“Children are not tourist attractions “: the paradox of orphanage volunteering

Augustin Baret
Jun 6, 2018 · 5 min read

Globalisation is an essentially contestable concept. There are many different definitions and competing views regarding its ideological consequences. With new technology and the rise of social media over the past years, knowledge and informations about international issues have been considerably enhanced. This feeling of closeness has created the basis for a stronger “global consciousness”.

As a result, voluntourism is a growing trend in which tourists do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in places they are visiting. In 2008, it was estimated that there was an average of 1.6 million voluntourists a year. In light of this phenomenon, there has been a dramatic increase of residential care during the past few years. Essentially, this has been facilitated by private donors and faith-based associations from the West. Markets within the tourist industry have begun to flourish with voluntourism becoming one of the most popular option. Specifically, projects involving children (including orphanages) are the most favored by volunteers across the world. According to the scholar Cecilia Jonsson, commercial volunteer agencies have identified the demand for this attractive experience and are now offering a market-based solution for people who do not have either the required skills or the time to join an international development NGO. Critics claim that such practices turn children into tourist attractions and that orphanage volunteerism is actually harmful for children. I believe it is interesting to explore the reasons that make orphanage tourism such a controversial topic. This post will also consider how international helpers can adopt an “ethical attitude” towards volunteering.

Organisations such as the Childsafe movement and public figures like J.K Rowling (founder of Lumos) are now preventing the institutionalization of children in orphanages and children’s homes. Besides, a petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites have been signed by multiple universities part of the “Better Volunteering, Better Care Network”, a working group of individuals and organisations campaigning against international volunteering in orphanages. In order to explain the reasons behind all these mobilisations, this article aims to answer the following question: what are the possible ideological and practical consequences of the established narrative about orphanage volunteering ?

There are different versions of reality that we reach depending on from which perspective we view and analyse different phenomena. In fact, the way people see reality and act in the world is very much influenced by discourses: the various dynamics (such as culture or language) that contribute to socially engineer and shape certain meaning in our societies. Well, over the past decade, the narrative about orphanage volunteerism has been constructed in a way that legitimizes orphanages and residential care as solutions for poor children from developing countries. Most of the time, the orphanage children are portrayed as the most happy, needy and smiling children despite having nothing. This image of the children is the precondition for the construction of the active helper who believes that by spending some time with the children it is possible to make a difference in their lives. Yet some would argue that the combination of poor but still cute children creates a marketable resource and the further commodification of the orphan status.

The business growing from orphanage volunteerism has had terrible unintended consequences for the children as well as for communities around. A report published by “Next Generation Nepal” (NGN) mentions the fact that children in Nepal are being deliberately trafficked and displaced from their families to meet the requirements of well-intentioned orphanage volunteers, as well as to attract donations from wealthy individuals and charities that wish to support apparently destitute children. By offering their help, many volunteers in Nepal tend to unconsciously reproduce the interests of child traffickers and the profit-making orphanage business in general.

When it comes to the topic of orphanage volunteering, it is commonly assumed that the presence of international volunteers from the West provide happiness and support to dispossessed kids. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of sustainability. Indeed, by constructing the discourse about the helper and the orphan as a mutually beneficial solution, this narrative aims to “de-politicize” the problem in poor countries. Specifically, orphanage volunteering legitimizes the narrative about the international helper and places the problem at an individual level rather than at a structural one. In other words, volunteerism brings short-term individual solution to issues that need to be addressed on a structural basis from the community itself. Wrong discourse leads to wrong solutions.

As a result of this growing phenomenon for orphanage volunteering, one could argue that its development created dependency and stereotypes of powerless poor countries from the South. The continuous flow of volunteers and donations makes governments less accountable to the condition of their population, whose money should normally be used to fund public services. Volunteers teaching at orphanages might also undermine the competences of local teachers, who picture these volunteers as knowledgable and expert just because they represent modernity. The truth is that most of the time volunteers are unskilled, do not speak the local language and lack teaching experiences.

Critics about orphanage volunteering have also emphasized the psychological effects that short term volunteerism can have on children. These children in residential care have already experienced abandonment as a result of being separated from their families in the first place. Short term volunteers can exacerbate attachments disorders by creating a repeated cycle of attachment and rejection. This can cause long-term psychological damages on the “re-traumatized children” and put them at significant social and economic disadvantages as adults. As a result, NGN suggests that if a person is considering volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal, they should first ask themselves a few questions:

  • Do I have the professional skills and training to work directly with vulnerable children?
  • Will I be able to volunteer for long enough to benefit the orphanage and its staff?
  • Will the work I do be sustainable after I leave?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power and value of volunteering. But I also believe that we all have a part to play in encouraging “ethical voluntourism”. Volunteering in an ethical way requires helpers to adopt a learning mindset in order to appreciate the different cultural perspectives. A helpful start for people who want to do good is to consider their own skills and how it can be beneficial for the children. Finally, ethical voluntourism would also aim to empower communities by training local people to improve their skills so they themselves can become the change-makers.

There are many things that organizations and individuals can do to address the problems connected with orphanage volunteering. The easiest one might be to keep raising awareness about the problems associated with orphanage volunteering in order to stimulate further research that will bring relevant solutions to the issue of residential care.

For more infos about the unnecessary institutionalization of vulnerable children you can check NGN’s report and Holmberg’s journal article.

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