Orphanage volunteering has become a serious international child protection issue in recent years despite being a popular staple of the gap year and voluntourism industries. Here is why every backpacker should avoid the orphanage volunteering traps on their gap year.
A fresh, wide eyed backpacker steps into the delapidated orphanage in Siem Reap. It is her first time in Cambodia and she is riding waves of excitement, anticipation and the adventure of travelling in this new and exotic location. She had been drawn to the orphanage by organised teams of photo prop children, all suitably hungry looking and shabbily dressed as their handler invites the tourists and travellers to give them money, eagerly showing them how desperate and hungry the little children are.
A suggestion is made that maybe she could come and work in their orphanage. To volunteer. All it would take is another donation. Now her excitement is mixed in with pangs of pity and pain, her heart is absolutely bleeding out at seeing all the poor little foreign children in desperate need of her help. They look up at her, all trusting and innocent, and she just knows that she can help them, she has to. Despite a complete lack of any teaching, childcare, health or social care qualifications, her unique need to help and the fact she is from the western world gives her an automatic pass, and she knows those few cuddles she had with the children and the selfies she took for her social media profiles is all it will take to do just that before she sets off again the next day.
After all, volunteering is all well and good, but the beaches of Sihanoukville are calling.
This stereotypical backpacker is not alone. Every year thousands of tourists and backpackers flock to the ever increasing numbers of ‘orphanages’ in Cambodia, all with the desperate urge to ‘give back’ and a healthy, colonial need to help all the poor little children.
If you are sensing a heavy dose of sarcasm when the word ‘help’ is used, you’d be right.
Orphanage Volunteering isn’t just a problem in Cambodia. Nepal, India, parts of Africa, all have seen a huge surge in these volunteer orphanages in recent years as the demand from travellers and tourists fuel a twisted economy.
No one can really doubt the intentions of many of these volunteers. They are often of course completely guileless, and almost certainly naive in the extreme, but they are rarely malevolent. Many travellers, backpackers and tourists often have a genuine desire to help, even if they have a complete ignorance of the problems involved.
This Is Voluntourism At Its Worst.
The problem is that orphanage voluntourism does infinitely more harm than good, and and many childrens charities and organisations, from UNICEF to the Child Safe Movement have been actively campaigning against this practice for a long time, and they are far from alone. Better Volunteering, Better Care is an entire initiative that has been founded by the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK, with the sole purpose of discouraging international ‘orphanage’ volunteering.
Why Orphanage Volunteering Causes More Harm Than Good.
The demand is creating the supply.
The popularity of orphanage volunteering, and the vast profits that can be made from it, has led to an entire industry being built up around it. Travellers’ guilt based on misguided notions of ‘privilege’ and age old colonialism has created a perverse demand for an industry that needs a vast production line of purposely dilapidated orphanages and cute but poor looking ‘orphans’, with the sole intention of milking as much profit out of travellers and tourists as possible.
Voluntourism is quite simply fueling the growth of these orphanages.
This means that these orphanages have to keep up the demand somehow, and research by UNICEF suggests that up to 75% of children kept in these institutions in Cambodia and Nepal alone are not even orphans. They are often hired for the day or bought outright from impoverished parents, kept in conditions are often kept purposely squalid to confirm the voluntourists worst fears about how poverty stricken these ‘orphans’ are, denying them access to proper education and instead forcing them to work as photo props for tourists.
There is even strong evidence to suggest that the vast profit driven orphanage industry has contributed significantly to child trafficking. According to Next Generation Nepal, children are purposely bought and trafficked to various orphanages from poor, rural areas with the specific purpose of appealing to Western tourists and volunteers.
Orphanage voluntourism is supporting an oudated and discredited system.
Regardless of any other problems, untrained and unqualified volunteers head to these orphanages completely oblivious to the fact that they are supporting and validating a system that has been proven to have a negative effect on childrens development, and a system that academics and professionals moved away from a long time ago.
Residential care should only ever be a last resort!
Evidence has shown that institutional or residential care centres – to give orphanages their correct name – can have a severely detrimental effect on a child’s welfare, and child protection charities, academics and professionals have long advocated an alternative model where an emphasis is firmly placed on care within a family unit. Family units that many of these children are taken away from to fill up the orphanages for the volunteer’s benefit!
If residential care is necessary, it should only ever be as a last resort, for a short term placement and in as close a family orientated environment as possible, certainly not long term ‘orphanages’.
Attachment anxiety is real!
All children need a stable environment with adults who are there long term to provide the care, protection and education they need.
They do not need a bunch of bleeding heart volunteers who are only there long enough to take a few selfies and get a nice Facebook profile pic to brag about when they get home.
The simple fact is that a quick moving production line of volunteers sent over by the voluntourism industry organisations does not in any way allow the children to form healthy, long term relationships and can have a genuinely devastating affect on their emotional development.
The companies and organisations offering volunteering placements or even ‘orphanage stops’ as part of a package tour quite literally go against the very essence of the good they claim they are doing. By parachuting visitors and volunteers in for a short period of time, and then moving them on so the next group of suckers can come in ad infinitum, they are disrupting the childrens lives immeasurably.
Qualifications do actually mean something!
The absolute majority of backpackers and voluntourists who make statements akin to ‘I want to volunteer with children abroad’ or ‘I want to work with kids’ are neither trained or anywhere near qualified enough to do so, and it is beyond conceited for them to expect to waltz into an orphanage and save the day!
Teachers, social workers, children’s nurses and a vast network of other child protection and childcare professionals all have years of training, qualifications and experience that enable them to give the best care available to vulnerable children, but also to know how best to care for and protect them.
What right do these voluntourists have to impose their colonialesque desire to ‘give back’ on schools and residential care facilities in developing countries? Why should they demand that their desire to help is more important than giving children in these facilities access to the best care from trained and qualified staff?
On top of all that, what right do these untrained, unqualified voluntourists have to take positions – and wages – away from skilled, qualified locals who can stay with the children long term and make a difference?
If you want to care for, protect or teach children, then you should be fully qualified and registered to do so!
I really don’t know if it is simple naivety or staggering ego on the part of the volunteers and travellers, or a slick, greenwashed con job on the part of the voluntourism industry, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out you need professional qualifications to do a professional job!
Voluntourism normalizes access to vulnerable children.
Think about it. Seriously. Would you allow a bunch of complete strangers to waltz into a school or care facility in your home country completely unchecked? Would you allow them to pick a couple of children to go out and play with or have a cuddle with for a photo op?
Then why the hell is it okay for volunteers to go and do exactly that in the developing world?
Anyone with any professional access to a vulnerable child in your home country will not only be fully qualified, but will be fully background checked and certified as safe. The process for doing this is rigorous and strict, and rightly so. In my own professional field of nursing my patients are vulnerable adults and the process and the thinking behind it is exactly the same, so this is something I understand well. Schools, residential centres or any care facility that looks after vulnerable children has an absolute duty of care and protection toward each and every child, so why do travellers think they can just go and ‘volunteer with local children’? What makes them so special that they think that it is okay that they can simply bypass these checks? Or do they really not realise that this is a problem?
These systems, checks and balances are all there for a very specific reason, to protect vulnerable children from predators and those who want to do them harm. The orphanage voluntourism industry has none of this, and by supporting the voluntourism industry just so you can ‘give back’ for a few days, you are tacitly supporting a system that is wide open to abuse.
Orphanage voluntourism supports abuse.
This brings us onto the final point, that many of these so called orphanages are in no way a safe haven for children, and according to UNICEF, Childsafe and many other child protection organisations, it is an unfortunate fact that vulnerable children in Cambodian orphanages and other similar settings around the world are wide open to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
A heady cocktail of wholly inadequate institutions, untrained and unqualified staff, an open door policy for fee paying ‘volunteers’, practices such as child begging or photo prop children around clubs and tourist hot spots late at night and a lack of child protection policies and paradigms that contravene international best practices, these orphanages, and the voluntourism industry that supports them, are allowing conditions where child abuse is not only rampant, it is normalised.
By volunteering in these orphanages, or paying the voluntourism industry thousands of pounds to send you there, you are supporting it too.
So Where Should You Volunteer?
Despite numerous campaigns and efforts to raise awareness, there is still a mentality amongst backpackers and gap year travellers that they want to ‘give back’. This leads to countless declarations of wanting to work with children or wanting to help at an orphanage, and there will always be the question of ‘which orphanages are good ones to volunteer at?’
The simple answer is none of them!
By stating numerous times in this article that there are bad orphanages that you should avoid like the plague, that does not in any way imply there are good alternatives you can go to instead.
If you are a qualified professional who is registered to work with children, then there are plenty of organisations that will value and benefit from your long term input and experience. If you are a backpacker without any of those and simply want to appease your need to do some good, then any ‘orphanage’, company or industry that will allow you to do that for a day or two is not in any way anything that deserves your support.
That is the mentality of voluntourism that needs to change.
The desire to volunteer and the motives behind it are – and always will be – laudable to an extent, but that energy and desire needs to be carefully managed, focused and channelled into projects that are worthwhile and beneficial.
Orphanage volunteering is an activity that causes far more harm than good, and just as the gap year industry and travel providers need to stop providing these profit driven, greenwashed voluntourism activities, I urge each and every one of you as individual travellers to please stop and think about your actions. Please read up on the issues involved in both voluntourism and in orphanage volunteering and make informed, ethical choices when you travel. Ask essential questions about ethics and responsible tourism you see offering orphanage volunteering, and please avoid supporting any of these programmes yourself.
The orphanage voluntourism industry may be causing untold harm to children in developing countries, but individual travellers have a unique power to change things for the better and make a real difference!
You can make a difference on your travels! The question is, will you?
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons using the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
Child Beggars And The Travellers Dilemma.
Greenwashed Gap Years: How To Spot And Avoid Greenwashing On Your Gap Year.
Should Travellers Boycott Controversial Destinations?
When I lived in India I knew people who were staging fake orphanages in order to scam tourists and NGOs into giving him money. It’s a common scam that’s run in India. The Indians see it as a business and career. They don’t see it as unethical, immoral, illegal or wrong. It’s a career choice to scam people.
Sent from my iPhone
Unfortunately it is all too common a scam in many places. This is why it is so important to raise awareness so that travellers and tourists can make informed, ethical decisions and avoid these irresponsible voluntourism traps. Thanks for the message. 🙂
This is such a great article! I totally agree with you and think that this type of tourism has to stop right now. At it’s most basic level it is just relatively rich westerners going and gawking at another human being like it’s a zoo. The suffering of other people, especially children, should never be a tourist attraction.
Thank you Alice. I totally agree.
This is such an important issue and one I think that is not reported on enough. I almost fell for one of these voluntourism experiences myself last year, and I was one of those naive tourists who thought I would be doing some good, but luckily I did some research first and decided against it. I realised that I would probably be doing more bad than good and I figured the best thing to do was simply spending money on local businesses and stimulating the local economy.
I’m glad you were able to see through all the greenwashing Tara and that you were able to do something positive instead. Kudos!
Thanks for the great article, we need more like this!
Thank you, there are plenty more. Check out the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips, there are a ton of bloggers, travel writers and experts in the field contributing to the campaign to put an end to orphanage volunteering.
Great post, lets hope more tourists read this and become educated about the impact of all forms of volunteering and tourism in poorer countries.
Let’s hope so Pete, and not only that, but lets hope the gap year and travel industries stop selling these voluntourism trips too!
I’m so glad you wrote an article on this to educate all those that aren’t aware of this unfortunate industry that has popped up in recent years. In 2014 I traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia and my husband and I were lured into the “free Khmer dance show” put on at the Acodo Orphange. I hadn’t learned of the orphange tourism industry before this but something just didn’t see right here. The director made a pitch for donations both before and after the show, and guilted us all into paying for the “only thing that these children have left.” I was tragic to watch them perform like slaves without any happiness in their eyes, clearly just generating profits for the owners. The walls were filled with photos of passerby tourists who come in for a day, or a week, and then return home to fundraise for this place all along just making the owners rich. It wasn’t until I got home and researched this particular orphange and others that I learned the full and horrific truth. Thanks so much for shedding light on this topic and educating others!
Thanks Jessica, you aren’t the only one to be lured in by those shows and I’m certain you will be far from the last too. The main point is that you saw it for what it really is, did your own research and have changed your mindset on the whole industry, and that is an absolute positive outcome. If more people did that, then raising awareness would be a lot easier! Thank you for your comment.
This is an excellent article. As an adoptive mother I’m passionate about this issue.
Thank you very much, please feel free to help raise awareness and share the article wherever you can.
Great article, and very true. The culture of “look at me, I helped in a Cambodian orphanage, I’m such a good person” Facebook postings does nothing to help genuine Cambodian orphans.
Similarly, western backpackers who “help build schools” and the like are also not helping the local people – in communities like that, people are often very good with practical work, and yet a 20 year old backpacker with no building skills whatsoever pays to feel better about themselves for a couple of weeks, depriving local people of using their skills to be paid a wage to build the school.
If people genuinely want to help people less fortunate themselves, there are a whole host of ways … it’s just they may not be cool or glamorous or exotic ways that make people envious of your FB posting ….
I completely agree Gail, the voluntourism sector taking employment away from local skills and trades is a huge issue too. Real volunteering supports and empowers local workers, it doesn’t take over.
You are so right, people need to do their research about the places they are visiting and be aware of what is going on around them. It is such an important topic and I’m glad you wrote about it.
Absolutely Jo, I totally agree. Thanks for commenting.
I’m heading to Thailand and Cambodia later this year and I’ve really learned a lot about what to do and more importantly what NOT to do through this post. Thank you for posting it.
I’m really glad it’s helped Audrey. Enjoy your trip.
Great, informative and well-researched article, thank you. some scattered thoughts: I’m not sure if all voluntourist backpackers come from the western world but the objections you’ve listed do apply equally to those from other backgrounds.
I suspect that in some developing countries there just isn’t a foster care system in place and I have come across children’s homes online (not in person) in South America and Africa which do seem to be legit in that they don’t charge a fee, require a minimum stay of at least 6 months and do background checks. If they are really non-profit, I can see how they would struggle to hire qualified people.
Thank you so much Michelle, I agree and take your point completely that not all volunteers are from a Western background, the term was used to portray ideology as much as it was to convey the fact that the majority of the voluntourism sector is from Westernised countries.
On your other point, there absolutely are legitimate organisations out there too. These organisations generally work with international and local professionals, abide by best practice (in this case for example working with families and short term, small scale, family run care facilities as opposed to large scale orphanages) and generally don’t have anything to do with the voluntourism sector. This is where the ‘opportunities’ provided by the voluntourism sector and real, genuine, skills based volunteering has to be seperated. Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂
This is very true. Am from East Africa, I have seen it with my own eyes. Vulnerable seem to often be used to raise funds because they do not have anyone to fight for them. This story makes me very sad. Moreover, these orphanages only raise funds from the young children, once the children turn 18 they are sent away because they are no longer assets to the institution. Thank you for this article.
That is very true, and you raise an important point that whilst Cambodia is often the focus of these scams, it is a worldwide issue. Thank you for the comment.
I think it’s a little unfair to lump all voluntourism agencies into one, I have no doubt some are bad but surely some are good too? I mean these kids are the poorest of the poor, surely anything that can help them is good, right?
I see your point Pete, and to be fair this is absolutely a complex issue that is not easily sorted into simple boxes. It is true that there are some forms of volunteering that is helpful and does a lot of good, however in this case the evidence is overwhelming that the volunteering industry does a lot of harm, and has become such a profit mill industry that it is actually holding back the social care systems that are needed to truly help. So in this specific case yes, it is fair to lump the voluntourism agencies into one.
Fair point well made.
I think all bad things which we see around started off as good one day. And the good started because there was a need, which needed to be addressed. But somewhere down the line, people saw that the same principle could be applied to benefit themselves, rather than the beneficiary.
However, finding the good ones or deciphering the bad ones becomes such a challenge as it is masked so well and its a quagmire.
That is very true.
This is an issue that is really close to my heart after nearly falling for this volunteering rap a few years ago myself, thankfully I saw through it pretty quickly. Well done on raising awareness! I’ll definitely be supporting the campaign.
Thanks Jenny, that is awesome!
All these dogooder volunteers make me laugh, if they really wanted to do good, why not stay at home and volunteer in a homeless shelter? Or any of the hundreds of charities that need help here? Oh that’s right, they won’t get bragging rights about how amazing they are because they helped poor children on their gap yah.
That is very true Chris.
What an amazing campaign, I had heard about these scams in Cambodia but have to admit to knowing very little about them before now! Really informative article, well done! I’m off to sign that petition!
Thanks Tara, that’s great!
I kind of had my heart set on doing this in a few months but I had no idea! So there are no good orphanages at all then?
In general Joanne, no. If it helps you will be helping children by staying away from these experiences.
What an amazing article and well researched! Keep up the awesome work.
Thank you very much Louise, I appreciate it. 🙂
So what about volunteering in general then? I kind of get what you are saying, but surely there are some good options out there?
Of course there are Angie, but in very general terms you have to do your research, ask the right questions and stay away from the profit making voluntourism industry to find them. The big problem is many travellers now are confused and don’t see any difference between true, genuinely helpful volunteering experiences, and experiences that have been greenwashed by the voluntourism industry. All they want to do is ‘help’ and ‘give back’, without much idea of what that means.
Articles like this are why I love this site and keep coming back to it. What an awesome cause, I’ll definitely be looking at that petition!
Thank you Emma. 🙂
Amazing post Mike. I have signed the petition. Best of luck!
Thanks Anna, much appreciated.
I totally agree with this article, I’ve felt this about travellers wanting to volunteer with kids for a while but never really knew why or how to express that. Great job.
Thanks John, I’m happy to have helped.
Well done Michael – technically sound, well researched and well written. I like the fact that you highlighted the risks but also offered alternatives for young people who are keen to help in a way that would benefit all (children, volunteer and organizations). Marc/UNICEF Laos
Thank you very much Marc, I’m glad you liked it. It’s an extremely important issue that needs a lot more awareness.
We need more volunteers in this world. I wonder what the real reason is for this scaremongering????
No, we need more genuine volunteers in the world and less voluntourists causing more harm than good. I wonder why you think this is scaremongering?