How could saving kids from exploitation and abuse end up being the wrong thing to do?

A cautionary tale of a young Australian woman’s tumultuous mission to save orphans in Cambodia.

You may have heard about the 19 year old Aussie girl from Bondi who volunteered in Cambodia and inadvertently became a ‘mother’ to fourteen kids from a corrupt orphanage, via ABC’s Australian Story or the 2011 Young Australian of the Year awards. Her pursuit inspired many, but worried others within the development sector as it set a troublesome example of inexperienced Western do-gooders traipsing in and “saving” vulnerable children, whilst in reality inflicting disruptive and ill-advised “help”.

So while some cried ‘What an inspiration! A gutsy, determined hero of our times!’ others declared cynically ‘What does she know about running an orphanage and looking after 14 kids (and 3 dogs)?’ Well, as Tara Winkler explains in How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did — not much.

If you’re picturing an Oprah crowd giving a standing ovation for a book about a saintly woman, this is not it. Although an inspiring story of a tenacious young woman, Tara has a knack of getting you to leave the hero-worshipping at the door and strips back her story to face the tough questions. In fact, Tara has far from an easy ride in this cringe-ridden memoir.

While her mercilessly honest account shows a determination and commitment that is admirable, it concurrently highlights the critical errors being made by volunteers in developing countries, albeit with well-intentioned passion. Satirical social media accounts Humanitarians of Tinder and Barbie Saviour have recently brought this topical issue to the fore. But more on that later.

So who is Tara Winkler and why is she so impressive? At first glance, Tara could be mistaken for a privileged, horse-riding, piano-playing, Sydney teenager embarking on her rite-of-passage gap year experience. Pretty quickly we realise there’s more to her tale.

Hailing from Holocaust survivors (and perhaps where her initial connection with Cambodia’s struggle to recover from the Khmer Rouge genocide evolved) and die-hard political activists, she calls her hippie parents by their first names and was raised partaking in family backpacking adventures abroad, immersed in local customs.

Tara’s story begins with a tour of South East Asia where she visits an orphanage to donate some goods. Distraught at the abject poverty she witnesses, she commits to fundraise back home in Australia. As with everything she does, she throws herself headlong into her mission. Well aware of the corruption in Cambodia, she decides to bring the $20,000 she’s raised back in person and ensure it gets to the kids.

Unknowingly, she has become a ‘voluntourist’ — a term coined by the flourishing trend to volunteer for a charitable cause as part of your travel itinerary. This is the fastest growing travel trend and appears to have a very negative impact for children and families. Well-meaning tourists flit in and out of schools and orphanages for short-term visits, kids grow attached and then are left psychologically damaged when their new foreign friends head off on their next adventure.

What she discovers at the orphanage is horrifying sexual, physical and emotional abuse — as well as almost all of the international donors’ money being embezzled by the corrupt orphanage director. And this is where her story differs from most. She decides to set up her own orphanage and rescue these traumatised children, instantly becoming responsible for fourteen kids (and more as the book progresses).

One of the shocking facts you’ll learn reading this novel is that 80% of the orphans in orphanages worldwide, are not in fact orphans.

Even more disturbingly, child traffickers are rapidly filling orphanages with the product in demand by voluntourists — children. Parents often think their kids are going to be better educated and looked after by clever Westerners so they send them to orphanages; what we’d think of as closer to a boarding school. And well-intentioned foreigners are the main reason these orphanages are filled with kids who aren’t actually orphans, kids who are suffering immensely.

Written with co-writer, Lynda Delacey, this book is told in a way that is confronting, commanding, funny, and so honest it feels as if it is your best friend recounting her latest trip in raw detail. There are many glaring face-palm moments as she discovers shocking truths on her journey.

What makes Tara’s story even more extraordinary is that throughout it, she is battling personal demons and tragedies, dealing with vast cultural differences and bewildering bureaucracy. Her courage and resilience is inconceivable considering her age and lack of experience.

The story is complex, yet written so honestly and accessibly, it’s refreshingly easy to digest. And it has a clear message. We need to stop orphanage tourism and encourage ethical, skilled volunteering.

Voluntourists encourage a corrupt industry that takes children away from parents, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and poor life outcomes later on. It’s a challenging topic for the reader (especially this reader, who has been a voluntourist herself). Wanting to help is a natural human emotion, and volunteering to help charities is not something we should discourage per se. However, Hollywood stars, philanthropists and nineteen year old Gap year students who start NGOs and talk about it on TV, are perpetuating a dangerous myth that development work is relatively easy, if you’ve got the gusto to just go undercover and rescue yourself some cute little orphans.

So while this book ultimately inspires as Tara bravely faces her mistakes and continually focuses on the best outcomes for the kids, it also challenges us to think about the genuine outcome of our volunteering adventures. Are we doing it for the right reasons? Are we more interested in feeling good than actually doing good?

How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did gets to the bottom of the voluntourism debate, in a moving, fascinating and amusing memoir, one I could not put down. Surprisingly fast-paced and addictive, it’s refreshingly self-deprecating and a must-read for anyone who has an interest in development, travelling, especially if you’re considering volunteering overseas.

Want to read more about the impact of voluntourism and why experts say it’s doing more harm than good? Read my latest blog.

You can also join the Better Care network’s blogging blitz and share this review, including the #StopOrphanTrips hashtag. 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.

How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did is published by Allen & Unwin. Click here to buy a paperback copy for $32.99. Click here to order on your Kindle for $12.34.

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