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. 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 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.
And this is what voluntourism plays on.
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 outdated 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 envioronment 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 exactly 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.
Better Volunteering, Better Care is an organisation founded by the Better Care Network and Save The Children UK. They are campaigning against international volunteering in orphanages and are supporting responsible volunteering alternatives in an effort to raise awareness of the danger to children and the problems surrounding volunteering in orphanages, and also to cal on all travel industry providers to stop orphanage placements and stop offering short photo opportunity ‘visits’ to orphanages.
If you want to help, then please visit their site, read up on the issues and spread the word as much as you possibly can. Or you can even sign the Better Volunteering, Better Care petition to stop orphanage volunteering.
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?
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