SIEM REAP CITY – As tourists passed through the metal gates of Children and Development Organization (CDO) one recent afternoon, they were greeted by the high-pitched voices of about 20 children, yelling “How do you do?” in unison.
A little girl called Kounthy, wearing a red velvet dress with a white ribbon around the collar, asked the tourists if they would like to take a tour through her orphanage. Kounthy is 8 years old—too young to understand that she is part of a very successful business model.
Despite the number of single orphans—children who have lost one parent—and double orphans declining, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 75 percent to 271 between 2005 to 2010, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The same figures put the number of children in orphanages countrywide at 12,000. Three thousand of those are genuinely orphaned or missing one parent, according to the ministry.
Besides the children, the first thing that stands out upon entering CDO is a big board that lists monthly expenses and asks for donations. For the organization’s 20 children, $250 is needed for rice, $175 to print advertising fliers and $35 for sugar every month.
Donations between $10 and $20 are common for each visitor, but more popular are gifts for the children, such as books and sweets. Visitors who bring toys will see the children play with their gift for a few minutes, but as soon as they leave, the director and founder, Savourn Morn, said she takes them away, puts them in plastic bags and hangs them up on the ceiling, explaining that the children have enough toys already and she keeps them for later on.
In Siem Reap, there are hordes of tourists looking for a change to the temples, and many of them are encouraged to visit orphanages like this one. In most of them, there is no supervision, background check or even identification of visitors.
Ms. Morn said that she set up the orphanage in 2010 to help children, but that she constantly lacks money. None of the children under her care is a double orphan, she admits, and only a few have lost even one parent.
The children, she said, are mostly from a poor settlement in the forest, reachable only after making a roughly 3-hour ride by oxcart. The next school and health center are more than one hour from the settlement.
“I opened this to help the poor children because if they stay with their families, they have no education and health care,” Ms. Morn said.
The situation being played out at CDO is commonplace in Siem Reap, where the rising numbers of tourists to the country are fueling a fast-growing industry. In Siem Reap alone, there are currently 33 registered orphanages, according to the local human rights group Licadho.
But observers of Cambodia’s orphanage industry say the growing orphanage sector is borne more out of poverty than a lack of parents.
With almost every third Cambodian still living below the poverty line, parents struggling to survive in rural areas are easily persuaded into giving their offspring to an orphanage in the city that promises to provide food and education.
Unicef and child rights NGOs have criticized the country’s thriving orphanage industry, as about half of all children living in orphanages are there primarily because their families are simply too poor to look after them.
Unicef says that a better way to tackle the issue is to encourage family members or foster parents to care for children with no parents.
Sara Kruse, 31, who volunteered at CDO last year together with a friend through the U.S.-based organization United Planet, which connects volunteers with local NGOs, accused the orphanage’s founder Ms. Morn of taking children away from their families and advertising them as orphans in order to make money. Ms. Kruse also criticized the conditions at CDO.
“The first few days we were just shocked, everything was so bad, the whole place was just not clean and the children were in such a bad condition. [My friend] and I spoke about leaving because the conditions were so bad,” Ms. Kruse said.
During her stay, some of the children fell ill, she said, but Ms. Morn refused to take them to a medical center as there was not enough money.
Ms. Kruse’s three-week trip cost $2,365. Sixty percent of the fee, according to United Planet, goes to volunteer preparation and field expenses, and a minimum donation of $50 is made to the orphanage.
Chao Leak Vanna, provincial coordinator for Licadho, said that fraud, mismanagement and abuse are common inside orphanages.
Indeed, last month, the director of Angkor Orphanage and Education Organization was charged with abusing two girls—aged 11 and 12—who were under his care and were spotted by rights monitors at Licadho to have been sleeping in his room.
Still, running an orphanage, Ms. Leak Vanna said, has become a lucrative business due to the high number of Western tourists wanting to add an element of altruism to their holiday.
“In general, it’s a good business model and the founders can make a fortune with it,” she said, adding that in some scenarios she has even seen the director’s own children posing as orphans.
“The way it works is that, for example, you need 50,000 riel for food. But in the report, you just say that you need 100,000 riel, and half of it goes into the pockets of the founders,” Ms. Leak Vanna said.
Assisting Cambodian Orphans and Disabled Organization (ACODO), which is based in Siem Reap City, even puts on an hourlong show every night, where 67 children take turns to sing and dance for tourists.
“Ninety percent of our money comes from the show,” said ACODO director and founder, Chheav Heng Chhea, who says he started ACODO in 2008.
At ACODO, lists of expenses for the children are drawn up on boards for tourists to see. When asked if all of the children are orphans, Mr. Heng Chhea said that his organization helps orphans, disabled and poor children. Yet not one of the 67 children at the center is currently an orphan. In 2011, ACODO received a total of $247,508 in donations.
For Daryl Barnaby, who visited Cambodia with his wife, taking a trip to ACODO sounded like a good idea after a day at the temples.
“We wanted to do something cultural, something different. You come here and as a tourist you have money, so why wouldn’t you want to help the poor people here, do something for the orphans,” he said.