Whilst mainstream thinking is increasingly accepting that orphanage tourism and volunteering is harmful, the difficult question remains: which areas of responsible tourism and volunteering could be offered instead of orphanage visits? In this section and then I focus on what some of the answers to this question may be.
This should not be understood as a comprehensive guide to responsible tourism and volunteering – it is intended as a resource which brings together some of the current thinking on this topic together with a few examples of organisations, initiatives and toolkits which demonstrate good practice.
This first section covers principles of responsible tourism and volunteering and some links to organisations that provide a “101” of advice on responsible tourism and volunteering.
The next section references organisations and resources which demonstrate particular aspects of good practice.
Principles of responsible tourism and volunteering
International development principles
Whilst much can be said on what responsible volunteering does or does not mean, the bottom line is that responsible volunteering should be designed around meeting the needs of the local community, supporting them to build their own capacity to solve their own problems, and should never cause harm. In other words, responsible volunteering should be based on international development principles. Although this sounds obvious, unfortunately too many volunteering programmes disproportionately focus on the customer experience of the volunteer over the needs of the community.
If we accept that international development principles are the basis for responsible volunteering, it is important to acknowledge that international development itself has had an ethically complex history. Its various guises since the 1950s have been accused of prioritising technology, macro-economics and ‘Western’ ideologies over the priorities, needs and cultures of local communities and marginalised groups. Whilst most people today accept that international development is a necessary means to address global poverty, climate change and social justice, the current thinking is that development is more likely to be successful and sustainable if it is community-designed and driven – as opposed to being top-down or donor-driven. Furthermore, the dialogue that happens between donors and recipients in these development relationships needs to recognise the fundamental power differentials at play. These concepts are as important for travel and volunteering organisations in their dialogue with local partners as they are for development organisations.
Vicky Smith articulates well the impact of these power differentials on the relationship between commercial volunteering organisations and local partners in this article from 2015:
“Some non-profit organisations, faced with public sector austerity, declining international development aid and intense competition for support have partnered with tourism operations and media in more recent years to help increase awareness and income generation through volunteer travel. It was the relative lack of experience of not-for-profit development organisations in such a marketing approach that enabled innovative commercial tour operators to first gain their foothold and develop the voluntourism market in the 1990s. Other organisations understand the brand value of being a non-profit or charitable organization is great, and value capitalist profits above impacts and use altruistic marketing messages to mask increasingly commercial operations. At other times local community members may be led into exploitation of children and tourists by facilitating these money-making markets, rather than considering actual needs and impacts. Some are emotionally driven by wanting to help, believe it’s the right thing to do, and don’t understand or accept that not only are they not positively contributing, but in actual fact they are likely causing more harm than good.”
From a practical perspective, one of the best resources for understanding how to align volunteering programmes with the complexity of development principles is Forum’s Global Standard for Volunteering in Development. The Standard is designed for all organisations that work with volunteers to ensure they are contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. The Standards ensure that: all development programmes are designed in partnership with local communities so they respond to community needs; all community members and volunteers are kept safe and free from harm; the intended impact of the programme is identified before and tracked throughout; and volunteers are fully prepared, trained and supported. The Standard is a practical quality assurance toolkit divided into themes concerning: designing and delivering projects, duty of care, managing volunteers and measuring impact. Under each theme there are specific actions to be implemented and indicators to measure whether these are being adequately met. The Standard also specifically prohibits volunteering in or with orphanages.
Along similar lines, Comhlamh has developed a Code of Good Practice for Irish volunteer-sending organisations. The Code has a strong emphasis on global justice, solidarity, and good development practice which addresses locally identified needs. It also promotes development education so as to help volunteers understand the context of what they are doing so they are better placed to address the root causes of inequality and poverty. The Code also explicitly recognises the power differentials I have discussed above. Signatories of the Code commit to the implementation of five values, under which there is a set of principles and indicators which provide guidance for the development and implementation of volunteer sending programmes.
A final principle of development worth specifically highlighting is that of ‘sustainability’. Essentially this is the view that development should not be a band-aid approach to individual problems, but should tackle problems holistically and at their root causes so they do not reoccur. For volunteering organisations this means several things: (i) having a focus on skilled volunteers whose role it is to transfer their skills to local people, so as to prevent the need for ongoing volunteering placements; (ii) not doing a role which could be undertaken by a local person, and thus undermining local skills and the local economy; and (iii) ensuring that the roles volunteers play are part of a broader development plan for the community (for example, there may be little benefit in volunteers running a sanitation and health awareness programme if there are no plans to introduce clean water and toilets in the village).
Child protection principles
When considering volunteering placements as alternatives to orphanages, it is important to have an understanding of child rights and child protection principles. Central to these are the UN Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC) and the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. The UNCRC recognises children’s right to a family environment, right to be cared for and live with parents, and right to maintain contact with parents. These are rights which are frequently contravened through the orphanage model of care. The Guidelines supplement the UNCRC and reinforce that: “the family is the best place for a child and efforts should be primarily directed to enable a child to remain or return to his/her parents or, where appropriate, to other close family members”. The UNCRC is the most widely ratified UN treaty in the world and provides a legal foundation to reinforce the evidence I discussed in The Problem section, which points towards children’s best interests being served in family and community-based care.
It is therefore a basic principle that responsible volunteering should only support projects which help keep families and communities together – and never projects which separate children from their families. There are many ways families and communities can be strengthened. Sometimes the links are obvious – for example a family-preservation project will use practitioners to provide support to vulnerable families dealing with challenging issues such as alcoholism, debt, chronic health problems and domestic violence. But sometimes the links may be less obvious – for example, an income generation project may enhance economic livelihoods which increases the chances of families being able to adequately care for their children; or a project which supports locally-provided early child development centres, schools and colleges will incentivise families to keep their children with them in the local area, rather than sending them to an orphanage for a ‘better education’. Even an environmental conservation project may enhance environmental preservation and sustainability, and thus reduce the risk of natural disasters creating circumstances where families are forced apart. The same rationale can be applied to supporting health projects, women’s empowerment, disaster preparedness and many other community development approaches which enable family units to remain strong, prosperous and healthy. This is not to suggest that volunteers will automatically have the skills to work on such projects – or that the necessary safeguarding procedures will be in place to facilitate volunteers – but as a principle it does provide an ethical compass as to what is and what is not child and family-friendly development.
Child safeguarding is of course another vital part of the puzzle. Keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility – this includes both the prevention of harm and abuse, and effectively responding to reports or suspicions of abuse. All organisations have a duty of care to protect children they work with, have contact with, or who are affected by their work. Keeping Children Safe is a helpful resource for organisations of all types working with or in contact with children. It has a set of International Child Safeguarding Standards, out of which come a range of tools, resources and training materials, including a self-audit tool for organisations. It is easy to navigate, internationally-relevant and user-friendly.
Similarly ChildSafe is a user-friendly resource to provide advice on how to prevent child abuse in an international context, and how to effectively respond to child abuse. ChildSafe has also partnered with G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation to develop Global Good Practice Guidelines specifically for the child welfare and travel industry. In ChildSafe’s words, the guidelines were developed to provide a common understanding of child welfare issues throughout the travel industry and to provide all travel businesses with guidance to prevent all forms of exploitation and abuse that could be related to travellers and the tourism industry. The Guidelines are divided into four sections on: (i) preventing and responding to child abuse arising from tourist interactions; (ii) enabling products and services to have the best impact on children; (iii) ensuring CSR initiatives reinforce child welfare; and (iii) guidelines on implementation.
Finally, the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism – better known as “The Code” – is an influential multi-stakeholder initiative for the travel and tourism industry aimed at providing awareness, tools and support to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. This can include prostitution and pornography, trafficking, voluntourism, orphanage tourism and mega sporting events. When companies join The Code they sign up to six criteria or steps to keep children safe – these include: policies and procedures, training, contracts and supply chain management, providing information to travellers, collaboration and support for stakeholders, and annual reporting.
Child safeguarding understandably often becomes associated with the more extreme forms of child exploitation, such as trafficking and sex-tourism. Nobody would disagree that these are unacceptable, but where the debate gets more contentious is around the ‘grey areas’ of how to interact with children whilst travelling, such as taking photos of children or giving gifts and money. G Adventures has developed a good short video on some of these issues using the premise that if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it while you are travelling overseas.
Perhaps the most contested question in the debate around children and volunteering is: is it ever acceptable to volunteer directly with children? Views amongst child protection and responsible tourism experts are divided. Writing in its Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, Learning Service view all childcare placements with vulnerable children led by non-professional volunteers as dangerous, and therefore does not recommend them. The one exception it makes is for qualified professionals, but it questions whether their skills may be better put to use building the capacity of local staff rather than direct work with children. Meanwhile, voluntourism critic, Ruth Taylor, makes a well-argued case as to why, in the right circumstances, and in conjunction with local stakeholders, and with child safeguarding and the best interests of the child at the heart of any decision, volunteering placements working directly with children can be effective.
Learning and development education
An alternative perspective to the international development and child protection principles I have outlined above, is the view that volunteering can be reframed as being about learning and development education. It is important to stress that this approach does not contradict the values I have outlined above, but it is a complementary approach which shifts the focus onto the volunteer as someone whose objective it is to critically learn from their experience and from the expertise of the people and projects they are placed with.
Undoubtedly the thought leader in this space is Learning Service whose book, The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, has been endorsed by Noam Chomsky. Learning service flips the American concept of ‘service learning’ to emphasise that volunteers need to learn before they can serve. Learning is embraced as a primary purpose of a trip overseas, rather than a by-product, and service consists of humble and thoughtful action designed to do no harm, and which has not necessarily been fixed in advance. Similar to an NGO designing a development programme, until a volunteer has learned about the context in which they are operating, how can they be sure which types of action will help? Re-framing volunteering in this way shifts the power dynamics; re-focusses what can be measured as success on to the volunteer as much as the community; and can be considered as an antidote to ‘white saviour’ syndrome. The learning service approach emphasises the importance of a ‘learning mindset’ through which volunteers should approach all forms of social engagement, be it at home or overseas. Self-reflection on the volunteer’s motivations and skills prior to a trip, and using the volunteer’s learning at home after the trip, are just as important as the trip itself. I will showcase some examples of learning service trips in the next section.
people and places: responsible volunteering also deserves a mention in this section for its recent campaign on Instagram which flips the white saviour concept into positive and concise advice for tourists and volunteers on how to help communities and how not to be a white saviour. Its handle on Instagram is @peopleandplace.volunteering.
101s of responsible tourism and volunteering
Considering how complex and nuanced debates on responsible tourism and volunteering can be, some organisations should be credited for condensing these ideas into concise “101” guides, checklists and other accessible resources. I will showcase some of these below.
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