It is sometimes uncomfortable to talk openly about the mistakes you have made, and definitely embarrassing when they are on a big screen for everyone to see, but that is exactly what we are doing at PEPY with “Changing the World on Vacation.” This documentary, by filmmaker Daniela Kon of Deeda Productions, reflects on the “politics of compassion” and the impact of volunteers and volunteering. The film focuses on footage taken from the first year of PEPY Tours on trips in December 2005, March 2006, and December 2006. Now, over two years since the last clips of the documentary were filmed, we look back on so many of the decisions we made and actions we took… and it makes us cringe.
“What were we thinking?” is a phrase heard repeatedly from our staff while watching this film. What were we thinking, not having a strict clothing policy for rural Cambodia? What were we thinking designing our trips based around traveler ideas for education, not education coming from the local populations to the visiting guests? What was Daniela thinking when she said “Cambodia has a limitless supply of fish”? Ummmm… I’m not so sure.
What I do know is that watching the film makes me realize how far we have come and how much we have learned. It highlights areas where we can still improve, and overall it is a vivid example of many things NOT to do in volunteer tourism. Our hope, by being part of this project, is that this film will prevent others from making the same mistakes and will act as a conversation starter around this important topic: “How can you best support positive change while you are in a foreign culture?”
For those who have watched the film, and even for those who haven’t but are interested in the topics of traveler’s philanthropy, voluntourism, and NGO work, we want to elaborate on the lessons we have learned as they relate to Daniela Kon’s documentary.
Lesson #1: Poverty voyeurism is bad and can add to the problem. Johnny was right. We agree strongly that Steung Menchey (Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump) is not a place travel groups should visit, regardless if they go with an NGO or not. PEPY brought its first group of participants to Steung Menchey with an NGO partner we were working with at the time and, as I state in the film, we thought the visits were justified at the time. The last time we visited Steung Menchey with a PEPY group (shown in the film December 2006), we realized that despite how “well” we thought we were doing the visits, how much money we contributed to groups working with children from the dump, or how much learning it provides to the travelers, we were still participating in a type of tourism we do not believe in. Tour buses now visiting Steung Menchey stop at the top of the site, allow people to get out and take pictures and then head off to lunch. People traveling with an average operator, which is usually not funding development projects in Cambodia, often feel overwhelmed at Steung Menchey and want to “help”. With no education on how best to do that, some hand out food (resulting the chaos like in the documentary) or money.
Consider that life on the dump means an average of ½ dollar in revenue for a family. Consider that many of the people working on the dump are children who have either been sent to the dump by their families to make money or, in many cases, “bought” by someone, sometimes with honest explanation and sometimes under another guise, to work in the dump. If this is the case, and tourists start handing out dollars, the expected daily income quickly increases and suddenly it becomes more profitable to move and work on the dump. Thus, the charitable tourist actually compounds the problem, making children and families more dependent on the dangerous dump rather than less so.