06 May 2016

It’s good to volunteer – but not in orphanages

Dr Delia Pop is Director of Programmes and Global Advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children.

Ask yourself this question: would you be happy for a volunteer, who has no experience and has undergone no background checks, to help out at your local school or nursery?

I think I can guess your answer and yet this is exactly what is happening in children’s institutions around the world, thanks to the growing trend for foreign volunteers to spend time working in orphanages abroad.

We know that in the right circumstances, volunteer tourism provides significant benefits for both the volunteers and the communities that receive them but we need to be absolutely clear: volunteering in children’s institutions is a bad idea.

What many volunteers do not know is that the majority of the 8 million or more children who are housed in so-called orphanages around the world today, are not orphans at all. Most are separated from their families because of poverty, disability or discrimination. Once confined to these large and loveless institutions, even babies and very young children are deprived of the vital one-to-one care and attention they need to thrive and develop properly.

Robust research, conducted over the last 80 years, shows that institutions harm children. The lack of individual love that is characteristic of institutional care, damages children’s emotional, physical and neurological development in ways that can last a lifetime.

With the growth of volunteer tourism or “voluntourism” around the world, there is an increasing trend for people, often young and from the West, to spend time helping in institutions for children in less developed parts of the world.

Many people now see voluntourism as a chance to travel and contribute something to the countries they are visiting but, rather than improving the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable children, these volunteers risk adding to the damage that institutions inflict on children.     

Voluntourism in orphanages leaves children vulnerable to abuse where child protection regulations are lax, it creates attachment problems in children who become close to short-term visitors and perpetuates the myth that many of these children are orphans in need of adoption.

In many countries, orphanages are a lucrative business and voluntourism provides a useful income stream. This, in turn, encourages the expansion of these harmful institutions. In some countries, children’s institutions are actually treated as tourist attractions, and children are “bused in”, for the benefit of volunteers and visitors.

For over 20 years, Hope and Homes for Children has worked to reform child protection systems around the world and find families for children who are confined to institutional care. We are world experts in closing so-called orphanages and finding alternative, family based care for children.

In 2013, Hope and Homes for Children joined the multi-agency initiative, Better Volunteering, Better Care, set up by the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK to share experience and highlight the problem of voluntourism in institutions for children.

We have also endorsed the Better Volunteering Better Care position paper, and we are proud to support BVBC’s current month-long blogging campaign to raise awareness about this issue among the travel community.

You can find out more about the Better Volunteering Better Care campaign to #StopOrphanTrips here, and sign the petition here.

Our aim is not to discourage volunteering abroad but to alert people to the risk of volunteering in children’s institutions where they may, in fact, do more harm than good.