlson, PLF President

Over time, my opinions about what “charity” or “giving back” means, have evolved. In general I think even the language we use to talk about “giving a hand to those in need” needs some re-tooling, so certainly volunteering in general can benefit from some critical discussion.

Get RealAfter examining the effectiveness of thousands of volunteers both with PLF and all over Cambodia in the last 7 years, I have seen firsthand the many ways in which volunteering can do more damage than good.

There are as many reasons for people to show up here as there are people. A great many of them are here using volunteering as a reason to come to Pub Street and drink the night away. Others are here to vet the organization and understand what we are doing  and whether they might like to be involved financially. Some are trying to connect to their brothers and sisters in the world who are suffering and understand what they might be able to do to help. Some come to see poverty first-hand so that they can go home feeling more content about their own lot in life. Still others come to gain perspective not only on their possessions and privileges, but ~why~ those opportunities have afforded to them. Others seem to stumble in with no idea what they are doing here, except that they want to follow in the footsteps of their volunteering friends.

It’s a lot for us to wade through, to find the people who are coming here for a purpose that benefits our students directly.

I’ve read hundreds of articles on this topic and there is a compelling argument out there that goes like this:  if every volunteer who was coming to teach a science class (for example),  just sent us their airfare as a donation, we could hire a khmer teacher to hold that science class every day and have it go on for a year. We’d not need a translator and the children would be amazed to meet someone just like them that knows a lot about science.  We’d not need to engage staff to manage them, counsel them about their assorted rashes and wonder why they didn’t come home last night. All of this would be preferable to the  two week workshop, tortuously complicated by translators and delivered by foreigners who the children do not know or understand, and know far less about science than the aforementioned khmer science teacher.

So yeah, there’s a downside and in many ways volunteering makes no sense whatsoever!

But there are other considerations, so I change the lens I’m looking through and some other things come so sharply into focus that I cannot pretend not to see them.

Looking at volunteering through the eyes of the human who found their best self in that two week workshop and whose life priorities shifted during that event, I find the benefits of their presence starting to weigh in heavily.  I think the scales do tip when the volunteers are coming to learn as much as they are to teach; if that desire is in the very front of their consciousness, something interesting happens.

I strongly believe that until the privileged members of the human race connect in a personal way to those in the world who toil under the burden of making that privilege possible; until we can call those who suffer by their first names and recognize them by the sound of their voice, until it’s personal, then we will never have a reason to stop the heinous spread of global poverty. When it becomes personal, something shifts. I’m not sure how that change could occur under any other circumstances, than to be here, or somewhere like here, in person.

Be clear: Real change doesn’t come from volunteering. It doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. It might stave off the results of poverty for a moment, but it doesn’t solve poverty. It puts on a bandage, that’s it. It doesn’t mean we should stop putting on bandages, but real change will happen for people living in poverty when the change happens at the spot where poverty is being created. And that place is waaaaaay upstream from here. The machine that fosters systems of oppression is going to have to grind to a halt.

How do we do that?  I wish there was a simple answer.

I do know that running around teaching English, vaccinating children, drilling water wells, giving someone who has never had more than $10 in their hand a $1,500 loan to buy a cow; all of these are bandaids on the manifestations of a disease that was conceived deep inside the constructs of global power. The genesis of it is completely out of our vision when we’re standing in a patch of dirt with a young woman who has a 4% chance of finishing high school and a father with PTSD from a war that our country helped to start.

But standing there with that girl, shoulder to shoulder, we can find solidarity. If we find ourselves moving into advocacy, if we find ourselves going home and doing something about it at the genesis, then we will see real change.

I see people come to Cambodia and places like Cambodia and learn about solidarity and it gives me hope. When everything is clicking, they are not learning about giving. Not about helping. Not about supporting. When solidarity enters the equation, they are no longer doing any of the one-way, vertical or diagonal models we’ve been handed to work on this problem.  I see people come to Cambodia and get lateral, get shoulder to shoulder, become advocates.

I’d say that transformation is mind bending; it’s a cosmic bitch slap, it’s a rude awakening, it’s an ice bath. It hurts to come down from that coveted position at the top of the vertical relationship but when we do, things change. When people come here and find solidarity, we change at warp speed.

Constructs don’t change until the people who built them do because we are the construct.  The human race, including volunteers, including people who run aid projects, including governments and corporations, must understand our complicity in the genesis of poverty and stop chasing around after the symptoms. How to accomplish that I have no idea but I see all of us grasping around for a way to connect those dots and connect to each other.

Our first stab at making the connection is this thing we call volunteering. It isn’t the answer, not  in it’s present form, but we’ll get there if we continue to question what it means in brutal ways. We will get there if we keep trying.

If volunteers are paying attention, there can be deeper consideration and I’ve seen something start deconstructing; there can be a waking up.  I invite readers who have felt enlightened, edified, never-so-naive-and-misguided or altered in any other way to share their experiences here. We have much to learn together about what volunteering is about. I would like to hear from you.

To those who are adamantly saying “Volunteering abroad is not the way”,  I’d say “you are correct” and then I would add, “but it’s a good first start.”  The energy is at least going in the right direction.



This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Well writing and thought out piece as usually. As we strip everything down it comes into human interaction. The will to care, and therefore create a different way of engaging with each other. To step out of ourselves and see we care enough to want to change the cycle that has kept us from Caring.

  2. Ouch. You hit a raw nerve, Lori. Not the “drinkin all night on Daddy’s Dollar” stuff, but I really struggle with the “Am I doing a damn bit of good?” question.

  3. Thanks Lori for expanding this critical discussion, which takes some guts to do. Both organizations and volunteers themselves need to think about net effects and the best way to reach the organization’s goals, whether it is with volunteers or not. This is not yet something that is top of mind for people who are considering becoming volunteers. My personal experience volunteering was not extraordinary but it was just that — personal, especially after getting to know the actual people with whom you do build solidarity. I now think about how best to contribute in the future but that would never happen had I not met the people that I did and spent the time that I did during volunteering. The key would be how to get maximize each advocate’s net benefit, whether it is in terms of specialized skills, time, network or donations. It sounds almost industrial but in my view this type of mindfulness would actually bring more satisfaction and momentum to the volunteer’s own experience. How do you do that is easier said than done, I’m guessing. So in short, I’m looking forward to Travis’ next piece!

  4. Thanks for such an honest& interesting article.I think volunteering is about giving..maybe a little…maybe a lot. But if we don’t give at all then there is no change.There is no acknowledgement to help right the wrongs. If everyone turned away from every situation that needs a light shone upon it, there’d only be darkness! Lori, your trip to Cambodia & meeting Ponheary obviously had a profound impact, to the point where you are the President of the Foundation today. You felt you could do make a difference.
    If everyone could leave an experience, no matter what it is, realising and perhaps knowing that they could be the one to make a difference as you have, then this world could surely be a better place for all.

  5. Thanks for your comments. Sticky stuff this business of exposing all our “raw nerves” and talk about all this. Agree with everything everyone has said so far, Lucy anyone who is thinking should be asking themselves the question about whether we are “doing anything” or not. I can only ask how it makes you feel, do you think you have shifted in your attitudes about people living in poverty, what that means, what’s helpful, what’s harmful? If it’s whittling those thoughts into resolve, I’d say you’re definitely “doing something”, And Jolly, YES~! If only everything were so clearly defined~! People come and just about the time they are leaving they and we know how their time could have been best spent. Therein lies the benefit of the return visitor, so we hope you’ll come back~! ANd Karen, yes it’s about giving initially , but if we’re not also getting then the transaction wasn’t lateral….in what ways do you think you were edified as a human by your visit here?

  6. Hey Lori – well thought-out article, and thanks for addressing this! The point I would challenge is the idea that if volunteering has a profound affect on the volunteer, then it’s worth the potential damage (or just the nul-effect) within the country where the volunteering takes place. It troubles me that the volunteering industry could take this as its raison d’etre – which you could argue is effectively another way of saying “we are more important than you”, “we can mess with your lives for our own self-enlightenment”. I had a personal experience of this when I was volunteering at an orphanage in Thailand. In retrospect, I would take the closure of that orphanage over ANY positive experience that foreign volunteers had – including myself. I agree with you that “doing something about it at the genesis” is the critical need – but how many volunteers go back and do that? How many volunteers actually just do a 2 week stint, set up a direct debit to an organization and then use that as their “good karma” and not change anything else about the way they live their lives? I know I’m being harsh here, but that’s the reality I tend to see (in myself too a few years back so I’m not judging from the outside here!). I don’t think volunteering – in its current state – is a good first start because it makes people believe that “helping” (urgh so many problems with that concept anyway) is something you can do effectively on a two week holiday. It’s not! It’s really hard!!!! And it takes ages!!!! I believe we’re doing people – and our young people especially – a disservice in essentially selling “quick fixes” to huge, and complex global issues. How about putting some money into educating people how their lifestyle choices and consumer habits are keeping some of the same people they volunteered for in the cycle of poverty and debt – and then maybe we might see some change… (p.s. stoked that you guys are constantly revising your thinking on this – I empathize as we have been through (and still go through) the same thing at PEPY. It’s a tricky issue in terms of the “raw nerves”. We’re right there with you if ever you need support!)

  7. AGREE Anna, but but but, I actually do know LOTS of people who have been shifted by this experience. Part of our process for determining who comes and who doesn’t (we turn down about half) has to do with their answer to the question of “why are you coming here”. People who are coming to look for a way to connect and are able and wanting to carry that connection home are the people we want to engage in this space. People who are more interested in “solidarity” than “helping”. People who want to understand. People who want to be the change.

    I do not know how consumers, sitting in front of their tv’s are home, are ever going to “get it”. A lot of volunteers leave here and don’t get it either, but a lot do.

    Agree with your point about “enlightenment” once again being something that benefits the privileged visitor, at perhaps the cost or nul-effect of the constituents. We think about this a lot and it is a risk/benefit equation that must be grappled with sternly.

    If we believe that poverty begins inside power structures, then we need examine the two parts to that power, one of which belongs to the consumers in the world, that’s us. Nothing in this world is going to change about our unruly consumerism and waste of resources until the privileged can connect on a personal level to those who are burdened by the maintenance of that privilege. We need to understand that, we need to know the people who are suffering under it in a personal way, only then (I believe) will we mobilize around change. Speak with our feet. Speak with our dollars. Re-think. Re-spin.

    This issue of “we can come and mess with your lives so that we can achieve enlightenment”, is something all of us at PLF struggle with and take sharp measures to mitigate. Spinning it around so that the volunteers are in the learning seat is the key, it puts the power back where it should rest. PEPY has become a beacon in that messaging and we have learned loads from it’s posturing around it.

    As you know, all this easier said than done, difficult work but it must be thought through. And then again. And again.

  8. I have been mulling over this excellent, deeply thought provoking article for a few days now. As a frequent ‘volunteer’ with the PLF I thought it might be helpful to air my views.

    I first went to Cambodia as a volunteer wit the PLF for eight weeks, having never visited the country before, and that visit profoundly changed my life. I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, including many developing countries, and am no stranger to poverty. Except, of course, I am because I am not poor. This may sound flip, but, for the majority of Westerners, it’s true. I am lucky enough to have been born into a country with a welfare state, free schooling and free, universal healthcare. The system in the UK is far from perfect, but it exists and most people in a country like Cambodia can only dream of such a place. I have never been hungry, never worried about having a decent roof over my head and always taken for granted that I have 24 hour access to medical care, without cost and that my children will be educated to the highest level.

    As such, someone like me can only ever really be something of a voyeur on the life of the poor, and all the hardship that entails. But, because I have spent so much time with my feet in the dirt with the children, and got to know more about them, their family life and the constant struggle to get by, I do like to feel that I have some small understanding of just what it means to have nothing, even though it is a world that I will never really know. I will never have to walk in their shoes but I can walk along with them for some of the way. It is the power of the few over the many that is profoundly affecting on a personal level, not the big numbers, but you, and you and you. That is what creates a shift.

    I do constantly question myself and wonder if I am affecting any change. I know that I benefit enormously from my visits, but do the children? Is there something to be said for just donating my airfare and leaving it at that? I still don’t know the answers. All I can say is that I am evangelical about the work of the PLF and about the current state of the country. In that way, yes, I am an advocate for change. Western society has to accept responsibility for much of what is happening in poorer countries. For instance, cheap clothing has a heavy price, increasingly so in Cambodia, where many garments sold in the west are now made. We have to start to question this and take personal responsibility. Poverty is not something ‘over there’ that we cannot change. We cannot just assuage our guilt by donating a few coins in a collecting box or responding to the latest television campaign. Yes, the money is essential, but we need to do more and to accept that, as consumers, we can play a greater role in change.

    I am ‘a volunteer’ but I am very firmly not a ‘do-gooder’. I do not want to be a ‘Mother Theresa’ figure handing out alms to the poor. More, I want to help people born in the lottery of life into more difficult circumstances than mine climb up the ladder and stand with me. As I travel the world, I see circumstances not too different from Dickensian England in many countries, including Cambodia, they just need a hand to catch up. Not just by handouts but by giving them the building blocks to do so. It is about knowing when to stand back whilst empowering people to to enable their own change. By making sure that donations are used wisely and not in a scatter gun approach to affect that change. To me, it all comes down to education, which is why I find the model of the PLF a good fit.

    I still don’t know how much of a difference I make by spending time in Cambodia, but I do know that I need to keep questioning that and I do know that I am a different person since my involvement. Selfish? I really, really hope not.

  9. Barbara asks “I know that I benefit enormously from my visits, but do the children?”

    This is the crux of the thing, this is my argument. Children in Cambodia and places like Cambodia ARE benefitting when you begin questioning things like “where were my clothes made and under what circumstances?”. They benefit directly from all the hours you spend working on hygiene and first aid, but they benefit more, on a broader scale, by what you have begun to question since coming here.

    There is something magical that occurs when a lady from Oxfordshire becomes best friends with a girl who lives in a chicken coop. The friendship means something, to both parties. Your friendship changed both of you. For the better. That’s solidarity. That is the birth of shift.

  10. I have struggled with and questioned the best way to assist and support girls, in particular, going to school. I have experienced first hand supposedly well-meaning people who want to help my own students by teaching them what they (the volunteers) feel is best, and meanwhile trying to impose their values onto the students. These volunteers don’t live in our community year-round, because it’s “too hot and miserable”in the summers. These words have been shared with my students when making presentations about how to have a good career. These wealthy volunteers can brag to their friends about working in the school, and then escape to their second or even third homes, away from the 115 degree summer temperatures.

    Do I say “no thank you” to winter visitors who want to “inspire” poor students to go to college? Or is it beneficial for sthe students to hear stories from people who are nothing like them? Lori’s questions about PLF volunteers do help me see all sides, and cause me to consider where to put my efforts for the benefit of those I am trying to assist.

    As much as I loved visiting Siem Reap last summer, and it is one place I want to visit again, I felt that supporting one young woman in finishing high school was the best use of my desire to do something. Thank you, Lori, for posting the video introductions to your students so we can know a little about them. Ad thank you for raising difficult questions!

  11. Being a volunteer is not easy cause you have to be very devoted yourself in helping others without expecting any returns. So before you decide think of it wisely cause being a volunteer is really tough.

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