Hannah Reid's volunteering stint started with a grotty hostel and ended with the feeling an industry built on best intentions could be doing more harm than good.

While law school classmates interned at the big firms over summer, Reid wanted something different, and joined thousands of others from around the world in paying New Plymouth-based International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) to arrange a placement.

Large orientation numbers in Cambodia's Phnom Penh meant Reid was booked into a hostel, rather than the volunteer housing block.

"There were very young looking girls, quite scantily clad – high heels, short skirts – constantly coming in and out," Reid recalls. "Three of us shared two beds that had hairs through them. I looked it up later and you could rent a room for three hours at a time."

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Reid had previously volunteered in Cambodia through another organisation. She tried IVHQ, which was started on a Taranaki farm and now places 18,000 volunteers a year, because it was a Kiwi operation, its charges were among the cheapest, and friends who volunteered in Tanzania and Ghana gave glowing reviews.

Reflecting her interest in human rights law, her December 2014 placement was at women's rights NGO Rachna Satrei, in the temple and tourist city of Siem Reap.

Other volunteers helped at orphanages. Such work is increasingly controversial. Research has linked institutional care to behavioural problems and an increased risk of abuse, and organisations including the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) have advised tourists against visiting orphanages.

IVHQ has recently decided to phase out its orphanage placements, but says its partner orphanages have been carefully selected, and volunteers provide vital support. The company requires criminal background checks on all volunteers and staff, and its guidelines state orphanages shouldn't let other tourists or members of the public interact with children, unless subject to the same scrutiny.

Hannah Reid during her first volunteering stint in Cambodia. Photo supplied.
Hannah Reid during her first volunteering stint in Cambodia. Photo supplied.

Reid claims some of those standards were breached, including late in the multi-day orientation when volunteers were asked for any remaining criminal background checks, and after some people had already visited childcare placements.

She was allegedly told by volunteers at childcare placements that other foreigners were visiting, without any apparent checks.

"Volunteers would say, 'Oh yes, there is a Hungarian man and he hopped off the plane, jumped in a tuk tuk, and said, 'Take me to an orphanage', and they took him to ours.'"

At Rachna Satrei, Reid said she and other volunteers were told there was nothing for them to do. Spending time at the volunteer house instead, other volunteers reported being left alone to teach classes, despite having no teaching qualifications or experience.

Reid pulled the plug a week into an eight week placement. Now a prosecutor at Meredith Connell, she has written about her experience, including the observation that "a few years of university and a dash of enthusiasm does not qualify you to work with disadvantaged or vulnerable Cambodians".

IVHQ declined to be interviewed. Ben Brown, the company's head of impact, risk and people, said in a statement there was "very little factual basis" to Reid's claims. She hadn't raised concerns with their local partner organisation before leaving Cambodia, he said, instead citing job opportunities for her decision to quit.

Reid said she decided to contact IVHQ directly, something she did with Brown shortly after returning home. Later posts on IVHQ's Facebook pages were deleted.

Brown said the feedback was investigated and found to be baseless, and on rare occasions users were removed from IVHQ's social media groups when posts were false or misleading.

"Over 80,000 volunteers have completed IVHQ programmes and we're incredibly proud of the positive impact our programmes are making globally."

Brown supplied IVHQ's self-generated "impact report", which found $11m had been invested directly into local communities through programme fees in 2017. Additionally, 67 per cent of volunteers reported spending more than US$200 per week on local produce and services.

Dan Radcliffe was 22 when he started IVHQ from his parent's farm in Northern Taranaki. He had recently volunteered in Kenya, and found the placement disorganised and expensive – he paid more than mates partying on Contiki tours.

International Volunteer HQ founder Daniel Radcliffe at the 2014 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Picture supplied
International Volunteer HQ founder Daniel Radcliffe at the 2014 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Picture supplied

IVHQ's programme fees vary by country, and cover airport pick-up, orientation, accommodation and some meals. A separate registration fee is charged.

For example, a six-week placement in Cambodia costs $1040 (US$760) in programme fees, plus the $408 (US$299) registration fee. Not covered are flights, insurance, transport and visa costs. Once volunteers are in their host country, their trips are managed by IVHQ's various local partner organisations.

Volunteers now have the choice of 34 countries and projects spanning conservation, education, health and childcare.

In Auckland, volunteers replant native bush and pick up rubbish through a partnership with the Sustainable Coastlines charity. For a total charge of $1620 (US$1184), a two-week placement includes accommodation in a 15-bed dormitory downtown, breakfasts and lunches.

IVHQ, founded in 2007, partners with STA Travel and World Nomads to sell flights and travel insurance, and volunteers in some African can book multi-day safari tours when they arrive at orientation. Radcliffe is a director and shareholder of Safari Reviews Limited, a safari sales and review website.

He is also a director and co-owner of Fund & Seek, a partner website to IVHQ, which allows volunteers to set-up Givealittle-style fundraising profiles to fund their time overseas. The profiles are used to update supporters as volunteers take place.

Another Radcliffe company, Global Travel Academy, sells online courses, including the Certificate in International Volunteering (3 hours, US$149).

IVHQ has a sister company, Intern Abroad HQ, that sells work internships in seven different countries. Charges for a two-week tourism internship in Ireland (not including flights or visa costs) are a $1777 (US$1298) programme fee, and $409 (US$299) registration fee.

In 2014 Radcliffe was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and in November last year the Sydney-based private equity firm Mercury Capital took on majority shares in a holding company that now owns IVHQ.

Mercury's chief executive Clark Perkins, formerly with Goldman Sachs JBWere, analyst Samara Insoll and investment director Christopher Criddle are now directors, the other being Radcliffe, who has stayed on as executive director and together with his family trust retains a 20 per cent stake in the company.

The value of the deal hasn't been disclosed, but according to Mercury's website the company invests in businesses with an enterprise value (market value) of $50m to $200m.

The rapid growth of the sector – which includes for-profits like IVHQ, religious organisations and charities – has brought increased scrutiny, particularly of orphanage volunteering.

A survey released last year by the Cambodian Government, with support from Unicef, found that as many as 79 per cent of the estimated 16,500 children living in 406 residential care institutions still had a parent, with families encouraged to send their children to relieve a financial burden, and the orphanages run as businesses.

The increase has come as tourism grows and the number of orphans in the country drops as it recovers from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, invasion and an AIDS epidemic.

Noting global research on the detrimental effects of institutional care, the report found "the proliferation of residential care in Cambodia has gone unabated".

"Almost all [orphanages] are funded by individuals from overseas. As a result, many centres turn to orphanage tourism to attract more donors, fueling a system that exposes children to risk," the report stated.

Based on the findings, the Cambodian Government has set a target of returning 30 per cent of children in residential care to their families by this year.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who runs a charity aiming to end the institutionalisation of children, has attacked orphanage voluntourism as "treating poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners' CVs".

Friends International and Unicef launched a hard-hitting "children are not tourist attractions" campaign, with posters showing Cambodian kids locked in a glass museum case, while Western tourists snap pictures.

The world's largest school-based volunteer organisation, World Challenge, announced in September it would end orphanage trips, and for-profit companies including Projects Abroad and Intrepid Travel have made the same move.

IVHQ kept sending volunteers to orphanages, and published a strong defence of the practice by its founder. In the September 2016 blog, Radcliffe said sweeping generalisations were being made, based on the unethical behaviour of a small few, or "assumptions on the needs of a community based on [critics'] own western belief or culture".

"This would be an easy fight for us to walk away from…but that's not right…not all orphanages are run by bogeymen out to exploit children or volunteers," Radcliffe wrote.

The blog remains on IVHQ's website with no update, and the company still advertises orphanage placements. However, in a response to the Weekend Herald, Brown said the company decided last year to phase out the placements. That would be done over the next 12 months.

"While it is only a small number of IVHQ's placements (less than 5 per cent globally) we feel this transition needs to take time to be done responsibly, while limiting the potential negative impact our decision has on our trusted partners and the communities they support."

One orphanage that took IVHQ volunteers, Our Home in Phnom Penh, shut after its director, Hang Vibol, was arrested and later convicted in February 2016 of sexually abusing children in his care.

Ryan Coquilla, a 35-year-old visual designer based in San Jose, volunteered at Our Home from January to April 2013, after signing up with IVHQ. He said he didn't see Vibol interact with children, and the director focused on fundraising.

"He mentioned a few money transfer sites…asking volunteers for money almost seemed like business as usual for him."

Hannah Reid volunteered through IVHQ in 2014, and now questions whether such placements actually benefit communities in developing countries. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hannah Reid volunteered through IVHQ in 2014, and now questions whether such placements actually benefit communities in developing countries. Photo / Dean Purcell

The volunteers were told Our Home had lost funding when a large donor pulled out. Teachers' salaries were cut, and some staff faced a costly commute from outside the city.

"Fewer and fewer started showing up. I remember one day where I was the only one there. All the children were just playing in their respective classrooms, and relatively well behaved. But, I was the only one there," Coquilla said.

"My whole time at Our Home, I never had the opportunity to teach with a local teacher. That would have been very beneficial since I really had no idea what I was doing."

Despite those issues, Coquilla said he made lasting friendships with people from around the world, and gained a love of Cambodia and its people.

"I don't necessarily think IVHQ is a bad thing, but it's very superficial…they just pretty much connect you to the local organisation and then become hands-off afterwards."

IVHQ says it never had a direct relationship with Our Home, and the local NGO that places its volunteers in Cambodia stopped sending people there several years ago because quality standards were not met. Regular reviews of placements and accommodation are carried out.

The Weekend Herald also spoke to former IVHQ volunteers in Kenya, who started a Facebook group to document their experiences, saying the company had deleted posts on its own social media channels.

Jennifer Schoell was placed in Nakuru in January 2014 for orphanage work, and said she and another volunteer had their placement fees refunded after problems.

These included having no access to running water, electricity or a functioning toilet after their host family moved out of town during their stay, and having little to do at the orphanage except wash dishes.

In Kenya, Schoell met another IVHQ volunteer from Australia, who raised $2000 for the medical treatment of a 4-year-old. In a review posted online, the volunteer alleged a worker at the orphanage kept the money, splitting it with a government physiotherapist.

In a response to the review, IVHQ appeared to confirm the theft, but said it came after its guidelines were breached: "unfortunately, in this case, the donations were handed over without the involvement of our local staff".

Brown said IVHQ worked hard to make sure volunteers had the right expectations before leaving home, with detailed information and training covering everything from how to stay safe, to how to manage requests for donations and be a responsible volunteer.

High safety standards were reflected by a 95/100 average grade from volunteer reviews across independent websites, he said.

A survey of recent reviews for IVHQ's Cambodia programmes on GoOverseas.com shows the vast majority are positive, with titles such as "An incredible experience" and "Do it!", although in August 2016 IVHQ acknowledged improvements with its NGO placements were needed after a volunteer was told her help wasn't needed.

Incomprehension was the reaction when Eilidh Thorburn told her mother about her latest research.

Cambodia Charitable Trust founder Denise Arnold. Bay of Plenty Times Photograph by Andrew Warner.
Cambodia Charitable Trust founder Denise Arnold. Bay of Plenty Times Photograph by Andrew Warner.

"She was like, 'People pay to volunteer?'" said Thorburn, a research officer at AUT's New Zealand Tourism Research Institute. "It is driven by this change in people's attitudes…by these people that want to give back and also have a holiday."

Thorburn and her colleagues are finalising best practice guidelines for the sector, after being commissioned by APEC countries, who want to use voluntourism to develop rural areas.

A lack of data and the huge variety of operators and offerings, including for-profits, NGOs and religious organisations, meant evaluating the impact of voluntourism was difficult, Thorburn said.

Some estimates have put the number of volunteer tourism organisations at over 800, with 10 million trips taken each year.

Experiences range from luxury hotel packages to plant trees for a few hours, to volunteering for a year and completing meaningful environmental work. Thorburn said it was crucial to find out what communities actually need, and not be driven by what will keep the volunteers happy.

"There are stories you hear that people go out and build a wall, and it gets knocked down, and then the next group go out and build the same wall."

A more demanding public can lift standards and transparency in the sector, Thorburn said. Some established operators had already overhauled their approach.

"It's big business. Some people would say it is the commercialization of altruism…it is also people wanting to go out there and help people, and I don't think that should be shut down. And the fact some companies make money off it, I don't think is a particularly bad thing."

Tauranga lawyer and founder of the Cambodia Charitable Trust, Denise Arnold, is more critical, saying voluntourism is a business model "feeding on a desire to make a difference".

The trust, which counts Theresa Gattung as a patron and Nadia Lim as an ambassador, has operated in Cambodia for about 10 years, supporting 23 schools and primary teacher training colleges.

Arnold has encountered plenty of voluntourists during her visits to the country, and said a concern was people carrying out work they aren't remotely qualified for.

"I hate to say it, because some of my friends have done it, they have gone over to volunteer to be a teacher. And what are they? They are a plumber, or something else. That's kind of arrogant on our part – we think we can turn up there without any relevant skills."

Sinet Chan was nine when she was sent to the orphanage where children ate mice.

Sinet Chan and Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children's Trust. Photo supplied.
Sinet Chan and Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children's Trust. Photo supplied.

She and her siblings soon learnt English and Japanese phrases, and to play games and sing songs for the steady flow of tourists and volunteers.

Gifts of clothes and food were given in return, but the orphanage director – who Chan said sexually and physically abused her and kept the children in squalid conditions – would later take the items to the market to sell.

One of the volunteers, Tara Winkler, fundraised and sent money once back in Australia, but after hearing reports from former staff and children she returned to Cambodia in 2007 and eventually took a group of children from the orphanage, Chan amongst them.

Winkler established her own orphanage and was named NSW Young Australian of the Year, but later shut it down after becoming fluent in Khmer and, having heard the children's stories, concluded she was part of the problem, and the children would be better in the care of family.

She then formed the Cambodian Children's Trust, which works to keep families together, and become a leading critic of orphanage voluntourism, publishing a memoir, How (not) to start an orphanage…by a woman who did.

Both she and Chan, who is now aged 28, an ambassador for the trust and scriptwriter for Cambodian TV, submitted to a foreign affairs committee examining a modern slavery act (Australia has committed to introduce legislation), and in a report last year the committee agreed orphanage trafficking should be recognised as a form of modern slavery.

"We are hoping that a total ban on orphanage tourism and reform to funding orphanages is introduced," Winkler told the Weekend Herald. "We are also hoping that these reforms serve as a catalyst for other countries to follow suit."

All travel and volunteer companies should end orphanage placements, she said, no matter how well run or monitored. Demand from Westerners was fuelling the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.

"The indiscriminate affection volunteers and tourists encounter when they visit children at an orphanage – when a child runs up to a stranger and jumps into their lap, wanting a cuddle – that is a sign of an attachment disorder. It's a survival mechanism."

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now directed officials to develop a campaign to highlight the risks of orphanage voluntourism, and Education Minister Simon Birmingham has pledged to crack down on schools and universities sending students to volunteer in overseas orphanages.

The industry has received less attention here, despite New Zealand companies playing a major role (another voluntourism company, Love Volunteers, is based in Pukekohe).

Dr Sharon McLennan of Massey University's School of People, Environment and Planning, said the success of Kiwi companies in the industry could be linked to the "big OE" psyche.

"I think it comes back to our sense of adventure…linked to disillusionment with traditional tourism and OE experiences, and a desire to do a bit more."

McLennan is against orphanage voluntourism, and believes there are "colonial overtones" in Westerners assuming the developing world needs their help, regardless of expertise or experience. However, she said that volunteering done well could bring huge benefits for host communities – and the phenomenon is only growing.

"When I started doing research on volunteers around 2004 it was still seen as a slightly unusual thing to do. Now, our development studies programme is often full of people who have done a trip and want to learn more."

Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef NZ, said it was important for young people not to be dissuaded from working in developing countries, but people considering volunteering should do their research, including who has mandated a project.

On IVHQ's decision to quit orphanage voluntourism, Maidaborn said it reflected a wider change.

"There is nobody who is doing great international development who thinks orphanages are the answer…the environment has really switched.

"We have got to be deeply concerned when the growth in the number of orphanages relates more to the number of tourists than it does to children needing help."

Reid, who is lobbying the new Government to introduce modern slavery legislation here, urged anyone considering volunteering ask themselves questions such as whether they are properly qualified.

"Why am I doing this kind of work? If I could have my phone taken off me and I'm not allowed to post to social media, would I still go and do this trip?"