Cambodian orphanages under scrutiny

In lieu of a hedonistic beach trip, why not spend a month volunteering in a threadbare Cambodian orphanage?

Because you're potentially propping up a cottage industry that harms the country, so says UNICEF.

This Al-Jazeera special report offers the most extensive reporting yet on the growth of Cambodian orphanages -- as well as the well-meaning, and well-paying, Western volunteers they attract. (The Independent and news service DPA have also taken on the issue.)


Still scarred by decades of conflict, from the ousting of French colonialists to the ruthless Khmer Rogue regime, Cambodia is stricken with poverty and plenty of orphans. Western volunteers pay good money (up to $4,000!) to spend a few months, or even just a few weeks, helping out in a Cambodian orphanage.

The kids get exposure to English. The volunteer gets the satisfaction of pouring their time and cash into bettering humanity, as well as some interesting stories and photos uploaded to Facebook.

What's wrong with that?

The problem, as UNICEF sees it, is that orphanages have doubled to nearly 270 since 2005. The flow of foreign cash and concern is increasing the number of unneeded orphanages, according a UNICEF official, who tells Al-Jazeera short-timers are exacerbating the problem by "by providing support to institutions that should not exist."

Government figures suggest that most of the 12,000 registered orphans actually have at least one living parent. Orphanage owners can argue that, in a country as destitute as Cambodia, kids whose parents can't feed them are still in need of care.

But this trend also begs another question: are untrained foreign volunteers who are just passing through really the sort of stable caretakers and teachers orphans need? And where does all the money go? 

Cambodia is home to a fair number of legitimate and praiseworthy orphanages. Others are perhaps bad to a degree in that kids benefit but middle managers soak up more cash than they should. The ultimate goal, of course, should be to place as many kids as possible into the hands of stable caretakers who raise them into adulthood.

But fears that Cambodian kids are used to generate cash remain so strong that, last week, a U.S. official declined to lift a ban on Americans adopting Cambodian babies.

The ban was put into place roughly 10 years ago after adoption rings were discovered offering money to Cambodian parents. Even Angelina Jolie's Cambodian adoption was not without controversy.