Orphanage tourism is what happens when good intentions and reality don’t quite synch up. Travellers who visit and volunteer in orphanages may genuinely want to help, but their efforts can actually support system where children are separated from their families and, in some cases, abused.
In a way though, it’s a hard message to send to travellers. We don’t want to say ‘Don’t help’. We’re trying to say ‘Help the right way.’ If you are someone who’s volunteered at an orphanage in the past, you’re not alone. Intrepid itself used to practise orphanage tourism. Changes in voluntourism aren’t about condemning past practices, they’re about creating better ones for the future. Follow our #StopOrphanTrips campaign for more information and sign a petition against orphanage tourism here.
Here’s 6 reason why you shouldn’t do orphanage tourism.
1. Orphanages are often not what you think
Research by UNICEF says that up to 75% of children kept in orphanages in Cambodia and Nepal are not even orphans. Many come from poor rural families and are trafficked into orphanages because their parents feel this will give them the best chance at life. Other times they might be hired for the day to create the appearance of poverty (and so fuel voluntourism and donations from charitable travellers). Not all orphanages work in this way, but if you believe the research, a large majority do. And there are very few ways for a traveller to know if an orphanage is legitimate or not.
2. Kids do better at home
UNICEF is working closely with local governments to actually reduce the number of orphanages in Asia and Africa, reuniting kids with their families or developing community and family-based alternatives. Mostly because it’s becoming clear that children develop better at home. Organisations like thinkchildsafe.org argue that infants’ brains actually fail to fully develop in some cases where kids are mistreated, poorly educated or abused. Damage like this is serious, and sometimes irreversible. Most travellers would agree that a child’s place is with their parents (unless there has been clear abuse or mistreatment). If those parents can’t care for them, then we should be supporting organisations and programs that give them those skills and resources. Orphanages are – at best – a bandaid. At worst they’re actually harmful.
3. Volunteers often don’t stay for very long
Orphanage volunteers usually don’t speak the local language, have no formal training, and stay for a very short time – all of which can be disruptive for kids. Backpackers are basically taking the role of qualified nurses, teachers and social workers. It’s not that these travellers have bad intentions. In fact the opposite is really the issue: it’s because of their good intentions that they miss the bigger picture. We wouldn’t expect kids at home to be cared for by unvetted and unqualified adults, especially not ones that change on a weekly or monthly basis. If kids must be in institutions, they deserve professional care and attention from permanent local staff, people who understand them and their situation.
4. There’s a potential for danger and abuse
Tourism in orphanages isn’t well regulated, and visitors and volunteers go through very few checks beforehand, exposing vulnerable kids to potential abuse. Organisations like Next Generation Nepal have even linked orphanage voluntourism with child trafficking and institutionalization. UNICEF also acknowledges that there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ gathered over the last 20 years to show that kids in orphanages are far more likely to suffer from ‘prolonged, systematic and institutionalized abuse’. The only way travellers can fight this is to stop volunteering and funnel their money into organisations with a proven history of affecting positive change.
5. Tourism actually fuels supply
By visiting these places and volunteering, travellers may actually be helping to commercialize orphanages. They’re supporting a model of care that separates kids from their families. If the demand for orphanage tourism dries up, there’s very little incentive for orphanage operators to keep doing what they do. Next Generation Nepal has found that, in that country at least, children are trafficked from poorer, rural areas specifically to appeal to the sympathies of Western tourists. It’s up to travellers to break this cycle. By donating to NGOs and charity groups that have been vetted (like the ones we support through our not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation) you know your money is going towards positive improvements for the country and its people.
6. Would you do it at home?
It’s a good test for any traveller. If you wouldn’t do it at home, why are you doing it overseas? Ask yourself: would you go and volunteer at an orphanage in your hometown? If the answer is no, ask yourself why you’re doing it in Thailand, or Cambodia, or Tanzania. Children shouldn’t be used as tourist attractions. And although we all like to feel that we’re doing good, there are times when we simply don’t know enough. We don’t know the context. We don’t know the history of these children. We don’t have the language or the training to do a good job. Better to donate your money to on-the-ground projects and community groups who are working to break the poverty cycle, not keep it going.
If you’d like to learn more about voluntourism in orphanages, check out UNICEF’s excellent Cambodian study. For more information about projects you can donate to, visit our not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation.
Feature image c/o Hansel and Regrettal, Flickr