When travelling through a developing country, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the situation of poverty. The children we see are dirty, hungry and seem unloved. Compassionate people feel they want to make a difference and to take immediate action. Often, visiting an orphanage for a few hours is seen as helping the children already in care.
We would all agree, though, that it is important we do not add to existing problems or create an environment where children are made more vulnerable. However, the growing phenomenon of ‘orphanage tourism’ may be having just some of those impacts.
‘Orphanage Tourism’ refers to the practice of tourists from wealthy countries visiting orphanages in developing countries while on their holidays. This could be as part of structured, pre-packaged visits or casually while in-country; it might involve various things, from helping build a new building, reading or playing with the children, or even cuddling the kids. It is particularly common in countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines. A Google search of orphanage tourism and volunteerism resulted in over 400,000 hits. Hundreds of websites share stories and comments such as:
- The children are always thrilled to see visitors, come and visit for a day! They will welcome you with open arms
- Visit our children who have no-one, they are lonely and have a desire to get to know you
- Our children love to sing and dance, let them show you! It is a joy to sit, play and talk with our little ones
- Come and visit a working orphanage, let us make your trip unforgettable. See how happy and adjusted our children are, and your generosity will help us
- Our children will be so eager to meet you, just as if you are a relative who hasn’t visited for a long time
Yes, we can visit orphanages across the globe, but who really benefits? While its popularity is expanding, it is a debatable phenomenon and is highly controversial. Research now shows that orphanages are a last option for children in need, unless for temporary and emergency care.
The vast majority of children in orphanages are not ‘orphans’. It is estimated that 70-90% of children have a living and traceable relative. At least 75% of the children in Cambodian orphanages are not strictly orphans: they may have one parent or both, but these families are unable to provide the food and care the children need. One has to ask whether the resources often contributed through orphanage tourism would be better used to support the families to keep their children. Visiting orphanages can mean supporting a form of human trafficking, whereby unscrupulous directors need to ‘fill’ their orphanages to get funds from visitors.
Could rising visitor numbers be one factor driving a dramatic increase in the number of orphanages? In Cambodia, there has been a 65% rise in the number of orphanages since 2005. Locals and others can observe that setting up an orphanage and marketing it can be a profitable business, with money from visitor donations and volunteer fees. Therefore, not all are doing it in the best interests of the children. In the worst cases, some unregistered and unmonitored orphanages have been a haven for sexual abusers. While some have been prosecuted, most abusers are undetected.
Beyond these more insidious dangers, orphanage tourism poses a number of other drawbacks for the children involved. Visits tend to destabilise the home life of the children who need structure, rather than having a parade of strangers coming and going and taking their photos. Visitors violate the privacy of the children, especially if photos are taken. The children may even experience mistrust and longer-term psychological damage from such comings and goings.
The debate about the ethics of this form of tourism involves a wide range of interest groups, from the large children’s agencies (e.g. UNICEF), travel and tour operators, orphanage directors and NGOs. Many visitors find the whole experience emotive and uplifting and believe their donation of time, energy (and money?) benefits the children. However, others perceive that unregulated visitation leaves the children open to further exploitation, supports and promotes orphanages as a model of care and encourages local corruption.
Progress has been made over the last few years in debating the issues, spreading awareness of unethical practices and developing guidelines and services that help people to practise ethical voluntourism.
This includes ResponsibleTravel.com, which was established in 2001. In July 2013, ResponsibleTravel.com removed all orphanage voluntourism packages from its website, a move that has led other package tour providers to do the same.
The NGO Friends-International has launched a campaign pushing tourists to end orphanage tourism in Cambodia. They state: ‘Travellers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children. It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children. Orphanages must be a safe place for children and not a tourist destination. We cannot just go and visit orphanages in our own countries, so why in Cambodia? For tourists who believe they are doing good by visiting the children directly, major findings show that visiting orphanages impacts negatively on children’s development and supports a system that is contributing to the separation of families. Visiting so-called orphanages can only lead to situations of further marginalization or even abuse for Cambodian children. Children are not tourist attractions.’
Excellent resources on this topic are the ChildSafe Initiative which has been active in promoting child protection through its 7 tips campaign and the Better Care Network.
So what is ethical volunteerism and how can we practise it? Next Generation Nepal defines ‘ethical voluntourism’ as voluntourism practices that do not harm the host community in any way and that, ideally, improve the lives of the people in the host community alongside the personal development of the volunteer. (See over page for tips on ethical voluntourism.)
If you are planning a visit to an orphanage, the following may assist you:
- Is the orphanage legally registered with the government?
- Does the orphanage have a child protection policy?
- Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision?
- Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage?
- Is there long-term, trained and well-supervised staff?
- Are sibling groups kept together?
- Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program?
- Is the orphanage located in the same community that the child previously lived in?
- Is the orphanage set up to replicate family living or small groups?
- Does the orphanage respect and accommodate children’s backgrounds and religious beliefs?
Suggested personal strategies:
- Plan your visit, don’t just ‘knock at the orphanage door’
- Don’t visit any orphanage without thoroughly investigating it
- An orphanage that actively ‘advertises’ its children on the web may have ulterior motives. Stay clear!
- To make a worthwhile contribution to the lives of the children, instead of visiting for a day/week, make a longer commitment
- Think about the skills that will ensure your valuable time is giving the most benefit. Teaching carpentry, for example, compared with teaching children to sing songs in English.
- Working and supporting the local staff may be more productive. Training in child care practice, for example, rather than bathing and feeding the children
- Do not hand over large amounts of money, gifts etc. Rather, be aware where the money will benefit the children, not in the staff’s pockets. Instead, buy school books or stationary, or pay school fees.
Janette Pepall provides training to international NGOs and missionary groups for people dealing with children at risk. She and her husband, Dean, were missionaries in Hong Kong in the 1990s, where she pioneered the fostering and adoption of Hong Kong children with disabilities. They have themselves adopted five children from Australia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, to join a birth son.^ back to top