Top of the list for many well-meaning travellers who wish to volunteer during their time away is to help children in orphanages in developing countries. What better feel-good and mutually beneficial form of travel could there be?
Volunteering was a growth area for the online travel agency that I co-founded over a decade ago – ResponsibleTravel.com. However, over the past year, it became clear to us that volunteering in orphanages creates some very serious outcomes.
Some of our network of activist friends started reporting data showing the majority of “orphans” in some orphanages, had at least one parent, who felt that a more Western type of upbringing would benefit their children. Further investigation revealed the massive growth in orphanages in tourism hotspots.
For example, with a population of less than 100,000, the town of Siem Reap – gateway to Cambodia’s famous ruins of Angkor Wat – has 35 orphanages. We were shown a film of fake orphans being paraded through the streets to attract tourist volunteers. Creating orphanages to make money from volunteers seems to have become big business with access to children a commodity to be sold.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a volunteer’s first instinct is to provide as much love and attention to the children as they can. However, Unicef reports indicate the revolving door of volunteers contributes to further emotional turmoil, through what’s known as “ repeated abandonment”. All those photos sent home of volunteers hugging a child tell a different – and sorry – tale to that which was intended.
We published our concerns, and were overwhelmed by the response, including messages from children who’d grown up in orphanages with volunteers, and past volunteers who’d felt something was badly wrong but didn’t fully understand why until they saw our concerns laid bare.
In response, we suspended all our orphanage volunteering trips and convened a panel of experts and activists, including People & Places, Friends International, Save the Children and Ecpat.
The conclusion was that volunteers must have appropriate qualifications, skills, experience and understanding of vulnerable childcare, and have provided proof of these in the form of certification and references which the partner organisation has taken up. Suitable qualification areas include: social work, psychology, counselling, medical health, appropriate educational qualifications and so on. We also decided that the minimum length of placement should be four weeks. And we removed 43 trips from our site.
So what’s left for the volunteer without specialist skills who would like to work with children in developing countries? We’d like to see a new sector emerge, where volunteers support the families of children, enabling them to care for themselves in their own communities. We will be working to encourage this.
Justin Francis is managing director of online travel agency responsibletravel.com