Projects Abroad was one of the first market leaders to cut ties to most residential care placements. They followed smaller agencies such as Intrepid Travel and World Challenge, creating a trend that not even the market leader IVHQ was able to ignore. International Volunteer HQ, too, stopped placing volunteers in residential care institutions for children without disabilities in March 2019. But how did it come to this step? The Media played a big role in this success story!
Projects Abroad & the media
In 2011 the investigating radio show Kaliber discovered abusive structural shortcomings in a residential care center in Siem Reap (Cambodia) Projects Abroad placed volunteers in.
Al Jazeera covered the subject later with a series of documentations, resulting in the first global outrage about the unregulated volunteering abroad industry. In 2012 the Al Jazeera journalist Juliana Ruhfus went undercover into a Projects Abroad orphanage placement and found alarming conditions. The children lived in an abusive environment and the voluntourists were not properly prepared, trained and screened. The TV crew was even allowed to take kids of their choice – the kids had to line up for them – to an unsupervised day trip.
A couple of other TV channels, for example, Canal + France and ZDF Germany picked up the subject and screened similar documentaries about Projects Abroad and the enormous structural problems behind the volunteer travel industry. Plenty of local and international non-profit organizations picked up the subject and carried the issue into the field of politics.
Projects Abroad orphanage placement shut down by the Cambodian government
Projects Abroad justified their operations in the abusive orphanage and referred to the existing legal registration of the it as a NGO. The company denied the shortcomings and outlined, that there were not any legitimate accusations against the orphanage in the past. The denial can be disproved, as numerous concerns and shortcomings were addressed by many different parties. As a result, a series of government inspections at the placement were carried out and the orphanage failed to comply. As a consequence and despite the ongoing support by Projects Abroad, the orphanage was shut down.
Projects Abroad and their questionable counterattacks
Projects Abroad replies towards the allegations on television, social media channels and blog posts were filled with sharp rhetoric. The Al Jazeera documentary was named lazy name-calling and activists were accused of “misleading reporting”. The Canal + France documentary was called untrue and inaccurate and the Switzerland based non-profit organization Fairunterwegs was forced to publish a counterstatement. The management of Project Abroad denied that orphanage tourism and children’s psychological trauma were in any way related to voluntourism.
Responsible Volunteering is proud to have been part of the uncover since the beginning. Projects Abroad tried to make us look like a “misleading” resource and argued with us on our Facebook Page about a ZDF documentary where we were involved with the production. The company defamed our statements, that said the documentary was about them (the name of Projects Abroad was not named in the documentary) and claimed that our information were “yet again” “unsubstantiated” and our comments “unproductive”. We were told to rather not sit on the lines and criticize those who are “actually trying to do something” and that a more “worthwhile exercise” for us would be to engage directly with Projects Abroad rather than via Facebook.
Projects Abroad and their unsustainable operations in Cambodia
The truth is, we tried hard to engage with Projects Abroad. Our Co-Founder Sebastian worked alongside Projects Abroad in Cambodia from 2008 till 2012. Sebastian met the Projects Abroad team at his office, called and wrote them to inform them about child abuse cases, fraud and corruption issues before the documentaries about Projects Abroad were shot and the scandal came public. His goals were further investigations, cooperation between volunteer travel institutions in Cambodia, a reporting system as well as the suspension of the Projects Abroad volunteer program at the abusive and corrupt orphanage. Unfortunately, at that time, Projects Abroad did not see the need for a corporation nor to take any action against the orphanage.
Projects Abroad refused to improve the situation shown in the documentary. Sebastian was told that the children would be “worse off without any volunteers.” This was repeated a little later by the UK management, which said publicly that even if the allegations against the Cambodian orphanage CUCO would be correct, it would be still better for the kids of this orphanage to receive vetted volunteers. Al Jazeera reported about it later. We were told at that time that a A Projects Abroad policy is (or was?), not to intervene in organizational and internal matters of their placements and partners. And this even if it meant the suffering for children at this specific orphanage.
Despite being aware of the corruption and abuse in their placement, the company continued to facilitate donations from volunteers to the orphanage and mandatory “donations” were increased to 100 US per volunteer.
As we worked alongside Projects Abroad we can confirm that all the as “inflammatory innuendos” denounced facts of the Al Jazeera documentary to be true and are surprised, that Projects Abroad told the public that they were not aware of the abuse.
The Rocky Path of Projects Abroad
It was a rocky path, until Projects Abroad finally no longer denied the psychological effect orphanage tourism has on children and put an end to it. After rising pressure through international media and NGOs, in 2012 the company announced to stop working in Cambodian orphanages. However, it took until the end of 2013 that Projects Abroad officially stopped working with residentl care placements in Cambodia. But, in fact, this promise was put into action only years later. Today they are confident that they did not support orphanages that exploited children, although investigations have shown the opposite.
Update: Has everything changed to the better now?
Despite the improvements, even today there are almost no requirements for volunteers who want to work with children and other vulnerable groups. Flexible start dates and a low minimum age (volunteers can join at the age of 16) make it possible that almost everyone can combine a two week general care project in Cambodia with a one week teaching project in Thailand for 4,081 USD. Among the young tourists are underaged volunteers who never left their own country before. For this experience, volunteers only get prepared through a brief orientation, which takes less than a day.
What does Projects Abroad way of dealing with the criticism teach us?
Maybe even more concerning than the actual scandals within the Projects Abroad operations in Cambodia were the reactions that followed by the company. The Operations Manager, the Vice President the Director/ Founder were busy defending their company and blamed others.
Whereas we agree that some stories about Projects Abroad were poorly researched, most of it was not and brought up many issues that needed to be addressed. The company did not take any responsibilities for their mistakes but chose to intimidate advocates. Despite scientific proof, published by UN agencies, psychologists and child protection organizations that orphanage voluntourism causes psychological damage to the children, the company denied that any harm could have been caused by their operations.
Today, the company has taken a step forward by cooperating with ReThink orphanages. But for many industry professionals, Projects Abroad is still an example of how the volunteering sector has drifted too far towards the commercialization, with little interest in development and sustainability. The step forward, to end orphanage tourism, was for many only an unavoidable step to silence critics.