Coming to Cambodia, I had all kinds of grand ideas about how I was going to volunteer in an orphanage and change a child’s life, a la Angelina Jolie. As I quickly learned, that is not how it works.
Before I got here, I’ll admit that I was pretty ignorant about what the deal is with Western volunteers in third world countries. I assumed that under-funded orphanages and children’s charities could use all the help they could get, and that I would be doing some sort of great service by lending my time/energy/bubbling personality to “help the kids.”
As it turns out, though, that’s not exactly the case. The reality is that spending a day, or even a week, in an orphanage does more for the volunteers (ie. makes them feel good about themselves, gives them a good story to blog about) than it does for the orphans. Most tourists aren’t trained in any kind of useful skills, like teaching english, which ends up being more hurtful than helpful… Not to mention the fact that children need a more long term connection than just a bunch of random humans coming for a few days at a time. In Cambodia, volunteering has become a sort of industry in itself, and some orphanages are set up solely for the purpose of giving tourists something to do. “Voluntourism” is very much a thing, and you can read more about the problems with it here. JK Rowling also has some pretty scathing things to say about it, and I trust her on pretty much everything.
But just because voluntourism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be doesn’t mean you can’t offer valuable help to a community, even if you’re only visiting for a short time.
After I found out my vision of changing lives at a Cambodian Orphanage wasn’t going to happen, I decided to help the community in a different way: By donating blood.
According to AsiaLife Magazine, only four out of 1,000 people in Cambodia donate blood in (or, 0.4%), compared with 10% of people in the US. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that developing countries should stand at a minimum of at least 10 donors out of every 1,000 people, so Cambodia falls significantly short. When a patient needs a blood transfusion, the blood only comes from the blood bank 34% of the time (compared with 90% in Vietnam and Thailand) and 70% comes from relatives.
I had no idea about any of this when I got here, but the reality of the numbers is truly staggering, and prove just how desperate the nation is for some red gold. made me want to do something about it.
A friend of mine put a group together to go to the blood center, which was a 20-minute Tuk Tuk ride from our apartment. It’s the only place in all of Phnom Penh where you can go to donate blood. The restrictions in Cambodia are different than they are in the US — gay men can donate here, you only have to weigh 90 pounds instead of 110 – so a few of the people I was with were donating for the first time.
Once we arrived, the process was pretty quick: We checked in, had a brief consult with a doctor (who told me I was dehydrated and not sleeping enough… shocker) and then got a finger prick to find out what our blood type was. Then it was time the donation itself.
I was a little bit traumatized by a bad needle-poke the last time I donated back in the US, so was really, really scared to get stuck by a random doctor in Cambodia. But it was completely painless (way, way better than the nurses I’ve had in the US, actually) and after that it took less than five minutes for the machines to collect 350ML of my red gold.
Afterward, we got free cookies, Sprite and water.
From start to finish, the process normally takes about a half an hour, but it took slightly longer for us because while we were waiting, a group of six people was rushed ahead of us to donate. At first, we were all a little frustrated that we’d been cut in the donation line, until we found out why: Their cousin was in the hospital and needed a transfusion, but there was no blood to give him. His family had immediately come to the blood bank to donate so that there would be enough matched blood to save his life.
… Like I said, these places are really, really desperate for blood.
If you’re visiting a developing country, even if it’s only for a short time, consider donating. It only takes a few minutes, and makes such a huge difference in the local community. I saved three lives yesterday while doing nothing but lying on a bed and reading #Girlboss, which is basically a dream come true.