Are we more interested in feeling good than actually doing good?

‘Voluntourism’ has exploded in recent years as the hottest travel trend and a rite of passage for gap year students, but experts say it’s doing more harm than good.

Like all teenagers, I thought my Gap year was the dream. Travelling the world, meeting new friends, immersing yourself in different cultures and signing up for a short-term volunteer stint in an orphanage or school. After all, what qualifications do you really need to teach or help vulnerable kids in developing countries? You’re educated foreigners and they are lucky to have you. Besides, they seem really excited you’re there (especially when you hand over your volunteer fee). The question is, are you making a real, positive impact?

Wanting to help is a natural and admirable reaction when confronted with abject poverty. We often feel guilty about the difference in living standards when visiting developing countries so we give an extra tip to our tuk-tuk driver or donate some books to a local orphanage. Whatever we can do to help. 1.6 million people each year go even further, generously volunteering their time to teach, build a school or spend time in an orphanage. However the grim impacts of voluntourism are now coming to light through initiatives like Better Volunteering, Better Care and ReThink Orphanages. Even social media parody accounts like Humanitarians of Tinder and Barbie Saviour have sprung up to bring light to this issue.

So, why are our good intentions no longer good enough?

Leigh Mathews of the ReThink Orphanages network says if untrained volunteers are not equipped to deal with vulnerable children and families in their own country, logically the same standards must apply in developing countries. Volunteers who are walking in off the street to work in schools or orphanages usually have little or no grasp of the language and rarely have cultural training. Kids are left open to abuse or at the very least, form dysfunctional attachments to short-term foreign visitors. So while the volunteer may feel gratified by their personal growth experience, the children can be left further traumatised.

What has been driving the dramatic increase in voluntourism in recent years? Money, money, money. The voluntourism industry is big business for travel companies, unwitting NGOs and unfortunately corrupt, unregistered organisations; worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year. Voluntourists pay big bucks for the privilege of volunteering; around $1–2000 per week. But while some people are profiting from voluntourism, skilled locals are sliding further into poverty as they miss out on employment because of unskilled volunteers filling their positions.

Pippa Biddle volunteered at 16 to help build a library in Tanzania. Not surprisingly, a group of high school students were terrible at basic construction work and local men had to fix their work every night — essentially rebuilding the school themselves. So the question is, what value do the volunteers offer these programs apart from the cold hard cash of their volunteer fee? It’s often not a rewarding feeling for volunteers either. Are we just in it for the photo opportunity and reference on our CV?

Now, before you give up on your dreams of making a difference in the world, let’s get one thing clear. Many skilled professionals volunteer for NGOs, training and empowering local staff with very positive development outcomes. However, according to Karen Flanagan, Child Protection Manager at Save the Children, many volunteers are not appropriately vetted to have contact with children, in a safe, supervised environment, adhering to essential child protection practices.

There is another issue with voluntourism. Kids are not tourist attractions. Can you imagine if your child was at school or in temporary residential care, and busloads of tourists flooded in to cuddle your child and take photos? Sounds horrifying doesn’t it?

How has orphanage tourism had such a devastating impact?

There are many distressing examples of where orphanage tourism in particular has gone terribly wrong. Tourism companies who place volunteers in orphanages rarely run police checks — a convicted pedophile’s dream. Al Jazeera journalists went undercover recently and were able to walk off the street with no identification or paperwork, taking four orphans out of an orphanage in Cambodia.

Lately disturbing accounts of Western pedophiles abusing children have emerged, including Nick Griffin who was allowed to open orphanages in Siem Reap and systematically abuse boys there, and 21 year old Christian missionary Matthew Durham who was jailed for 40 years last month after abusing children in a Kenyan orphanage.

Did you know? 8 million children worldwide are in orphanages and 80% of these children are not in fact orphans.

I was shocked when I first read these statistics in reports released by the Save the Children alliance and UNICEF. It is disconcerting to be told that despite our good intentions, millions of children are being removed from their families, friends and communities to fill orphanages, and voluntourists are contributing to the demand.

You’ll see booking options for orphanage tourism on many tourism agency websites, particularly in these countries across Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America:

Countries where orphanage tourism is rife

How do kids end up in orphanages if they’re not actually orphans?

Let’s put ourselves in parents’ shoes for a minute. You are living in extreme poverty. Unable to send your kids to school, they work each day at the local tip, collecting any useful bits of rubbish they can find and recyclables to trade for a few cents. You are barely able to feed or clothe them and can’t provide adequate healthcare. You wouldn’t have a very bright picture of their future, would you?

Then an orphanage opens up in town, funded by rich Western tourists. The kids who live there are clean, fed, clothed and go to school. All they have to do is dance at night time for the tourists and take some photos. This is their one chance at a better life.

An orphan broker (yes, a broker — one who buys and sells children) comes through the village and offers to take your kids to the new orphanage for a price. Now they’ll have a better life, you think, even though you’ll miss each other terribly.

However, these parents have been scammed. Research shows kids in institutions lack adequate love and attention, which physically impairs their brain development. They are at higher risk of abuse, exploitation, drug use, criminal activity, prostitution and suicide.

But hang on. What about the good, clean orphanages run by decent people? They’re not all bad, surely. Well…

There is no such thing as a good orphanage.

This was a tough lesson to learn for Tara Winkler, a Young Australian of the Year who after seven years in Cambodia, setting up her own orphanage and saving children from exploitation and abuse, has written an eye-opening new book I reviewed How Not to Start an Orphanage by a woman who did. Her message? Kids in orphanages suffer very poor life outcomes. Orphanages should be an absolute last resort; kids should be placed with extended family or foster carers, through family support programs.

“No matter how good an orphanage is, the best place for a child is with a family. No volunteer or staff member, however loving, can fill the place of a constant care-giver.” Tara says.

Kate van Doore has a similar story. With no experience, she rescued orphans in Nepal and Uganda with the very best intentions, but found corruption was rife and most of the children were ‘paper orphans’ — meaning their identities as orphans were constructed on paper only. They had families who were desperately searching for them, however their names and identities had been changed. After discovering children were being used to elicit international funding, Kate established the Forget Me Not Families project which supports family reunification. As limited research has been undertaken in this area, Kate is completing her PhD and harnessing her background as a lawyer to ensure that the displacement of children for the purpose of orphanages will be categorised as a form of child trafficking under international law.

Rather than feeling despondent about volunteering overseas though, take this as a challenge to promote responsible and ethical volunteering amongst your family and friends. Ask the right questions.

What are the genuine outcomes of our volunteering adventures going to be? Are we doing it for the right reasons? What skills can we offer developing countries to empower their next generation to be self-sufficient?

Ok, I’m in. What can I do to help?

Together, we can stop the calamitous effects of voluntourism, particularly orphanage tourism, and encourage travel companies to educate and inform travellers on ethical, suitable volunteering options based on their relevant skill sets. You can help by spreading the word, starting with this blog! Simply share it with your network, and add the #StopOrphanTrips hashtag.

You can also read and share the Better Volunteering, Better Care network’s blogging blitz articles, read the resources on the ReThink Orphanages website, and sign the Avaaz petition asking travel companies to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites. Next Generation Nepal have a great guide on ethical volunteering too.