15 April 2019

What is wrong with Orphanage VolunTourism?

Children in dark orphanage looking out through iron gates

Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is an emerging trend of travel linked to “doing good”. It has been estimated that every year 1.6 million people volunteer overseas with voluntourism being considered the fastest growing ‘trend’ in travel, a trend worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year.

Dr Delia Pop, Director of Programmes and Global Advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children, explains why it’s good to volunteer—but not in orphanages.

For the most part, voluntourists are well-intentioned people who are looking for an opportunity to travel and contribute something to the countries they visit. Sadly though, when it comes to volunteering in orphanages and other children’s institutions, these volunteers risk unwittingly harming rather than helping children.

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. Ask yourself this question: would you be happy for a volunteer from overseas, 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. What many volunteers do not know is that the majority of the 8 million or more children who are housed in orphanages and similar institutions 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 facilities, even babies and very young children are deprived of the vital one-to-one care and attention that every child needs to develop properly and to thrive.

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. And yet with the growth of volunteer tourism or “voluntourism” in general, 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.

Watch the short interview below “Voluntourism: More harm than good” with Leigh Mathews co-founder of the cross-sector coalition, ReThink Orphanages:

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.

Orphanage voluntourism and orphanage tourism: What’s the difference?
In many countries, Children in orphanages are being exploited as ‘attractions’ for tourists – contributing to the orphanage economy and therefore allowing the proliferation and sustainment of institutions. This is what is defined as “Orphanage Tourism”: Tourist visits to orphanages/institutions as part of packages, day trip excursions or tours. The impact on children can be critical because of the cyclical, short-term nature of the visits and the experience of being treated as a tourist attraction. The need to attract tourists to visit orphanages can even entail children being purposefully kept in poor conditions, denied food and clothing and other essentials in order to attract more money from visitors.

In this light, orphanage tourism can be seen as a form of child exploitation

This short animation shows the impact that volunteers have on children in orphanages from a child’s point of view.

The Love You Give campaign—take the volunteering pledge
As long-standing members of the cross-sector global coalition, Rethink Orphanages, Hope and Homes for Children is adding its voice to a new campaign launched to coincide with International Children’s Day, November  20th 2018. The Love You Give, #ChangeVolunteering aims to raise awareness among young people about the negative effects of international volunteering in children’s institutions.

Take the volunteering pledge at this link: “I pledge to not volunteer in orphanages and  change volunteering for the better.”

For over 20 years, Hope and Homes for Children has worked to reform child protection systems around the world that still rely on institutions. We are world experts in supporting children to leave orphanages and be reunited with their families or join new families. At the same time, we establish the services that are needed to support vulnerable families to stay together and stop children entering orphanages in the first place.

It’s good to volunteer. But do your research first
Our aim is definitely 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.

Most people who volunteer overseas genuinely want to do something meaningful and experience a new culture. However some of the companies that arrange this type of travel may be more concerned with creating a ‘life-changing’ experience for their customers, rather than responding appropriately to the needs of the host communities.

There are a number of things to consider to ensure your time overseas is spent making a real difference: the volunteer company you use; the volunteering program and the skills you yourself can bring to the project.<

This link will take you to an essential Volunteering 10 point checklist.

Get involved
Orphanages do not protect children. They harm them. That’s why, Hope and Homes for Children and the other members of the Rethink Orphanages coalition are working towards a world where no child is needlessly separated from their family, and the institutionalisation of children is consigned to history.

If you would like to help children in orphanages join families, you can register for our newsletter to find out more about our work, discover our fundraising initiatives or consider donating.

Thank you.