Thirdeyemom

Why it is time to stop Orphanage Volunteering

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.

Moshi Tanzania

These girls live right outside the orphanage and are school age. When girls in Tanzania go to school, it is customary to shave their heads.

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.

SOS Children Ethiopia

A SOS Mother, Genet, with one of her daughters. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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.

IMG_2043-3

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

The petition is calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at World Travel Market in London in November 2016. To sign the petition to put a stop to orphanage volunteering, click here.
To see more blog posts in this program, please search #stoporphantrips on social media.

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.

80 comments

  1. This is very eye-opening, Nicole. I never thought such kind intention would actually cause negative impact to those children. But we can always learn from others’ mistakes, so thank you very much for this important post.

    • Thanks Bama for reading. I have volunteered abroad a few times before but never at an orphanage. My experience have been good but now I wonder if it truly only made me feel better than really making any sort of difference. It is tough because people want to do good. But sometimes these opportunities do more harm than good.

  2. Great post. There is so much wrong with ‘voluntourism’ in general. The worst is probably when the volunteers work with vulnerable children, to pick up and discard in a moment. In their own countries they would never have access to children like this without screening and paperwork. Then there are the ‘teachers’ who have no training and ‘teach’ by virtue of the fact that they speak English and have had an education. Not always bad but generally so. Often it’s a first world thing where those parents than can afford, send their teenagers off to see the world and do good, often with a touch of Western hegemony.

    • Yes well said. I agree wholeheartedly. I did some volunteer trips before
      I began my blog and although they meant a lot to me looking back now I realize how little it did to truly make a difference. I’ve learned so much since I began exploring these issues with my blog. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Nicole, thank you for making me aware of the reality of this subject, which is quite disturbing. It is a true commentary on why we need to be educated about topics that appear one way but really are another. Thanks.

    • You’re welcome Sally. The more I think about it the more I realize that it is a complicated issue. I think this holds true with a lot of volunteer abroad opportunities. I’ve done a few years ago and often wonder if it was more to make me feel good than really make a difference.

  4. This is truly a post to ponder! I can understand some of the concerns you’ve mentioned, but then I wonder if there are no volunteers, can the orphanage continue to operate without this additional help, and then what would happen to the children who truly have no family?

    • Very good points Angeline. I think they are trying to steer help in different ways especially in the cases where the children do have some family that could take them. I think there is a lot of concern that orphans are not always put in orphanages for the right reasons. Also I think if they are going to have volunteers there should at least be strong requirements and guidelines to prevent abuse. If you follow the #StopOrphanTrips hashtag you will see a lot of different takes on the issue in all the posts written from people of different backgrounds. It is complicated indeed.

  5. Very interesting. We have done volunteer work for a number of different organizations (always manual labor, not child-related work), but some of them do have volunteer programs in orphanages. I’m glad our skills and inclinations did not lead us that way now that I know this!

    • Yes I want fully aware of all these issues either Lexi but it makes sense. I have done a bit of international volunteer work as well and most have been good experiences but one in Honduras was so bad I ended up reporting them.

  6. This is one of those posts that sure does make one sit back and think ~ great writing, photography, and most important the message. It is a heartbreaking issue, trying to help but then also understanding the damage such a process as volunteering could cause. You walked into this with open eyes, and while I see such good things with your visit to the orphanage in Tanzania, from your words and what you have found out, yes there definitely must be a bittersweet feeling. Great post.

    • Thanks so much. It is a very difficult issue especially since so many children end up in orphanages due to poverty. And poverty in itself is a massive issue that impacts health, nutrition, education and so much more that leads to the orphanage industry. Yes it was bittersweet. I’m glad I became more aware of these issues.

      • The cycle of poverty is a vicious one, and with this post you’ve also uncovered the layers of difficulty in approaching issues and their resolutions. Beautifully done.

      • Thanks. It is definitely a very very complex problem as poverty leads to so many other issues. I tried my best to address something beyond my league so thanks!

  7. Hi Nicole thanks for the post. I was aware of some of the issues but not all of them. I didn’t know of the organisations trying to stop the orphan volunteering either. I will post on Facebook, Tuesday evening Melbourne time.

  8. Pingback: Why it is time to stop Orphanage Volunteering | Thirdeyemom – anticorruptionnzblog

  9. maamej

    Another thing I’ve read is that the orphanages can become a bit of an industry & even children with both parents can end up there because it’s a way of easing the financial burden to the family – but at a cost to the children of course. The people running such places can be making a profit for themselves out of it. The alternatives you’ve outlined sound much better and it’s good to read of how you’ve learned & changed your own perspective. Great to see this issue getting more publicity in the past couple of years.

    • Yes that is very true. Many children do have a parent but are sent away due to many reasons most of them surrounding poverty. Thanks for reading!

  10. There’s so much more to volunteering than initially meets the eye. This was a real eye opener for me and quite disturbing on many levels, you raised things I hadn’t thought of before.

  11. Oh, very interesting read, it seems logical that there will also be taken advantage of, very difficult to do this right!
    Thanks for sharing,
    Ron

    • Thanks Ron for stopping by and reading about this important issue. It has really made me reflect upon all the past volunteering I have done. None have been at an orphanage but I have worked with children.

      • I can imagine you will look back at them and think about the impact they had; was just going trying to find something to help out with in Myanmar for my future travel, but will be much more aware before doing some volunteering. Have a good day, love to read your experiences, Ron

      • There is still tons of volunteering you can do Ron. So much out there. I would steer towards ways that are sustainable such as helping out with education or ways for people to find a sustainable income to alleviate poverty. Poverty ends up being the main reason for so many problems including the result in orphans.

  12. Rebecca

    All valid points, but I don’t believe things are that clear-cut. What about the financial aspect? I think a lot of ‘orphanages’ run volunteer programs to fund raise; directly from the individual and from the publicity they take back home to their friends/family/church group etc. I suspect many of these organizations rely on those funds to provide the services they do and having weighed up the benefits and risks decide volunteer programs are on balance positive or necessary. I think its easier from a western perspective to focus on the emotional effects whereas the organizations themselves may need to look more at hard economics.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! Yes it is definitely a very complicated issue. Very true indeed. However I wonder if there is a better way to raise funds than by sending unqualified volunteers. Or just by doing fundraisers so the money goes directly to help the children. I think when there is so much poverty and so little choice a lot of parents end up sending their children to orphanages when they are not truly orphans. There is also the issue with not being able to track where the funds go. The orphanage I visited in Tanzania was improperly using all of the donations which led the US director to resign. So there are many issues indeed but as a mother I can’t imagine having kids being constantly sent a new crop of volunteers that are here with hugs and kisses all to leave all too soon. I think there are other models that are better but again it is quite complicated. Thanks for the important comment!

  13. Brenda

    That may be the case where you have volunteered. In Kampala, the orphanage I have helped in has mostly abandoned children and orphaned children. The social workers try to find a living relative and repatriate the children. If it wasn’t for volunteers helping with the babies and children (0-4yrs), the Mama’s would not be able to do all of the work in the orphanage. Washing, feeding and playing with children is not harmful – it gives them opportunities for cuddles and care which the Mama’s have less time to provide. No photos are allowed unless agreed. Unlike some other orphanages, you do not pay to volunteer here. Sanyu Babies Home in Kampala, Uganda is not like the orphanages you mention here.

    • Thanks Brenda for the comment. I did want to clarify my position. I did not personally volunteer at an orphanage. I am writing this post on behalf of a blogging campaign run by Save the Children UK and Better Volunteering Better Care. I am one of 30 bloggers, writers and other people participating in the campaign to raise awareness on the overall issues with orphanage volunteering. The information and statistics and facts used in this post is all based on information and research provided by the NGOs on the campaign. Then I added in my own basic experience as a social good blogger who toured a few orphanages. I did not volunteer there. The ones I mentioned below Sos Children and AHope for Children sound perhaps a little more like where you worked. I do agree that we need places like this where children with no choice can go and these
      Mamas do need help. However there are other situations out there that are not exactly the best. My post is one of over 30 written with al different perspectives and levels of experience on the topic. I would highly recommend taking a look at some of them if you have time as I learned a ton. You can find them all on Twitter under the hashtag #stoporphantrips. Ask here are some contacts in case you want to learn more about the issues and the research:
      Anna McKeon

      Better Volunteering, Better Care
      volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org

      on behalf of:

      Florence Martin
      Better Care Network
      florence.martin@bettercarenetwork.org

      Rebecca Smith
      Save the Children UK
      Re.Smith@savethechildren.org.uk

  14. Nicole, I am so glad a blogger like you is raising awareness of the volunteer tourism industry, especially regarding orphanages. There’s a right way to help and a wrong way to help and much of the volunteerism makes the Western world feel so much better about themselves rather than addressing the heart of these matters. Especially the corrupt governments who’ve managed to help create the poverty in these countries. Why should they be accountable when there is such a robust volunteer industry in place! Can’t imagine how traumatic it is for these children. And what happens to them when they grow up and suddenly all the attention stops? How can they become responsible adults when their childhood is littered with Westerners temporary smiles and hugs, mere bandaids.
    And something else I’d like to know. I see so much support and publicity going to women and children. What about the men???? I never hear what kind of awareness or support the men are getting. Is anyone teaching them about business, agriculture, skills, finances??? What it means to be a husband? A father? Do they not matter??? Where are the men??? Those cute little orphan boys grow to be men. I can’t imagine the loneliness of boys that spent their formative years being hugged and photographed only to be truly abandoned in adulthood.
    Sorry to “rant” about this a bit but there are so many “devils” in the details of all the aid and volunteerism that comes from the west. It all deserves a fresh approach.

    • Thank you so much for your thought provoking comment. Yes there is so much to think about. I think there is a lot of improvement that should be made in the volunteerism industry. There is a lack of regulation overall and while some opportunities are indeed excellent others are poor. I have volunteered abroad four times (never with an orphanage) but with different kinds of programs. Some were good and one was so terrible that I had to run the place in. The staff was physically abusing the children! So much regulation is needed on many different levels not only for the volunteers who are going (many unqualified like myself) and the places where the opportunities exist. As for the men, great points. I do a lot of work with girls and women because overall they are the ones who suffer most due to poverty, lack of education and lack of chances at life and furthermore if you help a woman and girl the impact on a
      Community is huge compared to men mainly because women and girls are 90 percent more likely to invest their earnings in their families. However men and boys are getting left out of the equation so your points are very valid. Thank you!

  15. Well, shute. I try to keep my head down usually, and not get too involved in stuff. But it’s difficult not to want to help children, so vulnerable, so helpless. And just when you think you’re doing something good…you’re not. But maybe this is one of those times when blogging is a good thing: you’ve informed us of this issue. But now I feel bad. Why is life so hard for some?

    • I agree! This is a very complicated issue. I have received some comments from readers who have refuted this post as they have had wonderful experiences at orphanages. I think however that may be an exception. There are many many other ways to help. There are some ideas in the post and you can always contact Better Volunteering Better Care for other ideas. Helping perhaps at a school or with ways to help alleviate poverty may be a better option. Here is a lot out there!

  16. Thank you so much for this post Nicole! I think that as you did, the volunteers are completely unaware of the harm these trips cause. What is great about this article is that it provides alternatives so that those who want to help these children can.

    • Thanks Lisa. I’m learning myself and have received a lot of commentary on this post. It has been very thought provoking and has opened my eyes as well.

  17. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve volunteered abroad but never for an orphanage, and didn’t think about the effects foreigners who volunteer can have on these vulnerable children. Thank you for also sharing alternatives for people who still want to make a difference!

    -Belinda

    • You’re welcome Belinda. I have volunteered four times but at different kinds of places (never an orphanage though). I’ve been learning a lot from all the comments and reactions to this post about what others have experienced. It makes me realize that I need to really look deeper into an experience before going and make sure it is the right thing to do.

  18. This post put the focus on a very important subject. I don’t think people in general understand how harmful it can be with some of the orphanage volunteering going on some places. A very poignant and important post. Thank you.

    • Thanks Otto. I have done a lot of international volunteering when I was younger and now I am taking a different look at my experiences. I think it can be very good but also there are programs are actually doing more harm than good. I have experienced both (I have never volunteered at an orphanage). It is good to get the conversation going as I think a lot of people aren’t aware of some of these issues. I have been learning a lot myself.

  19. Maybe you should talk to a few Home Directors about the impact visitors have. I will never understand why people believe children living in an institution should be isolated from strangers. It wouldn’t happen in normal family setting, were all these #stoporohanvisits believers raised in that kind of setting? Immediate family only in their life? Sounds a bit dysfunctional. I can’t remember names and faces of hundreds of people that came through my childhood home. Maybe others were raised more sheltered. Our family home practically had a swinging door. Always a safe environment though and when the visitors left…..my parents were still there. The staff at a home bring the stability, just because they are local doesn’t mean they don’t love the children and it’s deaming to think they can’t give the kids enough of what they need to keep them emotionally scarred because others come and go in their life. It’s normal social behaviour, our entire life people come and go, family is the constant. Such a anti- social norm to think once children enter a institution the door should be locked and the key thrown away. I understand everybody trying to figure out how to do what’s best for the children but y’all…….surely the people caring for them should be given some credit in knowing what’s in their best interest.

    • I don’t think that is the point at all. I think the problem is with tourism orphanage volunteering where foreign volunteers either pay or come in as a huge group who are untrained, in screened and have access to helping for a very short time. Yes of course kids need people to come by and be with them but the entire volunteer tourism industry doesn’t seem right. That is what Save the Children and the other groups are arguing. Not stopping people from being with the children by creating a better safer way for children in these settings.

      • Then they should take it up with the institutions. Not place this guilt on those who have visited or would like to come visit in the future…and they need a new hash tag. I do understand why those not in the field see on paper why your post makes sense and also why some in the field who have seen the vists abused have this mentality but wow…..can’t put all on the same page or even in the same book. Stereotyping is dangerous, and close minded. I’m Not saying you are, I respect you are trying to work it out but I am familiar with some of the ones pushing this (at least in Uganda) and we don’t hear see rational and accurate thinking from them. It’s to bad really as most of us are all wanting the same goals.

      • I understand your feelings as this is a very complicated topic. I am simply one of 40 bloggers who have agreed to help spread the word about the work that Better Volunteering, Better Care and Save the Children are doing. I am by no means an expert. They provided me with the research and findings and I felt strong enough about the cause to share it here. I think it is excellent to get the dialogue going so I would strongly encourage you to reach out to some of the organizations who are spearheading this initiative. It is great to get the dialogue going since you are all working to help the children and do what is best for them.
        Here are the organizations behind the initiative:
        Anna McKeon

        Better Volunteering, Better Care
        volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org

        on behalf of:

        Florence Martin
        Better Care Network
        florence.martin@bettercarenetwork.org

        Rebecca Smith
        Save the Children UK
        Re.Smith@savethechildren.org.uk

      • Hi Danyne,

        I am a member of the Steering Group for the Better Volunteering Better Care (BVBC) Initiative which instigated the #StopOrphanTrips campaign. I am also the Country Director for Next Generation Nepal, a United States international NGO which rescues and rehabilitates children who were trafficked into orphanages in Nepal, and then reunifies them with their families (so I am speaking as someone who is very much working “in the field” on these complex issues). You raise some interesting and valid points which in fact we get asked a lot by concerned members of public, like yourself, who want to ensure that the best interests of vulnerable children are being served. I will try to address both your points:

        1. With regards the question of why BVBC discourages orphanage visits by tourists, volunteers or sympathetic members of the public, the issue is not that BVBC is trying to stop the children having access to a “normal family setting” – we very much want children to live with families where possible – but it is about the sheer numbers of strangers that come to these institutions and the less than philanthropic business values which often lie behind the apparent altruism of the people arranging these visits. In Nicole’s article she explains that her orphanage visit was alongside a “huge group of American volunteers”. Imagine what it would be like for the children if these groups of people were visiting every week, or even every day, as happens in many orphanages around the world. For the children it is like being attractions in a zoo (see Stephen Ucembe’s article here in which he explains what it was like for him as a child growing up in an orphanage being visited by such groups: http://www.rethinkorphanages.org/growingupinanorphanage/). There is evidence that the children often have to perform, socialize, “look poor”, or even in extreme cases become sick, so as to pull on the heartstrings of well-intentioned tourists and volunteers who then feel inclined to make a donation to the orphanage – see this report about my organization’s work in Nepal which explain how this happens: http://www.nextgenerationnepal.org/File/The-Paradox-of-Orphanage-Volunteering.pdf. In many countries the demand for volunteering placements in orphanages is actually fueling the intentional displacement of children from their families (remember that around 80% of children in these orphanages are not in fact orphans; they have living parents), so that they can be used as profit commodities to raise money from the good intentions of visitors. In many cases so called “orphanages” have become lucrative, profit-making businesses to meet the needs of the volunteers – and not the needs of the children. Volunteering in orphanages can also create long-term psychological problems for the children (known as attachment disorders). The children get attached to volunteers who then leave, over and over again, each time causing grief for a child, and having serious psychological consequences when the children reach adulthood (depression, anxiety, higher rates of suicide, vulnerability to crime etc). Finally, in worst case scenarios, orphanage volunteering leaves the children at risk of physical and sexual abuse. In a normal family situation these issues would be very unlikely to happen, so orphanage visits are not the same as friends visiting a family home and meeting the children.

        2. With regards your suggestion that we should be taking these issues up directly with the institutions, you are absolutely right – and you will be pleased to hear that we are doing this. All major child protection agencies are actually actively trying to deinstitutionalize children’s homes and orphanages around the world through various programs. “Deinstitutionalization” is a process whereby a country gradually and responsibly closes its orphanages and assists the children to live in family-based care (with their parents, with other relatives, in foster care, domestic adoption, inter-country adoption). This is because the United National Convention o the Rights of the Child is clear that all efforts must be made by states and other actors to ensure that children can live with their families, where possible, and where this is not possible, that they have access to their families. Furthermore, this Convention is clear that orphanages should only ever be used as a last and temporary option. The following is a great article by the “Harry Potter” author, JK Rowling, about her organization, Lumos, which is aiming to close down all children’s homes in the world by 2050: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/17/jk-rowling-fairytale-orphanage-lumos

        Thanks for asking these really important questions Danyne – for more information about these issues, including the research which support the case I am making, see here: http://www.bettercarenetwork.org/bcn-in-action/key-initiatives/better-volunteering-better-care/research-and-articles

        Martin Punaks
        Next Generation Nepal
        Better Volunteering Better Care

      • Excellent points! Thank you so much for contributing to the conversation. The post has really gotten a lot of attention and dialogue which is excellent.

    • Mushabi

      Even better than speaking to ‘Home Directors’, is to speak to the children who grew up in orphanages and hear their experiences. Being involved in Care Leavers programmes in a number of countries I can tell you it leaves care leavers confused and with a very distorted view of the world.

      I also think it is completely different to compare people coming into your family home visiting and interacting with your children to people ‘paying’ to come into your home and taking on care giving duties and starting to bond with your children as a care giver and then disappearing. Honestly Ms Bharj I am surprised that you can make that comparison. It seems like clutching at straws. No one. no one, could pay me to come and care for my children and take temporary (weeks of months) care and start to bond with them. Evidence shows that is unhealthy and disrupts bonding and attachment. Having visitors in families and being looked after by family and friends is a healthy norm, strangers paying to come into your home and taking on care giving dutiies for weeks or months at a time is not.

      In terms of staff at orphanages that again is something we often talk to care leavers about. At some point of their development they realise that these people coming in and caring for them, even if they love them, are only there because they are being paid. No pay, no love and care from that particular staff member. Children and youths start posing questions in their minds whether or not they are really loved by these care givers, they even go as far as believing that these care givers even work for them. Again this causes distorted views of parental / child boundaries.

      So I disagree entirely with your idea of engaging with home directors. It’s all about the children and all about them and their development. Not just as children but as they grow up.

  20. Amy Gwartney

    Not every orphanage/children’s home is the same. I agree that way too many orphanages who don’t have safeguards in place, resettlement plans for every child, or build positive, strong relationships between the children and those adults on site 365 days 24/7. It is more important that you know the orphanage/ children’s home you are going to and what their policies are regarding visitor and children interactions, what investments they are making in the community so children do not have to live long term in the home, and how they are fostering strong bonds between the children and the national staff who interact with them everyday. There are many orphanages/children’s homes who have strong child protection policies and abide by them and focus on the relationships children are building in the home and with families in their communities. Find those and find ways to encourage them instead of putting all orphanages and children’s homes in the same mold.

    • Yes I strongly agree not all are the same. There are ones like I listed in my post that have a better structure for helping. Do you have any thoughts on finding ones that are better suited?

      • agwartney

        Ask around. Ask people on the ground what orphanages have a strong, good reputation. You mentioned organizations that work towards keeping families together. Those organizations will at times come across a situation where it is too dangerous for the child to stay with the family, and the organization must ask a children’s home to step in and help. Ask those organizations which homes they trust and their experiences with them.

      • Thanks for the reply. I am by no means an expert at all. I am just using my voice and platform as a blogger to get a dialogue going and am part of a group of 40 bloggers and organizations writing on the topic. I felt strong enough about the issue to write about it and share it here. If you would like to bring the dialogue up a level and speak with those who are working on this initiative, here are the contacts.

        Better Volunteering, Better Care
        volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org

        on behalf of:

        Florence Martin
        Better Care Network
        florence.martin@bettercarenetwork.org

        Rebecca Smith
        Save the Children UK
        Smith@savethechildren.org.uk

        Thanks!

    • Mushabi

      While I agree the point is that ANY investment into an orphanage is an investment AWAY from better forms of care such as foster care, strengtheing kinship care and even local adoption. So it is not that ALL orphanages have poor standards and operations, but all orphanages which keep children for extended periods, despite the ‘good’ policies and conditions, are taking investment away from more important community based family placements. Of course we know that we need some care facilities but I think we can all see that orphanages with a volunteering / mission aspects are much more difficult to change.

      • Amy Gwartney

        I am part of an organization that has an orphanage, and we do all we can to keep kids with their families and to resettle as soon as possible. We have a school that has 5 times more kids in it than we have in the orphanage. We also have an infant feeding program to keep babies with a family member. We have parenting and business classes for family members. However, there are unimaginable situations that authorities find children in where they need a home who does have good policies and conditions and does all they can to find solutions so children can be in a family.

  21. So glad you are raising awareness on this issue — these “quick fix/feel good” voluntourism opportunities have always given me pause and increasingly concerns like those raised in your post have been revealed. If someone really wants to help at home or abroad, I hope they will do their homework and find a meaningful way to contribute without potentially
    harming those they hope to help.

    • Yes Kat. It is a complicated issue but I agree that people should really do their research. I’ve received a little bit of backlash on this post from the orphanages that rely on volunteers to help. It isn’t cut and dry. But I do think there needs to be more awareness that volunteer trips can cause harm.

  22. This is a very informative article, and you obviously learned from your experience and are using what you learned to help open other people’s eyes and encourage them to find out more about volunteering opportunities. Many other types of “helping organizations” have similar situations, probably often unintended. Rotary is a wonderful service organization that people can join locally and become involved with worthwhile helping projects locally, nationally, and internationally.

    • Thanks Marilyn. The post has received a lot of conversation which is fantastic! I do know about Rotary and the work they do. They are a fantastic organization. Thanks for sharing here!

  23. Wow, this is an extremely necessary post, thank you. This has crossed my mind before, especially after my own volunteer experience. It wasn’t an orphanage- but more of a group home that acts as a holding center while legal cases are settled. From there, the kids will either go back with their families, or be placed in foster care. I was received with open arms by all the children- they wanted to play, some called me mom, they hugged me, gave me kisses. As the hours went by, I feared leaving. I realized I wouldn’t be able to go back for another week, and I felt terrible leaving them. Next week they’ll meet a new group of volunteers, and others the following week, never getting close to any one person. I wanted to take them all with me and love them- but that wasn’t possible, and it hurt me. It was a great experience, but I never went back. It felt it wasn’t fair to them- but I did leave knowing that I was definitely going to adopt, so for that I’ll always hold that experience near and dear to my heart. Thank you for this post. ❤

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I am sure it was heartbreaking to leave but it sounds like the experience was wonderful that it left you changed. I felt the same way when I have been to orphanages for my work. As a mom of two it was hard
      Not to want to bring another one home. Very hard to see so many loving kids in need of a permanent home.

  24. Great write up! I definitely think we need to be more careful about how we attempt to help. Orphans are NOT tourist attractions. We need to support organizations already doing good work with orphanages- they know much better what to do than unexperienced volunteers.

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