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What's wrong with volunteering with orphans?

Seeing how people really live can often lend more of an insight and be more beneficial to a community than visiting orphanages or touring slums
Seeing how people really live can often lend more of an insight and be more beneficial to a community than visiting orphanages or touring slums

With recent news articles showing the serious harm that the practice of “orphanage tourism” is causing, what is the best way for travellers to give back to a country they are visiting? Stanley Ellerby-English draws on his own experience of “voluntourism” to answer this question.

Voluntourism has seen a massive rise in popularity over the last decade and has become a staple of many gap years and summer holidays for university students. The premise is simple: instead of just visiting a country, seeing the sites, eating the food and leaving, people will also volunteer with some sort of social organisation. The participants are usually young and have paid large sums of money for the privilege of volunteering in these countries. The work they do often revolves around activities such as building homes or teaching English to children, with the intention of giving something back to the country they are visiting.

Growing concerns

Just as voluntourism has grown in popularity, so too has criticism of its effectiveness and even the morals behind it. Many commentators argue that the work that volunteers do has very little positive impact for the communities they work in, and in the worst cases may even be detrimental. For example, many argue that it would actually be better if money was spent on employing local builders rather than flying students half way around the world to do work of questionable quality.

Just recently, orphanage tourism has been dragged into the spotlight by pieces in the Guardian newspaper. Just as with voluntourism in general, orphanage tourism usually involves visitors paying to go and spend anything from a day to several months working with children in an orphanage in a particular developing country. Just as with other activities there are clear concerns about the quality of care that untrained volunteers can provide. However, there are also far more serious problems.

Lack of consistency

As Luke Gracie, alternative care manager at the Friends International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tells the Guardian, orphanage tourism can be highly damaging to those it is supposed to help. These children will often form strong emotional bonds with those who are caring for them and when these people change on a regular basis it is extremely damaging to their psychological wellbeing. Even more worrying is the wider impact that the growth in orphanage tourism has had. In both Nepal and Cambodia, where the Guardian articles focus, there are a growing number of orphanages that are run for profit. Not only has this meant that care is neglected in favour of financial gain, but it has also led to an equally worrying increase in the number of false orphans.

Child and teacher at the SOS Nursery School Bethlehem Palestine
Jobs such as teaching are often best left to local people who truly
understand their communities and can remain to support children
for the long term

In a growing number of cases, poor parents are being tricked into sending their children to orphanages, usually paying relatively large sums of money for the promise of a better life. The reality is very different, children are often made to perform regularly for the benefit of tour groups and standards are even kept purposely low in order to profit from sympathetic donations. Not only is it worrying that many of these children often have loving and capable parents, but their move to the orphanage often opens them up to abuse and neglect. Orphanages should be there as a last resort for the most vulnerable children in society, not to profit from actually manufacturing this vulnerability.

When to work?

As someone who has been drawn into similar voluntourist ventures myself and also knows a lot of people who have been involved in them, I now apply a simple rule when planning trips abroad. If it's something I wouldn't feel able to do at home, I am very sceptical about my ability to do it elsewhere. For example, no one would walk into a primary school in the UK and start trying to teach, neither would someone who had no experience as a builder attempt to build their own house. Similarly, British orphanages do not accept temporary untrained volunteers because it is for the best of the children living there.

Perhaps rather counterintuitively, the best way to give back to a country may be to be a good tourist and enjoy the things that local people enjoy. In a Channel 4 news report, a local artist in the Kibera slum in Kenya criticised the attitude of those who go on so called “slum tours”. All these people care about, he said, is the poverty, none of them ever asked him to show them his favourite pub, for example. If they had they may have got a real insight into how people live in this area, had a refreshing drink and supported a business that is valued by local people. Equally, a donation to an established charity that employs skilled local people is far better than giving time to help build houses or look after, supposedly, orphaned children.

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