Friends-International: creating change with elephant poo

Meeting with Friends-International was one of my main priorities when planning which NGOs I’d like to find out more about. Their work sits across the key areas of interest that I wanted to explore during my travels: ‘voluntourism’, responsible travel and local volunteering efforts. They work all over Southeast Asia looking to help marginalised children and treat the causes of this problem. I was lucky enough to sit down with James Sutherland, International Communications Director, at their offices in Phnom Penh.

The thing that struck me early on in talking to James and through my other research is that they’re an organisation with a “we’ll take any approach if it succeeds” mindset. They’re an NGO that embraces business, takes a holistic approach to their work and do not specialise in just one area. They’re just as likely to be running workshops with tourists explaining the dangers of orphanage volunteering as they are setting up a business training centre for young people or connecting them with specialised social services. They don’t appear to be scared by taking calculated risks, as long as it fits with their values.

A key value which shines through is that change must come from, and be owned by, local people. One of their flagship programmes, the ChildSafe Movement, was set up in 2005 to protect children by empowering individuals, businesses and NGOs. In James’ words, this created “agents of protection” in local communities. Volunteers who could recognise the signs of abuse and know how to refer these children to the correct people. These volunteers might be tuktuk drivers, street sellers or other people in jobs connected to the community. Working with these types of workers meant that “eyes can be everywhere”. So far over 8,000 of these “agents” have been recruited and trained in Southeast Asia. I asked James how do they motivate these volunteers especially as they are spread over several countries. His answer was that they have similar motivations to volunteers all over the world, they want to contribute to their community. Ensuring their empowered to do that is essential to the the programme’s succes.

The ChildSafe Movement isn’t just aimed at local people and organisations but international tourists and volunteers too. In the late noughties they noticed that many more orphanages were being opened under a business model that was reliant on funds from fee-paying international volunteers. This, in turn, led to an increase in the trafficking of children to tourist-popular areas to ensure the international volunteers could be “entertained”. Friends-International, in collaboration with others, launched a campaign with the central message that children are not tourist attractions and to encourage tourists to think twice about visiting an orphanage and the potential damage such a trip could do. Since then they’ve launched several more campaigns, including 7 tips for travellers and 7 tips for volunteers, which I recommend all tourists and potential volunteers read before heading to Southeast Asia.

It would be wrong to assume that they believe international volunteers don’t have a role to play in creating change though. After our meeting James was off to induct some new ones and get them working on Friends-International projects. However, the difference is that these volunteers must be skilled, needed and they are recruited on an ability to make a difference rather than the ability to pay.

My final takeaway from Friends-International was the way they involve enterprise in both their impact and fundraising strategies. Unfortunately their highly rated restaurant, which gives training to local young people, was closed but I did get a chance to visit their shop where all sorts of ethical goods are sold, including note paper made from elephant poo (hence this blog title)! If you’re visiting the region make sure you check out all the places where you can get a great service or product and help young people at the same time.

I know that new campaigns will be coming from this organisation and they’ll continue to make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of young people all across Southeast Asia through their incredible network of volunteers, staff and allies. I’d also like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to James for his time and willingness to answer my questions.

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