Giving Back to Cambodia
image via Flickr by daexus

The Kingdom of Cambodia wins your heart with smiling faces, lotus blossoms, exotic flavors, and mystical temples. Every traveler seems to fall in love here.

But Cambodia also wounds your soul with its darker side. In the 1970s, a third of the population — especially the educated class — was obliterated by execution, torture, starvation, or illness under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the remaining Cambodian people emerged from work camps, weak and traumatized, with no possessions besides their clothing and a food bowl and faced a nation that needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

Killing Field, Cambodia
Skulls found in mass graves at one of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. Thousands of people were murdered at each of the 167 Killing Fields in Cambodia. photo by Lauren Haas
Tuol Sleng, S21 museum, Cambodia
Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum, was a school converted to a prison and torture site during Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia. photo by Lauren Haas

But That Was 35 Years Ago, Right?

Ox cart in Cambodian countryside
Outside Cambodia’s cities and tourist areas, there has been little modernization. photo by Lauren Haas

How do you reclaim your schools and  hospitals (which had been converted to prisons and torture chambers) when all the teachers and doctors have been tossed in mass graves in the Killing Fields? How does a traumatized, powerless population rebuild a nation without education, resources, or capital? The answer, of course, is that it takes time. More than a few decades. And a lot of help has to come from outside the country.

The Pitfalls of Help from Tourists

Well-meaning tourists have unintentionally supported a system that exploits their sympathy in ugly ways, including a “tourist orphanage” industry, children vending on the beach instead of being in school, and gangs that mutilate children to make them more effective beggars. There are also issues of creating dependency, rewarding dishonesty, and damaging the national pride of the next generation of Cambodians.

If you made mistakes while you were touring the country, don’t be angry at yourself. Most of us do, as we learn the ins and outs of responsible tourism.  Buying from child vendors, giving to beggars, and supporting orphanages seem like acts of kindness to anyone who doesn’t know all the pitfalls. There’s also a balance to be struck between preventing the abuse of children and providing for those who are already in these situations. But now that you know, how can you help without further degrading the families, society, and self-esteem of the Cambodian people?

Finding Grassroots Solutions

Giving Back To Cambodia
Human and Hope Association supports a local community near Siem Reap

The best answer is to support grassroots NGOs that empower Cambodians to help themselves and lift one another up, with dignity and, when needed, tough love. Human and Hope Association is one such organization.

HHA was founded by Cambodians who wanted to see a higher level of education in their community. The group is adamant about sustaining a healthy relationship with the community it serves. An Australian non-profit raises funds for the program, but it is well on its way to being fully run by Cambodians for Cambodians. The organization has a Cambodian board, Cambodian volunteers, and Cambodian staff — with the exception of Operations Manager Sally Hetherington, an Australian who already has an exit plan in place for 2016. When I visited the program, Hetherington introduced me to director San Thai and then sat back and let him do all the talking. Thai described the program’s operations with enthusiasm and passion.

Cambodian Leadership

Why does cultivating Cambodian staff instead of bringing in a stream of foreign volunteers matter? Besides providing the stability of long term staff who live in the community, this practice allows the children to look up to fellow Cambodians  as their benefactors and role models. It also provides opportunities for Cambodians to grow and develop personally and professionally. Human and Hope provides volunteer opportunities, jobs, and college scholarships that wouldn’t be available if foreign volunteers were staffing the programs. The video above was recorded when San Thai was Community Manager. Thai has since been promoted to permanent Director. Imagine the life-changing impact of this program on Thai’s entire family for  future generations.

An Education Program

Children get consistent education from dedicated teachers who come from within their community, rather than looking up to outsiders and having a new volunteer every few months.

Human and Hope operates in Sambour Village near Siem Reap with three interlocking programs. The largest component is an educational program for children Village families pay  50¢ a month tuition, in part to help offset costs, but largely because there is more dignity and commitment in arrangements that ask something of the participants. Students learn to read and write the Khmer (Cambodian) language first, then learn to read, write, and speak English, which is an essential business skill here. The kidsalso  learn life skills like sharing, tooth brushing, and resolving conflict that they may not be learning at home. Education is essential to lift the Cambodian people out of poverty and into management and business ownership roles, so the tourism and manufacturing dollars generated in Cambodia stop leaking out through foreign-owned companies. A strong primary and secondary education will prepare these kids to break the cycle of poverty in their families and in their nation.

Vocational Training Program

Adults from the community have the opportunity to study sewing at the HHA facility. Graduates of the program can take out a microloan to buy a sewing machine, so they can start a home business sewing clothing and school uniforms, and HHA will often hire them to produce stuffed elephants, wallets, and other items that are sold as fundraisers for the program. Vocational students also learn life skills, literacy (reading and writing in Khmer), and participate in a community garden where they learn chemical-free gardening practices, and grow vegetables they can take home for their families. The goal of this program is to allow disenfranchised families to become self-sufficient.

Community Support


HHA supports the community that surrounds its students in as many ways as it can, with domestic violence prevention programs, microfinance, and university scholarships. A Family Farm program is helping local villagers improve their quality of life by teaching them to grow chemical-free crops to eat and to sell. Participants will repay the organization for the resources they use during the program, as part of HHAs commitment to not giving handouts.

How Can You Help?

Products Human and Hope Association

The group doesn’t accept any foreign volunteers or allow visits, which is disappointing for tourists but vital to the safety of the children and the self-esteem of the participants and Cambodian staff and volunteers. So how can you help? Of course, the easiest way is to simply give a donation, which is tax-deductible in Australia and in the U.S.A. You can also shop online for handmade products and gifts.

Do and Donate

If you are Australian, you can do some creative fundraising through the Do and Donate program. You can set your own goal — say, providing an English education to a marginalized child, or support one preschool student for a year. (Hetherington likes to be very clear that these goals are a way to visualize the impact of your donation. Sponsorships of individual children aren’t viable for the organization). Many Aussies are giving up their birthdays or Christmas and asking for donations to the charity instead. This is a very meaningful way to make use of your social media and other connections.

How can Americans help?

Do and Donate is only available to Australians right now. But at the moment, the Australian dollar is weak against the US dollar — which is what Cambodia uses — so HHA is losing almost 30% of their funds to the exchange rate. Americans can make tax-deductible donations through an organization called Village Earth. Why not set up an event, class, donation jar at your business, or a  GoFundMe fundraiser? Here’s a whole list of ideas and a collection of support materials from HHA.

It’s almost shocking to see how far your dollars will go in the hands of a small, frugal organization in Cambodia. From the HHA website:

  • $25 can purchase 20 new books for our library so our students have constant access to new knowledge and resources
  • $50 can provide four marginalized students with scholarships for a year, and as the same time engage their families in our community workshops
  • $100 can fund nutritious lunches for our hard working staff for a month, ensuring they have the energy to fulfill their challenging roles
  • $500 can educate our preschool students for six months, ensuring they have access to Khmer language, art, games, and hygiene
  • $1000 can empower a villager out of poverty with a one-year sewing program that teaches them a wide range of sewing skills and life skills

If you’ve visited and fallen in love with Cambodia, fundraising for HHA offers a perfect way to show your appreciation for the hospitality you experienced there. If you are traveling to Cambodia soon, prepare to be wowed and wounded. Every time your heart is touched by a beggar or a child selling bracelets on the beach, remember that giving to them only perpetuates the cycle. Set that money aside to donate to a responsible charity that empowers the Cambodian people instead.



Editor’s Note: will be launching a “Travelers <3 Cambodia” campaign to raise funds for Human and Hope Association in January. If you’d be interested in joining the campaign and using your social media presence to help, please join our e-mail list.

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<3 Cambodia


Lauren Haas is a nomadic freelance writer. She has been traveling the world, living out of a backpack, since May of 2013. Lauren has written regularly for CBS Local, WebPsychology, Hipmunk, and Hotelplanner, and has also been published in The Culture-ist, Matador, and other online and print publications.

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