Friday, November 07, 2008

Volunteer Scams in Cambodia

I have decided to write about the scam volunteer project after enough customers have told me about their bad experiences. The last one was a young woman in her early 20s from Canada who paid, get this, USD6000 (!) for a 6 weeks volunteer programme with an organisation here in Siem Reap.

[I want to name names but I am afraid of being murdered. It's not a joke. You can hire a hit man for USD100 (or so I was told, I did not enquire personally!) and when you are in the way of thousands of dollars, you can bet that it makes financial sense for a crook to pay a hundred bucks to get you out of the way.]

Anyway, so this poor woman found this organisation via a "Volunteer abroad!" website. There are many out there and I am writing this as a cautionary note for other travellers. There are too many entrepreneurs who set up NGOs, orphanages and the like in Cambodia, preying on the kindness and generosity of travellers who feel for this country and want to contribute.

In the case of this woman, the USD6000, which works out to USD1000 a week, was to cover all her living and food expenses. She arrived in Siem Reap to be put up in a room in the NGO house, where six other Cambodian men lived. She told me every evening the men would be drinking and gambling or watching TV. She felt so unsafe, she left after a week. She then checked into a hotel but had to cut short her trip as she had spent almost all her money after paying for the volunteer programme.

This other Canadian woman found an NGO while she was holidaying here in Siem Reap. She saw a notice in one of the more established cafes here and decided to join this particular NGO. Upon arrival, she was asked to pay USD50 as an "administrative fee". She was also asked to stay at the guesthouse run by the NGO and to use the tuk-tuk provided by the NGO.

This meant she would have to move from her USD5 a night guesthouse to a USD10 one, and she would have to pay USD12 every time she used the tuk-tuk. The NGO was out of town but this young woman decided she could cycle there instead of spending USD12 per trip. When she suggested this, she was told she could pay a cheaper price for the tuk-tuk. "Well, why wasn't I told this before I mentioned biking here?" she asked. Good question. Another good question is where did the USD50 admin fee go to?

USD50 is what your typical waitress in a restaurant gets for working 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you know USD50 can go some way in this country. All the NGO referred to here needs is 2 innocent victims a day and they bring in USD3000 a month. This excludes the money they get from their other revenue streams, like the guesthouse and restaurant.

As I have written many time, corruption in this country taints everything. The rule of law does not mean much here because the salaries of government officials here are pitiful (to give you an idea, a senior member of staff at the Foreign Affairs Ministry told me in 2006 that his monthly salary was USD40). So policemen and other men in uniform need to find other ways to make money.

It is a sad thing when innocent young people who want to help this country get fleeced and go away disappointed and betrayed.

I used to be upset with these people, whom I variously labelled as "dumb", "lazy" or "irresponsible", for not doing their homework, for not doing due diligence. I thought they should have exercised better judgement. But having met a number of such travellers now, I feel sorry for them. And I recognise how difficult it is to know the truth when you do not live here. For how many people have the time to investigate or even know where to begin to investigate?

I also think many young people are idealistic and want to believe in the good of people, which is why they easily believe when others tell them about the supposedly good work they are doing. Sadly there will always be bad people who will exploit this innocence and naivete.

So if you are planning to volunteer in Cambodia, please be aware that exploitation works both ways: it is not always the richer person who exploits the poorer ones; sometimes it can be the other way around.


ecraige said...

This scam reminds me of volunteer scams elsewhere, the most recent one being in the Galapagos where crews of 20 somethings work at a for-profit hacienda picking up garbage and living in a rat-infested, fly-strewn hovel. The farm is called Hacienda Tranquila and should be avoided!!

Diana Saw said...

thanks for sharing, Tito [or is it Lee ;)]

I loved this bit: "Those who stayed told Fabien that they were not happy with the work or living conditions. At first, he paid them no attention, but the volunteers organized a strike, in that they refused to cut blackberry canes. Instead, they began to dig up the roots, even when they were ordered to stop."


Other readers can find out more about the volunteer scam in the Galapagos here:

Jo Duffy said...

I am certain that the organisation that you referring is the one my children have just had the misfortune to be involved with. They have just left Cambodia after paying $5000 Australian dollars for a 4 week volunteer program. They lasted about a fortnight before realising things weren't right. After a heated exchange with the founder they decided that it was safer to leave, after reading your post I am so glad they did. What a shame that people are willing to exploit people's good intentions in such a way.


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