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It’s not about me

Sally Hetherington’s move to Cambodia in 2011 was prompted by a desire to do more and to be more. But her experience of what that meant took an unexpected turn, one she has now chronicled in a tell-all book.

Words Sally Hetherington

 As I stepped off the plane, I was suddenly hit by the stiff, humid air and bright Cambodian sun. I was finally here in Siem Reap, my new home. 

I had volunteered the previous year at a residential centre for children, and I wanted to continue offering my time to those living in poverty and make their lives happier and fulfilled. I aspired to ensure that children in Cambodia were able to access quality education, because that was the key to securing a good job and breaking that cycle of poverty. I knew if I set my mind to it, I could really make a positive impact on the lives of children in Cambodia. 

I began working at a school for disadvantaged youth and spent my days managing short-term international volunteers – commonly known as ‘voluntourists’.  

What came next for myself and for the community of Cambodia was life changing. My eyes were completely opened to the negative impact voluntourism was having on this country. What I thought I once knew, was so different to what was actually right for the people of Cambodia. 

I witnessed local staff who became complacent and disempowered after having foreign volunteers, mostly with no teaching experience, taking over their jobs. What I saw with my own eyes was not what I saw when researching what my time in Cambodia was set to be like. As it turned out I wasn’t solving a problem, I was creating a problem.  

So, I teamed up with a group of Cambodian volunteers who had been running a nightly English school for the past year and a half, having been introduced to them by my colleague. I was inspired that they were creating solutions to poverty in their community and that they were the driving force in this sustainable change. 

Apart from my mission to stop the foreign volunteer programme, I also had the vision to make myself redundant, leaving the organisation to be entirely run and driven by the local team. After all, they were the subject-matter experts who knew the community and culture well and were there for the long-term. How did we do this? 

In my ‘tell-all’ manifesto, I share the journey of the triumphs and challenges of working with the Cambodian community to stop the voluntourism culture and bringing the power back to locals. 

We registered the school with the government and went about defining our purpose. Instead of just focusing on English classes, we decided it was important to support whole families out of poverty; the onus shouldn’t just be on the children. We had come to the realisation that for children to learn, adults had to earn. 

As an organisation, we came up with a strategic plan to empower both the children and adults of the Cambodian community and my book explains how, as a collective, we achieved our strategy. 

We also built our own community centre to ensure a sustainable future and moved away from the pagoda we were originally located at. In doing so, we provided employment to locals, purchased all our resources locally and utilised hundreds of hours of volunteer time by Cambodians. 

I was the only foreigner in sight; this was community driven, and the way things were supposed to be. This is just one of the many amazing initiatives we took part in during my time in Cambodia. 

Without giving too much away, after several years of building up the organisation, on July 6, 2016, I successfully made myself redundant. It was the proudest day of my life. I was no longer needed, and Human and Hope Association became entirely Khmer-run, a mean feat in a country that is so heavily reliant on the funds from voluntourists. 

Whilst I miss the team dearly now I’m back in Australia, as I have always said, my time in Cambodia at Human and Hope Association wasn’t about me. It was about supporting the team to gain the knowledge and confidence so they could move out of poverty and show others how it could be done. It was about creating lasting change that will impact a community for generations. It was about showing the world Cambodians are the best people to run their own NGOs effectively, which is exactly what they’re doing. 

I went to Cambodia as a girl who thought she could save the world. I came back five years later as a woman who had developed a community to help themselves. Which is so much more powerful.


Sally Hetherington’s manifesto, It’s Not About Me, is published by Elephant House Press and available to purchase online. All proceeds support Human and Hope Association Inc. itsnotaboutmebook.com

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