“We visited an orphanage while we were in Bali, we gave them some toys, saw their artwork, it was good for our kids you know. Good for them to see how lucky they are and how other people live, teaches them to be charitable.”
I heard this a lot during my time working for World Vision Australia. As a paid promoter it was my job to interact with the public, sign up ongoing sponsors and educate the public about the role that the NGO played in sustainable development.
Comments like these were not rare. And while they were a vast improvement on the sometimes racist and shocking vitriol that came out of the mouths of some people, they came with their own controversaries and issues.
Because when it comes down to it ‘visiting an orphanage’ is never as simple and kind as it sounds. And while I am not at all doubting intentions, or the ability of these first interactions to go on and awake incredible goodness and life changing events in many people’s lives, ‘visiting an orphanage’ it can be quite harmful.
Firstly, many of these orphanages are not actually filled with orphans. Tourism Concern, an NGO, claims that in Cambodia 75 percent of children found in orphanages are not actually orphans and have at least one living parent. In Nepal it is estimated to be 85 percent of children.
These children come from marginalised families, often living in rural areas and have been taken from their parents. Whether they have been kidnapped, given willing by parents or family members in exchange for money, or taken with the promise of a good education these children have been separated from their families. They purpose is to become attractions and the main selling point of the orphanage industry. One that profits off guilt and good intentions.
Instead of receiving the education promised the children are used to earn money. Tourists pay to visit, buy their artwork, watch shows put on by the children and even find themselves at ‘orphan restaurants.’ Where the children serve the food. Tourists are able to feel they have somehow contributed to easing the burden of the vast poverty they have seen while on holiday and the orphanage runners make money. The children do not benefit.
Unknowingly volun-tourists help to fuel the human trafficking industry, contributing to the mistreatment, abuse and exploitation of children.
The psychological issues caused by the volun-tourism industry are another large and ongoing issue. Even when visiting a reputable orphanage, that truly is working to benefit the children who live in it, the impact of a constant stream of tourists on children is damaging. Tourists looking to spend a few days or even a few weeks helping in an orphanage provided work hard to develop strong connections and then leave never seeing the children again. As a result, children are left with ongoing abandonment and attachment issues. The ability to form lasting, trusting relationship hampered and affected.
Global NGO UNICEF recommends that only those with professional experience work with the children. The said, “If you aren’t a qualified professional, please reconsider volunteering with children - especially in orphanages and other institutions. If you are a skilled professional such as social worker or psychologist, look for reputable programs that support and promote family and community-based care and reintegration of children into family and community-based care.”
The harms of voluntourism extend beyond the orphanage industry. Who hasn’t met someone with absolutely no building experience head off to India or Africa to help build a school or a well? While there seems to be nothing inherently wrong with this ideally it has the potential to take away what could paid work for local labourers. The experience of the tourists being valued over the needs of the community they are attempting to serve.
However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for international volunteering. But that it is something that needs to be done with a great deal of thought and consideration.
Author of The Volunteer Travelor’s Handbook, Shannon O’Donnell told the National Geographic, “…international volunteering is part of a complex ecosystem that can, when done well, help a community grow in a direction they support.”