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Does voluntourism help or harm children?

Child Safe Tourism

December 5, 2013

International Volunteer Day: Does voluntourism help or harm children?

Guest post – Daniela Papi, Co-Founder of Learning Service.

Somehow I’ve become the bearer of bad news. Due to my TEDx talk on the problems with volunteer travel and much of my prior writing on the subject, I now frequently get asked to write about issues in the voluntourism sector. I’d like to start with a disclaimer: I don’t think volunteering is bad. I don’t think “voluntourists” are bad. And I don’t think volunteer travel companies are bad. In fact, I’ve been and done all of the above: taken volunteer trips around the world, founded a volunteer travel company which we later transitioned to a development education company, and continue to support the employment of interns on a volunteer bases in some of the projects I work with. 

Though I don’t think volunteers or voluntourism are “bad”, what I do think can be “bad” is the practices many people are setting up in their volunteer companies or voluntourism trips. And a lot of the most harmful practices have to do with putting children in unsafe situations.

One of the biggest child safety issues being fueled by the volunteer travel sector is the growth in “orphanage” volunteering and “orphanage” tourism. For those of you who have not travelled much recently in emerging markets like Cambodia, Ghana, Nepal, or Uganda, you might find the whole idea of “orphanage tourism” to be offensive; who would allow orphans to become a stop on a tour? But for those who have travelled to these areas or recently looked into taking a volunteer vacation, you will know how prevalent “orphanage” visits are in todays “responsible travel” market.

Naturally, bringing un-trained and un-vetted short term volunteers or tourists, for a few hours, a few days, or a few months, into the home of vulnerable children can open up many doors for problems:

  • Separating children from their families – UNICEF has released reports exposing the fact that the vast majority of children in institutional care have one or both living parents. In Cambodia it’s estimated that 76% of children in institutional care have at least one living parent. Despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that children should not be unnecessarily separated from the parents and that family-based care is the best option for a child, parents are often encouraged to give up their children, believing that they will receive better opportunities in an orphanage.
  • Attachment issues – The inconsistency of bonds created from the rotating door of visitors and volunteers can cause long-term problems for children to form healthy relationships.
  • Corruption – There have been reports of orphanages being run as a profit-making business and some unscrupulous owners purposefully maintain sub-standard conditions to illicit more donations.
  • Exploitation of children – Children are being treated like tourist attractions. Frequently they are pulled out of school to have photos and perform shows for tourists. Some are even sent out onto the street late at night to invite tourists to visit the orphanages.
  • Risk of sexual abuse – When visitors and volunteers are not subject to background checks and interactions are not supervised, children are at increased risk of abuse.

There are many groups pointing out these red flags. Many advocacy groups, like Hope and Homes for Children, Tourism Concern, Uniting for Children, Orphanages.no, and Friends International “Children are not tourist attractions” campaign, are also spreading the word… But you can help too.

Many of these issues are fueled in part by good intentions – by people who really want to help, and they are being sold the idea that giving their time and money to an orphanage is the best way to do that. That’s why it is essential to do your research and make sure that your good intentions are not causing more harm than good. If more people choose to support organisations that help parents to care for their own children or that start with a family care approach, we could provide more beneficial and sustainable solutions for these issues around the world.

Learning Service, an advocacy group I helped create, has a series of videos on tips for volunteer travel, including one about ‘Orphanage tourism’

For more information on the risks to children through “orphanage tourism”, see here.