The global obsession with technology is transforming volunteering’s landscape—even in some of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas.

Credit: Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

Eighteen-year-old Sita wants just one thing—an iPhone.

Even though I'd been volunteering in Cambodia for eight weeks, this revelation comes as a surprise. First, because Sita would have no way to pay the monthly bill; he sends every dollar he makes to his mother. Second, it’s common knowledge here that the country’s service towers don’t work with the iPhone.

I ask Sita—a lover of Beyoncé’s dance moves who sports an urban playboy haircut—why the phone and not, say, a house or a college education. “It would make me a man,” he says, voice breaking. “It means I am important enough to be called by someone.” He wipes his eyes with the back of his dirty hand. “Anyone.”

So I send a missive to my Facebook friends, asking who might have an old phone to spare. Someone does. With the coveted iPhone en route, I run to tell Sita the good news.

Sita dances in place and asks, “Is it an iPhone 5?”

I furrowed my brow—the 5 had come out just weeks before. “Um, I don’t know. I think it’s a 3.”

Sita suddenly stops dancing. “I wanted an iPhone 5, maybe a 4, but certainly not a 3! What could I even do with a 3?”

He grumbles an insult in Khmer and returns to work.

This confounding exchange was not exactly what I imagined when I took three months off to teach English at a youth center in Sihanoukville. I’d been drawn there after reading books like First They Killed My Father and Stay Alive, My Son, which chronicle the Cambodian civil war’s elimination of professionals and intellectuals. And I found all the same conditions: university attendance was low; doctors and mathematicians preferred to work outside their home countries; and with no architects, buildings were falling down.

Teaching English to survivors and their families seemed paramount to rebuilding the infrastructure. So I taught English to children—ages ranging from six months to 16 years—at an at-risk center and makeshift school, six days a week. I also helped out wherever I could: teaching art therapy, cooking vats of rice and chicken beaks, clearing brush, and administering first aid to kids for maladies ranging from lice to typhoid.

I worked enthusiastically, believing I could have a tangible and lasting impact. And while I was an integral part of many efforts—building structures, changing diapers, helping high school students get jobs—I also became known for a very different reason: my iPad. Students spent hours poring over the screen, playing around with apps, games, and icons.

It was always an enjoyable experience for them, with just one glaring problem: I couldn’t use it to take their picture. My 2010-era iPad had no camera. When they found out, the kids looked horrified, even embarrassed for me, giggling and skipping away in torn clothes and broken flip-flops. “So big!” They marveled as they handed the device back to me. “So heavy. New one thinner. You should get new one.”

Technology, of course, has transformed every aspect of travel—and that includes voluntourism. While building houses, teaching English, and implementing water-filtration systems and food programs have traditionally laid the groundwork for volunteer opportunities, technology-based positions are quickly becoming standard.

Clearly it’s something the locals respond to; I saw their obsession with technology everywhere. Children jump into rivers wearing iPhone boxer briefs. They grab tourists’ cameras to gauge the light meters and play with the filters. Pinching and zooming are practically second nature. And it’s not just kids: at Kulen Mountain’s sacred waterfall, monks pose in front of the mossy rocks and snap selfies on late-model iPads.

This phenomenon is hardly confined to Cambodia. Nicole Delma, founder of Fond Group and an activist and volunteer working with Grassroot Soccer in the shanty townships of Cape Town and Zimbabwe, had a similar experience. “All of the children know exactly what an iPhone is, and they all know how to use it,” she says.

So volunteers in tune with the latest tech advancements are in high demand. My roommate, a photographer and graphic designer, ran a packed Photoshop and InDesign workshop overrun by enthused teens clamoring for positions in the computer room, often pushing and shoving to get the best seats and even shouting when the class was even one minute late.

The irony? Half the classes were canceled due to computer meltdowns and rolling blackouts. And many students were like Sita, who lives in such poverty that his home doesn’t even have a door. So while the kids loved learning how to manipulate images of their favorite celebrities and K-pop stars, it’s unclear how those skills could change their lives in any real way. Some 85 percent of Cambodians are farmers who make less than $300 per year. And the same is true in those iPhone-obsessed South African shantytowns, says Delma, where many of the kids don’t even have shoes or running water.

So what's the point? In Cambodia, at least, Internet infrastructure is growing, as are the number of shops dedicated to computer and mobile maintenance and sales. “Being able to teach an internationally lucrative language, like English, is even more valuable if one can also teach computer skills,” said Nick Mihaljevic, Director of TESOL Teacher Training for LanguageCorps, a Massachusetts-based organization that trains teachers and sends them abroad. “And it’s those skills that can open doors to job opportunities that children in low-income communities would not have otherwise.”

The emphasis on technology seems too wild to be true in a land where the latest news travels by word of mouth only. But perhaps it isn’t wild at all. After all, I’m hardly the only one to have brought my iDevice abroad. Tourists, volunteers, and voluntourists—wittingly or not—have all been technology evangelists. We lend the locals our iPhones. We Instagram their pictures. We revel in their interest in our machines, as it matches our interest in them, and fall victim to this symbiotic relationship. We love them, and they love us, as long as we have our toys to share.

Of course, the locals know exactly how this technology obsession blossomed. “The tourists made it so,” says Amok, my 29-year-old Cambodian-born teaching assistant. “There is no advertising, no billboards, not even TV, but the kids know all about what’s new.” They know so much, in fact, that they’ll be disappointed if an iPad has only Angry Birds and not the game’s newest iteration, Angry Birds in Space.

On my last day teaching, Amok thanks me with a series of elaborate bows, paying me the highest compliment by placing his fingertips to his symbolic third eye—a gesture meant only for parents, who are exalted above Buddha. I’ve taught him enough about phonetics that he believes he will ace a university interview. He will, like most Khmer, also work a second and third job in order to have enough to send to his aging parents for food and as an unspoken thank-you for helping him survive the holocaust.

“We could really use more volunteers like you,” Amok insists. “All of Cambodia could. Would you ever consider coming back?” I humbly nod: the poverty, the devastation, and the hope of Amok and his countrymen have touched me deeply and spiritually.

I’m 16 pounds lighter from profuse sweating and sickness. My ribs are sore where the kids kicked me as I taught them to swim, and I have an itchy scalp from nits. But I also have an enormous sense of gratitude for my friends, my family, my shoes.

I promise him, “I will come back.” I think of the lesson plans I could bring, sustainable farming techniques, and a network of friends at the ready to send diapers and cleaning supplies.

“Good,” he says. “Very, very good.” He pauses to adjust his designer sunglasses. “But could you learn Photoshop first? It would really help the kids.”

I wanted to ask just how I could save the world with Photoshop. I wanted to ask where these new skills fit in a place without the infrastructure to support them. I wanted to ask if my nontechnical efforts had been any help at all. But by then, Amok had already revved up his moto, flipped open his phone, begun a text, and driven away.