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5. Pitfalls: what should be avoided when developing alternatives to orphanage visits?

Organisations which make the decision to move away from orphanage visits should be commended.  However, how an organisation makes this transition, and which types of projects or services it transitions to, can be ethically challenging to navigate.

This section discusses ‘pitfalls’ associated with certain models of tourism or volunteering which organisations may choose to transition towards.  Pitfalls can vary from well-intentioned shifts in focus which inadvertently result in ethically compromised models of tourism or volunteering, through to deliberate attempts to green-wash projects and services.

The next section considers what practical resources are available to assist organisations in making the transition.


Attempts to make orphanage visits appear safe and ethical

Unfortunately, some organisations respond to the criticisms levied against orphanage visits by trying to ‘improve’ the standards of how they engage with orphanages. They take the view that this will make the visits ethically acceptable.  For all the reasons I gave in The Problem section on orphanage visits, this is simply not a viable option.  Even if, in the highly unlikely scenario of all concerns around child safeguarding, trafficking, skills-matching, undermining local caregivers, attachment issues, and so on, being adequately addressed, orphanage volunteers are still supporting an outdated model of care for which there is overwhelming evidence that it harms children.  This, therefore, contradicts the primary principle of ‘do no harm’.

I have personally witnessed some creative but ultimately flawed arguments presented as to how organisations claim they have managed to circle this square – these include: putting comprehensive child safeguarding measures in place; only providing long-term volunteers to supposedly avoid creating attachment disorders; only partnering with orphanages where they are registered with the government and due-diligence has taken place; or even, most absurdly, making the argument that because the orphanage is not-for-profit it must be good.  (On this last point, all the orphanages I worked with in Nepal which were trafficking children presented themselves as not-for-profit NGOs).

Another more convincing – but ultimately still flawed – an argument I have seen involves making the case that the ‘local community’ want the orphanage to exist as there would be nowhere else for the children to go if it were not there.  This argument fails to recognise the heterogeneity and power differentials of actors within a community.  It is likely that the orphanage owners and staff will be financially benefitting from the orphanage, so will, of course, have an incentive for it to exist.  The argument also fails to deconstruct the complexity of reasons as to why parents allow their children to be placed in orphanages, varying from not understanding why institutional care is harmful and what the alternatives may be, through to situations involving force, fraud and coercion.  Lastly, the power differentials between the wealthy travel or volunteering organisation, or other donors, which are providing resources and social status, will inevitably influence community views on why the orphanage is ‘needed’.

A final argument I have seen made is that volunteers are being sent to ‘small group residential homes’ as opposed to orphanages or institutions, with the rationale that these do not harm children in the same way.  Small group and family-like residential care is a contested area within the child protection and disability sectors, with some actors taking the view that there are special circumstances where family-like homes are acceptable for some groups of children, whilst other actors disagree.  Regardless as to whether small group homes are or are not an acceptable form of care for children, sending volunteers to such places falls foul of many other problematic areas such as safeguarding, skills-matching, using local child care staff, and so on.

If there is ever an acceptable time for a volunteer to work in an orphanage, it is if: (i) the volunteer is a professional and qualified practitioner (such as a social worker or psychologist); (ii) the volunteer has undergone child protection checks; (iii) the orphanage has implemented a child protection policy; (iv) the practitioner is predominantly supporting local staff so as to build their capacity; (v) there is nobody locally who could provide this type of technical support; and (vi) the orphanage is undergoing a transition towards family-based care for the children, so the practitioner is not reinforcing a harmful model of care.  Such a scenario is of course essentially pro-bono professional support towards deinstitutionalisation.


Orphanages and institutions: euphemisms and terminology

To detract from growing criticism of orphanage visits, some organisations have stopped using the word ‘orphanage’ and have re-branded with terms such as NGO, children’s home, boarding school, childcare centre, day-care centre, children’s village, children’s crèche, church home, hostel, shelter, rehabilitation home, home, small group home, community centre and other words to describe what is essentially the same, or a very similar, model of care.  However, to complicate matters, some of the services which are associated with these terms could also potentially be beneficial to some groups of children if run in a correct way for the correct purposes.  Furthermore, some volunteering organisations offer childcare or teaching placements, which appear to have nothing to do with orphanages, but in reality, the childcare or teaching is taking place within an orphanage.  The terminology can be very confusing and is not always the best indication of what is actually happening in practice.  It is therefore helpful to delve a little deeper into residential care practices to understand what types of care services are considered harmful for children.

A more technical word for an orphanage is a ‘children’s institution’.  A children’s institution is any kind of residential care with an ‘institutional culture’, which means that children are separated from their families, isolated from the broader community and/or compelled to live together; children and their families don’t have sufficient control over their lives and the decisions which affect them; and the requirements of the organisation itself takes precedence over the individualised needs of the children (see Lumos’ In Our Lifetime, p.12).  So children’s institutions could include a whole range of residential care services, including, but not limited to orphanages and children’s homes.  So long as these care facilities have an institutional culture, and despite perhaps the best efforts of those running the service to make it family-like, they will unfortunately still be harmful to children.  This is a key point that is often misunderstood.  Whilst everyone agrees that institutions which traffick and exploit children are harmful, many people believe that institutions which are well run must be ‘good places’ for children to grow up, whereas in fact, this is not the case.  In other words, all forms of institutional care should be avoided by travel and volunteering organisations.


Other types of volunteering with children

Travel tours and volunteering placements which involve children are understandably popular products offered by organisations.  Replacing orphanage trips with litter picking trips along dirty river basins are unlikely to have the same appeal!  This is why many organisations look to other projects involving children as financially viable alternatives.  However, despite its obvious appeal, this route still contains many ethical pitfalls to navigate which I will explore here with some of the most popular child-focussed alternatives.


In using the term ‘childcare’ here I am referring to day-care schemes where children are looked after while their parents are at work and then return to their families in the evenings.  Whilst such schemes have benefits for both children and families, they are generally not a responsible option for volunteers or tourists.  Whilst supporting such schemes help to enforce family-based care, putting foreign tourists or volunteers in such contexts is problematic from a safeguarding, skills-matching and local sustainability perspective.  The only scenarios where this would be acceptable is if a volunteer is a qualified and experienced child-carer, is playing a role of supporting or building the capacity of local staff, and child safeguarding measures are in place.


Sending volunteers to teach English overseas is a popular type of placement and is judged by many to be responsible and safe so long as child safeguarding measures are in place.  After all, many international volunteers will have a good command of English and therefore could be considered ‘skilled’.  However, it is unfortunately not quite this simple.  This excellent article by Dianne Ashman – a qualified teacher who now works in the volunteering sector – explains how a lack of familiarity with the local context, the short-term nature of teaching placements, and the risks associated with displacing or disempowering local teachers mean that developing responsible school-based volunteering needs a more nuanced approach.  Dianne goes on to suggest some practical and responsible roles which skilled volunteers can play in an educational environment – these involve assisting local teachers, after-school clubs and developing creative resources.  A note should also be included here on ‘school tours’ which have become a popular activity on the itinerary of many tour groups.  Unfortunately, school tours also have their pitfalls which I will discuss in more detail in the community-based tourism section below.

Community-based tourism

Community-based tourism (CBT) is becoming a popular activity offered by the travel sector to tourists wanting direct and experiential interactions with local communities.  CBT can include visits to rural villages, visits to schools and other local organisations, homestays, the use of local businesses and many other offerings.  When run well, meaning that the management and decision making of CBT remains within the local community, it attributes power back to local communities and contributes to the local economy.  With its bottom-up approach and authenticity in connecting tourists with real families and communities, it is understandable how it can be viewed as win-win ethical alternative to orphanage trips.  There are indeed many reasons to praise CBT as a form of responsible tourism, but it also brings with it a number of child protection risks which may not immediately be apparent, and need to be addressed.  The obvious risks concern child sexual abusers taking advantage of the likely lack of child safeguarding procedures in an environment for which this has never previously been a priority.  But there are also more nuanced risks around children being taken out of school to perform cultural shows for tourists, school tours which disrupt lessons, obtrusive photography, the handing out of sweets and gifts to children creating a dependency culture, and inappropriate or culturally insensitive contact between tourists and children.  Whilst CBT is generally a much better environment for travellers to interact with children than in an orphanage, there are still many risks associated with children becoming ‘tourist attractions’ which need to be carefully managed.  ChildSafe is thankfully working with this growth industry to raise awareness of and mitigate the risks amongst all relevant stakeholder groups.  See this article also.  A final word of warning on CBT is around what types of community settings are showcased to tourists.  While a functioning and prosperous village may help to overcome outdated notions of ‘third world poverty’ or ‘backwardness’, darker forms of CBT such as slum tourism and poverty tourism may do the opposite by exoticising poverty and reinforcing white saviour concepts which responsible tourism should avoid.

Other popular types of voluntourism

For those wishing to move away from all forms of volunteering involving children, it is important to say a few words about other unethical forms of voluntourism which need to be avoided when seeking alternatives to orphanage visits.


The connection between tourism and exploitation of captive animals is widely publicised, and tourists themselves are influencing the market to move away from activities such as elephant riding and swimming with dolphins.  However, with uncomfortable similarities to orphanage tourism, some entrepreneurs have managed to capitalise on the desire of volunteers to make a positive contribution towards animal conservation, resulting in exploitative schemes such as fake orphan lion cub sanctuaries.  This article gives a good overview of both ethical and unethical practices in relation to conservation voluntourism programmes.  Some good environmental conservation organisations which take volunteers include Wildlife Act which came second place at the World Responsible Tourism Awards in 2018 and promotes small group sustainable wildlife conservation, and SEED Madagascar which involves small groups of foreign volunteers in conservation field-work while supporting them to learn about conservation, the local culture and the local language.


Medical voluntourism has not reached the mainstream media to quite the same extent as orphanage voluntourism, but it has a growing number of critics concerned about: the lack of qualifications and experience of medical volunteers (particularly when they perform medical procedures they would not be allowed to perform at home); the lack understanding of the local context in which they are treating patients; the lack of opportunity for follow-up with patients due to short placement periods; and the undermining of local health-care systems and health-care providers.  This article by Emily Scott, a Registered Nurse who has worked in international healthcare settings, contains good advice for want-to-be medical volunteers.  This article by Guidisto gives a good overview of different types of medical internships and volunteer positions, and as well as guidance of how and when this can be done responsibly.

Building projects

Enthusiastic but unskilled foreign voluntourists paying to build a school in a dusty rural village, only for it to be knocked down afterwards so it can be rebuilt again by local professionals – or rebuilt by the next group of voluntourists – has perhaps become the archetypal image in the public’s minds about all that is wrong with voluntourism.  Why this is an unsustainable model which does not contribute towards development does not need much explanation.  However, if it is carefully managed, there are cases where volunteers can meaningfully contribute to building projects.  For example, the education NGO, First Steps Himalaya, welcomed foreign volunteers after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, when labour was in short supply, to join local people to help re-build schools using earthquake-resistant earth bag materials.  This was done under the close supervision of professional builders. HUSK Cambodia allows a limited number of foreign volunteers to assist with the rebuilding of damaged houses for families which are vulnerable to family separation and their children being placed in orphanages.  This is, of course, managed sensitively in partnership with local community leaders.

Volunteering in emergencies

Disaster tourism is ethically contentious, as is its close relation, disaster voluntourism.  One of my own defining memories in the days following the Nepal earthquake was meeting a group of international backpackers who had chosen to fly into Nepal immediately after the earthquake to ‘see what it was like’.  They used up valuable bed space in one of the emergency rescue shelters, tried their hands at moving rubble to see if they could find anyone alive (with no training or plan as to what they would do if they did find someone), and after a week took a free flight out of the country which was being offered by the US Government for genuinely traumatised tourists. The dangers of disaster voluntourism are well articulated by Learning Service co-author, Claire Bennett, in this article where she advised potential volunteers not to rush to Nepal after the earthquake, and instead she offered suggestions on safer ways they could help.  Next Generation Nepal undertook some research nine months after the Nepal Earthquake which concluded that skilled foreign volunteers who were already present in the country at the time of the earthquake, and therefore understood the context and local referral pathways, were beneficial for response efforts, e.g. engineers who could assess damaged buildings.  The research also concluded that unskilled volunteers who swooped in after the earthquake, looking for opportunities to help, were a drain on already limited resources and were a danger to themselves and others.

Next 6: Transitions: advice on safely moving away from orphanage visits

The information provided on these Beyond Orphanage Visits pages is copyrighted to Responsible Tourism Partnership / Martin Punaks 2019.  All rights reserved to Responsible Tourism Partnership and Martin Punaks.  Responsible Tourism Partnership and Martin Punaks welcome requests for permission to reproduce or translate text in part or in full – enquiries should be addressed to martinpunaks@hotmail.com.

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