Last July, when I was in Arusha, Tanzania I stayed at a Tanzanian-run hotel that is a popular launching off point for safaris and Kilimanjaro climbs. The hotel is owned and run by a Tanzanian woman who also does a fair amount of charity work within the community. One such project she worked on was supporting a local orphanage. As a social good blogger, I was very interested in visiting the orphanage to meet the children and spend a little time playing with them. I agreed to join a huge group of American volunteers who were heading over to the orphanage for the day to check it out. Little did I know, my visit is something that many international organizations that work to protect children are trying to stop.
A month ago, I was contacted by Anna McKeon, Co-Coordinator for Better Volunteering, Better Care, a global initiative facilitated by The Better Care Network and Save the Children UK aimed at discouraging orphanage volunteering and promoting ethical volunteering alternatives. Anna wanted to see if I would be interested in joining the upcoming blogging blitz to lobby the volunteer travel industry to stop orphanage trips, and to raise awareness about the issue.
Since the onset of the campaign in early May, I learned a lot about the negative consequences of volunteering and visiting orphanages. Although it often seems as a great way to give back and make a difference, orphan trips can be harmful for vulnerable children, and is also contributing to a growing orphanage industry and the separation of children from their families. Child protection specialists have expressed concern about this growing phenomenon in over 20 countries worldwide. Anna herself had once volunteered at a few international orphanages (See article: I Volunteered at an Orphanage and Now I Campaign Against It”) and it was through her experiences that she became committed to end it.
So what have I learned since the beginning of this campaign? Quite a few things that I honestly was completely unaware of and even took me by surprise.
Volunteering at Orphanages is harmful to children:
Volunteering in orphanages has become a very popular way to give back when travelling abroad. Interested volunteers can be placed through travel agencies, NGOs, churches and missions groups, schools and universities as well as directly with orphanages themselves. When I flew to Tanzania, there were several large groups of up to 50 Americans all wearing t-shirts from the same mission group who were headed to volunteer for a week or two at an orphanage. At my hotel alone, there were two large groups of Americans that were going to work with the orphanage that was supported by the hotel.
Although initially it may sound like a fantastic idea, many children’s organisations are campaigning against this practice because it is harmful to children who are already quite vulnerable.
The majority of people who want to volunteer in an orphanage (or residential care center) have very good intentions and the best interests of the children at heart. However, they may not realise that many residential care centers that welcome volunteers and allow direct contact with children put children at risk in the following ways:
- Normalizing access to vulnerable children. Residential care centers are a target for those with harmful intentions towards children. Visitors with good intentions normalize the practice of allowing access of unqualified staff to vulnerable children – something that would not be permitted in their own country.
- Disrupted attachment. Children form attachments very quickly, particularly when their own relationships with their families have already been disrupted by institutionalization. Every time a volunteer leaves, children are left behind. This can have a particularly adverse affect as they learn not to trust or invest in relationships. For very young children such disrupted attachments can also have adverse affects on how their brains develop.
- Lack of appropriate skills. Most volunteers are not qualified to work with children and have little understanding of the potential of their behaviour to negatively impact upon the emotional and social stability of children.
The “Orphanage” Myth”
Studies have shown that approximately 80% of all children in “orphanages” worldwide have one or more living parent. Most children in “orphanages” are not “orphans” and therefore the term “orphanage” is misleading, conjuring up images of children with no family to care for them.
Instead, we use the term “residential care center” to refer to all places where children stay overnight instead of living with a family, whether it is for a short or long period of time.
There are many reasons why a child may be living in a residential care center. In some cases it is due to neglect, abuse, or abandonment. In others, poverty is a driving factor, and centres are viewed as a way for children to access education, food, and healthcare. In other cases it is due to discrimination and lack of proper support services for the parents of children with physical or intellectual disability. Whatever the reason, all children in a residential care center have faced difficult experiences.
All information above provided by Better Volunteering Better Care/Save the Children UK.
Instead of supporting volunteering at orphanages, Better Volunteering Better Care, Save the Children UK and a variety of other child protection organizations believe we should work towards finding ways to keep families together and work to alleviate poverty which is one of the main reason why children end up in residential care centers. For example, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept across Africa left many children without a parent or even both parents. Yet poverty led many of these children to be sent to orphanages despite the fact that they had other living relatives who could have cared for them if they had the means.
What you can do to help children instead of volunteering at an orphanage:
- Be an ethical traveller. Help local communities earn a living wage and support their children themselves. Support local businesses and social enterprises.
- Work with organisations that help families stay together. There are organisations that train social workers, support foster families etc. Visit them, learn about them, donate to them, help them (if you have relevant skills and they need someone like you!)
- Go on learning trips. There are a range of organisations that will take you around a country and help you learn about the various social / environmental challenges, and the ways different organisations are tackling those problems. Learning is the best way to start helping.
- Think about up-skilling. Train to be a foreign language teacher, or a social worker and then see how you can support a local organisation. it’s always better to support local staff than to provide service directly to kids yourself, as really you want kids to be building long-term relationships with local caregivers and teachers.
When I was in Ethiopia as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project, I visited two unique models that offered orphaned children a different alternative. SOS Children works to provide abandoned, destitute and orphaned children with a loving, family based home. Every child in a SOS Village belongs to a family and is provided with a SOS Mother and “siblings” who are the other SOS Children living under the same roof. This allows the children to grow up in a family being loved and feeling secure. SOS Children is an independent, non-governmental international development organization that provides loving homes for abandoned and orphaned children in 133 countries for almost 82,100 children. SOS Children does not accept volunteer trips.
There is also AHope for Children, another program that provides love and hope for orphaned, HIV Positive Children. These children not only lost their parents to the horrendous HIV/AIDS epidemic but they are struggling with their own health complications from being HIV positive. I met with the director of the program and was extremely impressed by what they are doing to help these children and give them hope. They also do not take any volunteers or visitors except for journalists who want to write about their work to increase awareness.
Now I look back at my visit to the orphanage in Tanzania feeling bittersweet. Yes, the children were lovely and well cared for and the orphanage was run with good intentions. Yet had I known more of these facts I would never have gone to visit it. I also feel terrible about snapping away at their beautiful faces. I was thinking it would make them happy to be held and played with, and that I could write a lovely blog post on my visit telling others about the orphanage and how to support it. But then, like the volunteers that come passing through their door every day, I left.
I did publish the article on my visit and recently discovered that the American director who ran the program for over six years had resigned. He contacted me to let me know that there were financial concerns about how the program was being run. It was out of his hands and he felt horrible that he could no longer help these children. I wonder what will become of them.
What you can do to help:
The “Stop Orphanage Volunteering” Blogging Blitz organized by Better Volunteering Better Care. has been running throughout May, during the run-up to International Children’s Day on 1st June.. As well as the aim of stopping orphanage volunteering the blitz wants to show that children should not be treated as tourist attractions. Please help spread the word by sharing this and other articles from the campaign across social media with the hashtag #stoporphantrips.
Sign the Avaaz petition
Better Volunteering Better Care is a cross-sector global working group made up of individuals and organisations campaigning against international volunteering in orphanages, and supporting responsible volunteering alternatives. Throughout May, leading up to International Children’s Day on June 1st, Better Volunteering Better Care members and bloggers from around the world are working together to raise awareness of the problems surrounding volunteering in orphanages, and calling on volunteer travel providers to stop orphanage placements.
To learn more about Better Volunteering Better Care, click here.