The Pitfalls of Voluntourism

Voluntourism

For many people the thought of volunteering and helping out disadvantaged children in another country adds a meaningful aspect to their travel experience. But what if volunteers at orphanages actually end up becoming part of a problem?

Volunteering abroad is a big industry. There are numerous volunteering International companies and organisations to cater for the many people who every year want to use their own time and money to help out orphanages around the world. But latest research, reports and investigations all point to a number of issues and concerns that come to light regarding the well-being of children at orphanages aided by volunteers.

Responsibletravel.com, a leading ethical travel agent for responsible holidays, has done a lot of good work in this area including removing from its website 10 volunteering trips that send volunteers to work in orphanages around the world.

Justin Francis, managing director, responsibletravel.com said:

“It’s time to clean up this sector. Too often volunteer trips to orphanages are becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution. After a great deal of thought, research and consultation we have taken the difficult decision to temporarily remove all volunteering trips to orphanages from responsibletravel.com whilst we work on a set of best practice guidelines for the sector.”

The UN Convention of Rights of Children states that the family must be afforded the necessary assistance so that it can assume its responsibilities (of caring for children). Residential care should be the last resort.

Some of the issues that concern responsibletravel.com include:

Importance of family setting vs. residential care

There is overwhelming evidence to show the detrimental impacts of residential care on the physical and emotional well being of children (UNICEF). The UN Convention of Rights of Children states that the family must be afforded the necessary assistance so that it can assume its responsibilities (of caring for children). Residential care should be the last resort.

Fuelling demand for orphans

Inadvertently, well intentioned volunteers are fuelling the demand for orphans. In Cambodia 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans. Almost all orphanages are funded by overseas donors, many of whom turn to volunteer tourism and train children to perform and attract donors (http://orphanages.no/).

Volunteers are therefore creating a surge in orphanages, because parents are tempted to give up their children in response to the western ideal of education and upbringing. For example, with a population of less than 100,000, the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat has 35 orphanages. Watch a documentary on this here. One even parades children late at night behind placards reading ‘Support Our Orphans’ as visitors drink and dine.

This UN report from West Africa identifies the need to protect children from ‘Orphan Dealers.’

“A January 2009 study by the Social Welfare Department – responsible for children’s welfare and supervising orphanages – showed that up to 90 percent of the estimated 4,500 children in orphanages in Ghana are not orphans and 140 of the 148 orphanages around the country are un-licensed.”

Emotional disturbance to children

Research from South Africa (‘AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care’) reveals the negative impacts of volunteers on the children.

“Institutionalised children will tend to manifest indiscriminate affection towards volunteers. After a few days or weeks, this attachment is broken when the volunteer leaves and a new attachment forms when the next volunteer arrives…repeated disruptions in attachment are extremely disturbing for children, especially very young children”.

Very few tourists are qualified to interact with traumatised or vulnerable children. Most volunteers do not have these skills or the training required.

This report from the BBC about Bali found that “As tourism has boomed in Bali, it has had a strange side-effect, doubling the number of orphanages on the island in 20 years. Tourists’ donations keep the orphanages going – but some are effectively rackets, exploiting children and holidaymakers alike”.

Displacing local staff from jobs

Volunteers are unintentionally crowding local people out of their jobs. This Human Sciences Research Council report concluded that … “there is a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer.”

The UN Convention of Rights of Children states that the family must be afforded the necessary assistance so that it can assume its responsibilities (of caring for children). Residential care should be the last resort.  UNICEF, The United Nations Children’s Fund, have stated that ‘There is overwhelming evidence to show the detrimental impacts of residential care on the physical and emotional well being of children’.

Fuelling demand for orphans

Inadvertently, well intentioned volunteers are fuelling the demand for orphans. In Cambodia 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans. Almost all orphanages are funded by overseas donors, many of whom turn to volunteer tourism and train children to perform and attract donors.

Volunteering like other aid focused programs play a part in what can be a complex arrangement. We welcome Responsible Travel and other organisations who are attempting to raise standards and try and put in place guidelines and best practice and to provide greater transparency and more readily available information.  

Books

Voluntourism. Intrinsic motivation or just CV building?

The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook

700 Places to Volunteer Before You Die: A Traveler’s Guide