A twisted industry of altruism: why I will never volunteer at an orphanage again 

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For Anti-Slavery Week 2023, we’re launching the #EndOrphanageTourism campaign. Vulnerable children aren’t tourist attractions. Orphanages can traffic children into slavery. We’re encouraging travellers to say NO to visiting orphanages on holiday and support families and communities instead.

Something didn’t feel right after a few days of arriving to volunteer at an orphanage in Malawi. But even whilst I was there, aged 19, I didn’t realise that my seemingly good intentions were feeding an industry that was and is harming vulnerable children.

Volunteering in orphanages is such a common experience that it’s sold through gap year and tourism companies. I paid the company to go and “help” but how did I actually help?

I wasn’t qualified in any way to work with vulnerable children, nor did I understand the culture or context in which they lived.

I don’t think a background check was done on me at any point. This is common in this type of voluntary work. So when people with sinister intentions want to target vulnerable children, they can and they do, by paying as consumers for the experience to go and “help”.

At the time, I thought the orphanage Director was corrupt as the children were malnourished. I never got to the bottom of it, but I do now know that children are trafficked into orphanages, sometimes for child labour, sometimes for commercial sexual exploitation and sometimes for tourists who want to do good. Orphanages can be a money-making venture.

My friend and I played games with the children and tried to repaint one of the rooms. These children, who have been separated from their families, grow up to have significant issues with developing healthy relationships- and volunteers who come and go, only make the problem worse.

This isn’t about criticising voluntary work or the work of charities. Charities play a vital role. This form of voluntary work though, is causing more harm than good.

We don’t think large-scale orphanages are an acceptable way of caring for children in the UK, so why do we think it’s acceptable to support them in other countries? Orphanages are a remnant of colonialism, as was the idea that I as a white British teenager, would be helpful to children in need of special care and protection in an African country I knew nothing about.

Hear more

Listen to Sophie in conversation with Becs Dhillon, from podcast Conversations on Faith and Equality

Children in Care and Orphanages – Conversations on Faith and Equality