The Problem: why are orphanage visits harmful?
Orphanage tourism and volunteering – as well as orphanages themselves – are harmful to children for a whole range of reasons. Not every one of these reasons will apply in the case of every orphanage trip or volunteer placement, but many of them will apply, and this is why orphanage visits are never a responsible option. I explain below the main reasons why orphanage visits are harmful, followed by some of the most high-profile campaigns to have highlighted these issues.
The main reasons why orphanage visits are harmful
Visiting orphanages or volunteering in orphanages is bolstering an outdated model of care which is proven to harm children
Paradoxical as it may sound, orphanages do not help vulnerable children – they harm them. There is no such thing as a ‘good orphanage’. Eighty years of research has shown that regardless of how good the quality of care is in an orphanage, it will still hamper the physical, emotional and intellectual development of children and reduce their life chances. This happens for a number of reasons. The inability for young children growing up in orphanages to develop a strong bond or attachment with a primary carer – who would normally be a parent-figure or foster carer – results in the impairment of early brain development and a condition known as attachment disorder. Furthermore, growing up in an orphanage away from one’s family and community impairs post-care survival skills and coping mechanisms. In many countries, a young person’s family and community is their safety net in the absence of social welfare provisions, and without these vital relationships, there is nobody to turn to for help with getting a job, to arrange their marriage, or from whom they can seek advice, borrow money or inherit land. However happy children and young people may appear to be in an orphanage whilst tourists and volunteers are visiting, it is very common for them to experience confused identities later in life as adults and feel angry and resentful. A particularly shocking study in Russia followed a group of young people after leaving institutional care and found that 1 in 5 committed crimes, 1 in 7 became a prostitute, and 1 in 10 took their own lives. Despite the overwhelming evidence, some people still believe that orphanages are a necessary evil – the only option for children who have no parents, or who have disabilities, or are at risk of abuse or neglect by their families. The reality is that 80% of children living in orphanages around the world are not orphans, and even those who are genuine orphans could – with the right support – be living with uncles and aunts, elder siblings, grandparents, or in foster care and adoption. Similarly, children at risk of abuse or neglect from their families could also be living in forms of alternative family-based care. As for children with disabilities, a review by the World Health Organisation found that when placed in institutions they are more likely to experience violence. There is now a powerful movement, backed by the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, to end the institutionalisation of children globally by 2050 and ensure all children can grow up in family and community-based care settings. Even in some of the most challenging countries and contexts, such as Rwanda or Moldova, huge progress has been made and the facts are proving that this transition – known as deinstitutionalisation or care transformation – is possible. This short animation narrated by JK Rowling outlines some of these issues, as does this blog by Save the Children which summarises the evidence I have mentioned above. This video by Harvard University explains the harm that neglect in institutional settings can cause to children. Lumos’ publication In Our Lifetime makes a strong case for how and why deinstitutionalisation is possible, and there is lots more information about this on the Lumos and Home and Homes for Children websites. So when tourists or volunteers visit or financially support orphanages – albeit with good intentions – they are inadvertently supporting this harmful form of care which unnecessarily keeps children away from families and communities where their best interests lie.
Visiting orphanages or volunteering in orphanages may incentivise the trafficking and unnecessary displacement of children from their families
Whilst tourists and volunteers visit orphanages under the impression that the children are there because it is in their best interests, or they have no other option, the reality is that in many cases the only reason the children are there is because they are being commercially exploited as poverty commodities to attract fee-paying tourists and volunteers to visit them. This is known as the ‘orphanage business’ and was recognised as a form of trafficking in the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report in 2018 (see pages 22-23) and by the Australian Government in 2018. In my own work in Nepal I lost count of the number of well-intentioned and intelligent foreign volunteers, donors and volunteering organisations I met who supported orphanages – and had done their due-diligence – but had been scammed into believing that their orphanage was ‘legitimate’. Sometimes, years after their initial contact, through a chance encounter, they found out that the children they believed were orphans or destitute did, in fact, have families who wanted them back but were being refused access. Orphanage trafficking is a simple but lucrative business model in which well-intentioned but naïve families are persuaded to let their children go to a ‘boarding school’ or ‘children’s home’, often for a fee, on the promise of a good education and brighter future; and well-intentioned but naïve foreign tourists, volunteers and donors are persuaded that supporting the orphanage, financially or materially, will help the children, whereas in fact, the profits are going into the hands of the orphanage managers. Sometimes the children are well-cared for materially but denied many other human rights, whereas in other cases the children are intentionally starved, denied medical assistance or actively abused to pull on the heart-strings of the foreign visitors. These reports by Next Generation Nepal and Lumos explain how the trafficking process works in Nepal and Haiti, respectively. These articles and videos show how the business model works in Cambodia, Kenya, Nepal and Uganda. The Australian academic, Kate Van Doore, has made an influential and convincing legal argument as to why this should be considered as a form of trafficking. There is more and more evidence emerging of orphanage trafficking occurring in other low-income countries where tourists, volunteers and donors support orphanages – and as many supporters have found out to their horror, their ‘good work’ has been indirectly fuelling this trade in children.
Foreign orphanage tourists and volunteers do not have the necessary skills to care for vulnerable children in orphanages
Whilst there are strict laws and policies in place in North America, Europe and Australia about who is allowed to work with or have contact with vulnerable children, based on their professional qualifications and experience, these same standards are often not applied to tourists and volunteers visiting orphanages in low-income countries. Arguments made to justify these double-standards tend to fall into three categories: (i) there is a shortage of skilled personnel locally to care for children in orphanages; (ii) there is a shortage of resources to pay for skilled personnel locally to care for children in orphanages; and/or (iii) the visitors bring joy and happiness to the children’s lives and do no harm. Unfortunately, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. Whilst there may be a shortage of some types of professional staff in some countries – but by no means always – it is hard to justify how a foreigner who does not speak the local language or understand the local culture, and may have limited experience of childcare, is a better substitute to care for children than a local person with childcare experience. For institutionalised children who have already suffered the trauma of family separation, it is by far preferable to have long-term local carers from their own culture who can better prepare them for independent living. Foreign visitors and volunteers may, in fact, exacerbate identity problems amongst children who have been separated from their communities. In one case I was involved with in Nepal we worked with a group of children who had grown up in an orphanage with foreign volunteers and donors who had surrounded them with ‘Western’ culture. As part of their reintegration process, before they could be reunified with their families, we had to help ‘re-educate’ them in Nepali dress and customs. Following the same rationale, if an orphanage genuinely is short of resources to pay for local staff, supplying them with foreign personnel will not improve the situation – a far better option is to financially support the orphanage in the short-term to recruit local staff, and in the long-term to deinstitutionalise. And as for bringing joy to the children’s lives, the words of a young man I know who grew up in orphanages in Nepal is the best response to this claim:
“There were so many volunteers: short-time, long-time, middle-time, according to visa! … Sometimes they organise program and I don’t want to go. Children sometimes feel angry because they want to do what they want. There is a nice movie and children they want to watch, but volunteers organize a football program and house managers say you have to go. And all children were angry … Why foreigners come to Nepal? Why do they go in an orphanage? That time they come for short time and they give love to us, but then they leave, and when I write they don’t reply. I say to a volunteer, ‘Sister, I am very lonely’, and they say, ‘No problem I am here’, but then they go their country and I write but they don’t reply. When I was little everyone can love me, now I am big and I need love.”
Orphanage tourists and volunteers can exacerbate psychological problems similar to attachment disorder
The rotating door of tourists and volunteers coming and going from an orphanage can also exacerbate psychological problems similar to attachment disorders. Children enjoy the feeling of love and affection offered to them by a volunteer – in the absence of their parents or primary carers – only to be followed by a form of grief when the volunteer leaves. This is a cycle which repeats itself over and over again. This eventually results in a resistance to forming emotional attachments with people they meet. This syndrome is illustrated well in this short film by The Umbrella Foundation and Forget Me Not, and is similarly covered in this short film by Lumos.
Orphanage tourists and volunteers open the door to child abuse and exploitation
Whilst the vast majority of foreign visitors to orphanages are well-intentioned, unfortunately, the intentions of a small minority are less benign. This paper by the Australian Institute of Criminology documents how the rise in orphanage tourism and volunteering creates opportunities for child sexual exploitation by child sex offenders. Whilst child safeguarding measures implemented by travel and volunteering organisations – as well as by host governments and orphanages themselves – may help mitigate these risks, ultimately the promotion of an industry which allows non-professionals to have direct access to vulnerable children creates opportunities for child abusers to find cracks in the system. Similarly, child abusers can easily find less-reputable orphanage tourism and volunteering providers – of which there are many – who do not have child safeguarding measures in place. The shocking case of a high-profile Canadian aid worker convicted of sexually abusing two boys in Nepal illustrates how easily this can happen.
Orphanage tourism and volunteering falls foul of many of the broader criticisms of the voluntourism industry
The popular, easily-accessible and commercial form of volunteer travel – known as ‘voluntourism’ – can be attributed to the increased ease and affordability of international travel; a greater awareness of global issues; a desire by young people for adventure and experiences to add to their curriculum vitaes (and expectations by universities and employers for them to have these experiences); and a genuine concern for social justice, global poverty and climate change. It is thought that the voluntourism industry is worth around USD 2 billion per year. Whilst there are undeniably philanthropic motives associated with those who volunteer internationally, critics accuse voluntourists of: (i) not having the relevant skills or experience to address the development problems they are assigned to; (ii) being more concerned with satisfying their own objectives and egos than meeting local needs; (iii) of being ‘white saviours’ espousing neo-colonial and Orientalist values; and (iv) ultimately doing more harm than good. Orphanage tourism and volunteering falls foul of all these critiques. Pippa Biddle’s 2014 blog, The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys) was one of the first popular critiques of voluntourism and hasn’t lost any of its uncomfortable rawness. The mainstream media, such as the Guardian and Daily Beast, have since explored the issue in more depth, with particular reference to orphanage volunteering. The Pakistani-American journalist, Rafia Zakaria, deconstructs donor-centric voluntourism through the lens of the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ in these articles – here and here – while Courtney Martin articulates voluntourism as the reductive seduction of solving other people’s problems. Perhaps most powerful of all are the voices of those on the receiving end of voluntourism. Stephen Ucembe’s personal testimony of being a recipient of orphanage tourism in Kenya, and Rishi Bhandari’s views on voluntourism in Nepal – part 1 and part 2 – offer vitally important perspectives which need to be heard.
Campaigns to highlight the harm caused by orphanage visits
There have been a number of high profile and successful campaigns against orphanage tourism and volunteering. One of the earliest campaigns, Orphanages.no, bears testament to the time in Cambodia when critics of orphanage tourism had to hide behind anonymity out of fear for their own safety. This was followed by the perhaps the most iconic of all orphanage tourism campaigns, Children are Not Tourist Attractions by ChildSafe, which remains a popular image and catchphrase. ChildSafe’s more recent campaign, Don’t Create More Orphans, is equally powerful. ReThink Orphanages – the coordinating initiative for the global orphanage volunteering movement – has launched its own campaign called The Love You Give, which includes a film showing the perspectives of orphanage volunteers, care leavers and those involved in family strengthening work. Freedom United’s End Orphanage Child Trafficking campaign asks for volunteer tour operators to take a stand against child trafficking into orphanages by stopping offering orphanage placements. Finally, Lumos has recently launched a powerful new campaign called #HelpingNotHelping which has been promoted by JK Rowling.