Why does Hope and Homes for Children argue that it’s wrong to volunteer to work in orphanages?

We know that in the right circumstances, “voluntourism” (volunteering to work abroad as part of a travel experience) 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 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 century, shows that institutions harm children. The lack of individual love that is characteristic of institutional care, damages children’s emotional, physical and neurological development and this damage 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, orphanages are actually treated as tourist attractions, and children are “bussed in”, for the benefit of volunteers and visitors.

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.