Updated: Mar 16
Picture this: A young, upper-middle class white women, fresh from finishing her pre-med undergraduate university degree, decides she wants global health experience abroad in order to prepare for a future medical career. So, she applies to a government-sponsored 2-year volunteer program to improve public health in rural Cambodia.
Has she ever had experience working in public health? No. How about on leading projects and facilitating trainings? Nope. Any idea about what the Cambodian health system even looks like? Not a clue.
This was me, three years ago.
So why did I decide to go? Who even accepted a candidate with so little experience and training?
As I would only discover while serving in this position for over a year, I only played a small role in a much larger system of systemic aid and development sector concerns.
From the humble volunteer all the way to the top of the non-profit staff food chain, the aid and development sector is rife with negligence and harm. Without any major governing body to regulate NGO action, this system – at best, ineffective, and at its worst, harmful and deadly – runs rampant while maintaining a facade of charity and good work for unaware donors and even to the people they claim to serve.
A culture of ‘white saviorism’ in the West – the idea that Westerners (mainly white but not always) are needed to ‘save’ people in low-income countries – discourages any need for international and local NGO regulation, as it is assumed that any work they do is good work and that these ‘poor, suffering people’ should and need to take any help offered. In turn, this creates a lack of outside oversight of volunteer programs and qualifications of potential volunteers themselves. Volunteers and would-be volunteers are also not engaged in weeding themselves out, viewing voluntourism trips mainly from their own perspective as a way to bolster their resume, or as a chance to help ‘the least among us’, an oft-repeated phrase used by missionaries. NGOs, charities, religious missions, and international aid
organizations add to this savior narrative by depicting the populations they strive to uplift in a pitiful, helpless manner, therefor luring in would-be volunteers.
Note: this article focuses mainly on the NGO side of the equation, but if you would like to hear a more volunteer-focused side and an analysis on white saviorism, please read my previous work here.
The international volunteer industry (some might refer to it as voluntourism, a combination of short-term volunteering and tourism activities) caters mainly to the experience of the Western volunteer while unintentionally harming the local people that the programs “help”. We see these harmful practices being carried out in almost all of the Global South (referring to countries located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean considered to have low and middle income; term coined by the World Bank) from murderous missionary-run activities in Uganda to the corrupt orphanage industry in Cambodia. By now, many have heard of the case of Renee Bach – an 18-year-old missionary from the United States who ‘was called’ to go to serve in Uganda. Without even a college degree, she started the bible-backed medical nonprofit Serving His Children (SHC) and took in sick children from poor, rural areas (redirecting them from government hospitals and health centers). She led her team of local health professionals to believe that she was a medical professional and turning her home into a makeshift medical facility. Meanwhile, she blogged about the joys of learning medicine ‘hands-on’, studying procedures from Youtube and getting practice on live children.
As you might surmise, these experiments in learning medicine on small Ugandan children in critical condition did not always go well. An unknown number of children died at the SHC health center (unknown due to lack of record keeping) and the operation was shut down in 2015, with Bach currently under investigation. Obviously, this is an extreme case, but we have to wonder how the conditions that allowed Bach to operate in such a reckless and dangerous way came about. Why was there no oversight? Why did nobody check her credentials? How did she convince herself that she was doing the right thing? Why did
the staff and families of patients trust in her abilities?
Let’s look at a much more mild and familiar case in order to understand how the situation can build up to reach that level of recklessness and danger: myself. When I was studying in university, I led a group of pre-med and public health students on a medical service trip to Nicaragua. Unlike the case with Bach, we didn’t perform any medical procedures at our pop-up medical clinics in rural areas – only observed local doctors, triaged patients (with our questionable Spanish language skills), and helped with the pharmacy. The trip also had a public health component – we helped local masons build hygiene infrastructure in rural towns. While the organization was doing good work – using local health staff and
workers to improve health, working closely with local communities to find solutions and build grassroots public health education networks – I can think of many ways that our presence specifically was unhelpful. For the amount of money we raised and spent for the trip, we could have hired local workers, who speak the language and already have familiarity with the people and health system, to help staff the pharmacy, input data, triage patients, and build the hygiene infrastructure. They would not only do a better job than the American volunteers who came for only ten days, but it would also help to put money back into the local economy instead of wasting it on flights or hotels for us. And – more invisibly – our very presence in the rural communities and connection with the Nicaraguan health staff doing the real work perpetuated the idea that they need foreigner help to solve their problems, rather than relying on in-country or in-community solutions.
When this idea that foreigners are the savior – the ones with the solutions, the smarts, and the money - it is quite easy to see how this belief can lead down the path of Serving His Children, and why Renee Bach was trusted for so long. If only there was a regulating body to enforce volunteer program effectiveness as well as a proper volunteer vetting program, many of these harmful effects could start to clear up and the focus can be put on those who the programs are meant to benefit: not you and I, but the local populations.
The reliance on foreigners has actually created exceedingly harmful industries – take, for example, the worldwide orphanage industry. Many voluntourism trips, especially in the African continent as well as in Cambodia where I currently live and work, make stops at orphanages. Most common is a one-day visit where voluntourists will go in and meet the children, perhaps bring some toys or candy or study materials, and play with them. More dedicated programs will spend a week, or maybe even a month, volunteering at the orphanage in various capacities. Sounds nice, right? The orphans get gifts, meet people from different cultures, and enrich their learning and worldview. It sounds harmless, but if you
investigate deeper, the orphanage industry actually turns out to be created almost solely by foreigner demand.
Yes, that’s right: the orphanage industry is created by foreign visitors. Foreigners donate money to these orphanages, and orphanages therefore stay open. Often times, there aren’t even enough actual orphans to fill the beds. Local families will actually abandon their children there because the orphanages may have more resources than the families themselves can provide. Another source of ‘orphans’ for volunteers to visit: there have been cases in Cambodia (and in other countries as well) of kidnapping children from public or open spaces such as markets or rice fields to be placed in orphanages to fuel the industry. Also common is cases in which orphanage workers offer poor mothers large sums of money for their small children, and in return, leave promises that the mother will be able to visit – yet she is often never allowed to, permanently breaking family bonds.
Not only does visiting orphanages break apart families, it often psychologically scars the children that it claims to help. The dependence on foreign volunteers encourages this detrimental cycle instead of creating opportunities for the family and community’s educational and economic development. Children are forcibly taken from their families so that they can be a tourist attraction for westerners. Throughout their childhood, they are outwardly placated by small gifts of toys and stickers but become psychologically damaged from lack of familial attachment through an ever-rotating cast of volunteers. It has been noted that, especially with foreigners who volunteer longer-term, the children form a bond
with the teens and adults who show them affection and love in place of a permanent parent figure.
However, it is inevitable that the visitor must go home, leaving in their wake a cute Facebook profile photo and memory for the visitor, and another in a series of heartbreaks and long-term emotional trauma for the child. As it stands right now, there is no overseeing body to investigate or work to prevent this volunteer-created crisis, nor the many other instances of fraud and corruption in the NGO and development sphere.
Let’s take a deeper look into the foundations of the non-profit world. What is the purpose of a non-profit or aid organization? According to the Center for Non-Profits, they are “organized to advance a public or community interest rather than for individual personal or financial gain.” If we take that into consideration with the most up-to-date and research-backed methods in the development world, namely, empowering people by teaching skills and providing opportunities to grow and learn rather than just giving money or items, we can see that not all NGOs, especially large international NGOs, are living up to what should be the core mission of any non-profit.
For an aid or development organization to be truly successful, they essentially need to train and empower the people they work with to be able to grow beyond needing aid or outside help; to be self-sufficient. To boil it down to one short concept: NGOs need to be working themselves out of a job. Why, therefore, are there so many organizations that stick around for seemingly forever?
In Bangladesh, for example, exists one of the world’s largest NGO systems. New Internationalist calls this enormous network a ‘parallel government’, putting more money into development activities than the actual government itself. However, even with the existence of this massive development effort, most of the citizens remain below the poverty line because of programs that do not truly give effective tools and opportunity to increase their socioeconomic standing. For example – programs that rely too much on microcredit rather than building community-led programs, which not only puts the locus of help firmly
on outsider organizations, but leaves behind mounting debt for families to struggle with for generations.
In ‘Cambodia’s Curse’, Joel Brinkley writes about the non-profit sector in Cambodia – one of the largest in the world. NGO workers (mainly foreigners), paid two to five times the salary of average Cambodians, live in the capitol city of Phnom Penh in easy comfort and relative luxury, working with the same large international organizations that have existed in the post-conflict decades of the eighties and nineties. Brinkley argues that part of the reason why the development of Cambodia has not been faster, as compared to similarly war-torn countries like Vietnam, is because the government has not taken responsibility for development efforts. The continuous presence of these NGOs allows the government to rely on them instead of taking on the work. And the organizations, in turn, have not been as effective
as they could be, avoiding tackling the most pressing issues and roadblocks in Cambodia because the incentive for these foreign staff to work themselves out of a job is low, given their comfortable lifestyle in the city and lack of connection with the people their organization serves. It is surprising that there truly is no international oversight for all of these enormous aid organizations given that they are taking in so many Western dollars. Very little outrage or even awareness exists of these issues outside of those in the academic or development field.
Finally, we arrive back at the question of myself and my own role in all of this. Why did I volunteer myself to work in a country I knew basically nothing about and in a field I had no experience with? Well, I wanted the experience. That was my priority – developing my own skillset. Another factor was that society, and the organization itself, encouraged me and assured me that I and my skills were needed in order to help poor people who I had never met on the other side of the globe.
Why was I even sent to Cambodia without proper qualifications and experience? A June 2019 report on my organization from the United States Congressional Research Service noted that there was a chronic lack of qualified volunteers. Without a true regulating body to enforce improved recruitment efforts, they will continue to put underqualified volunteers in countries around the world – which could, and does, lead to the perpetuation of western savior narratives with only questionable work to show for it. (If you want to read about my analysis of the actual impact of my personal work, read here, and you can read more about my thoughts on my organization here). Considering the negligence from all levels of the nonprofit and development sector – the volunteers and volunteer programs, NGO staff, and even the very essence of the NGOs themselves – the level of indifference and willful ignorance from the international community is, quite frankly, appalling. If those in the nonprofit and volunteer sector are truly dedicated to their cause, they need to be willing take a critical look at their own work and its larger implications – no matter how uncomfortable it may be. And because not everyone is actually willing to take on that task honestly, it is essential to create a system of accountability for the aid and development sector. Populations in the Global South are being harmed because of our efforts – despite how good our intentions may be – and the only way to solve this problem of our own creation is to tackle the corruption, fraud and negligence head-on.
Cambodia’s Curse, Joel Brinkley