Even before the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, it was an epicenter in a manufactured humanitarian disaster: orphanage tourism. The seemingly philanthropic practice of giving one’s time to help children in countries around the world has a demonstrably ugly side. Months ago, growing awareness of perverse incentives and significant research on child development led the US Embassy in Nepal to warn prospective orphanage volunteers that, “volunteering at such an organization may indirectly contribute to child exploitation.” Now UNICEF Nepal has partnered with other child well-being organizations to discourage post-quake volunteering with vulnerable children, particularly in respect to short-term, unskilled volunteering.
For those of us who strive to positively impact the world, orphanage tourism is a particularly thorny challenge. It simultaneously preys on the needs of the most vulnerable and the ideals of the well-intentioned. It is the sort of thing that makes people throw their hands up, close their doors, and focus only on themselves.
Following a disaster like the earthquake in Nepal, immediate action is tempting, but it must be tempered by accumulated insights. That means at minimum understanding the well-documented concerns relating to child exploitation and orphanage volunteering, as well as looking carefully at development and service opportunities, before stepping into actions intended to serve.
Orphanage tourism refers to short-term volunteering visits to orphanages by unskilled volunteers in developing countries around the world. This practice is not good for children for two reasons. First, in several countries significant evidence demonstrates the financial incentives surrounding orphanage tourism have led unscrupulous individuals to traffic children for the purpose of raising revenue from volunteers’ fees and donations. More often than not, children in these homes have living parents or other familial caregivers. Families are often tricked into believing their children will be given better opportunities at a boarding school, and instead the children end up as revenue-generators in poorly resourced children’s homes. This disturbing pattern is amply demonstrated in a report by the nongovernmental organization Next Generation Nepal.
The second concern with orphanage tourism is more nuanced. Accumulated child development research indicates that institutional care is comparatively bad for children’s development. Even in countries where per capita income is relatively low, it is better for children to be in family, extended family, or foster care networks than it is for them to be in institutional care settings. This research is summarized in, The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care, by Kevin Browne, Professor of Forensic Psychology and Child Health at the University of Nottingham. When international volunteers flood countries with their desires to “do good,” the funding the volunteers bring increases the incentives to create orphanages-as-solutions.
Since 2013, a global coalition of child well-being agencies has been working to raise awareness about the ways in which orphanage tourism does more harm than good. Called the Better Volunteering, Better Care Network, the initiative also seeks to support ethical forms of global engagement. Because of my work with Fair Trade Learning and ethical community-university global engagement, I was asked to join this initiative. Through it, I have learned immensely from global engagement leaders who are advancing conscientious practice in global development partnerships.
A field coach for ACC International Relief in Australia, Rebecca Nhep, works with churches and faith communities to consider the Biblical mandate as it relates to holistic family and community development. Their understanding of mission embraces the orphan and the widow in the context of families. ACC International has therefore developed a specific initiative, Kinnected, to support residential care facilities in their efforts to reintegrate children back into families and community.
In the states, faith communities are also playing an important role. Faith to Action “mobilizes and educates churches, faith-based organizations and individuals to engage in care that upholds the vital importance of family in a child’s life.” For members of Christian Faith communities, the above two initiatives enable giving that seeds holistic growth and capacity building. Efforts like this shift philanthropy from isolated acts of charity for the needy to targeted cooperative development that enables individual and community empowerment.
Of course, faith communities do not have a monopoly on deliberate development interventions. Oxfam International is also working in Nepal and Public Radio International’s The World recently profiled 7 vetted charities seeking donations following the earthquake. By giving to established development organizations, donors are investing in increasingly systematic and targeted intervention efforts.
Yet not everyone wants to host a bake sale for a big bureaucracy. Part of the orphanage tourism phenomenon exists because people also want to travel, to meet people, to connect with others on the other side of the world. There is nothing wrong with these impulses in themselves.
As more and more universities and schools advance global learning and civic engagement agendas, best practices in this kind of cooperative volunteer development work are becoming increasingly apparent. If it is not clear already, rushing to Nepal right now, as an unskilled, first-time volunteer, is not a good idea. In a resource-scarce, post-disaster environment, supporting community development should be a hard-earned privilege, not a right of anyone with the means to travel.
Prospective volunteers interested in supporting global community development should focus on several key questions as they consider service possibilities.
First, does the organization have history and background as a community development organization? Because of the recent surge in interest in the combination of international travel and service, voluntourism has become a $2.6 billion industry. Though development expertise is profoundly important, several travel and tourism companies have rushed in to the marketplace. Unfortunately, it is not that hard to sell the idea of doing something good to someone who believes in their own goodness and is unfamiliar with the community where they’re working. If the organization has not been involved in community development in the area for minimally three years, it probably knows very little about the local context. If it has no development professionals on staff, it is probably a tour company and not a development organization.
Second, how do the organization’s programming practices support mutual learning, cooperative development, and capacity building in the community? Any development organization worthy of the name is more interested in developing capacities and creating spaces for empowerment than in charitable giving. What are the organization’s strategies for supporting learning and leadership that emerges within the host community? How are these outcomes measured as part of the organization’s ongoing work?
Third, is the organization telling you that it can get you whatever kind of volunteer experience you want? This could be a red flag. Volunteering and service should involve placing individual interests beneath the interests of the community or public-serving initiative. A good organization will excel at matching your skills and capacities with community-articulated desires, but this is a matchmaking process and not a process dictated by your idea of development before that interaction.
In an effort to reflect on how to help in Nepal now, this essay has crashed into the issue of orphanage tourism, considered a few options for direct financial giving, and swerved away from Nepal to consider current spaces for ethical global engagement. It does make sense, right now, to leave Nepal to the Nepalese and any support that they explicitly invite. Resource scarcity, infrastructure bottlenecks, and accumulated insights relating to international service and volunteering make that the right move.
But accumulated research also shows us that international volunteering can have important positive effects. International volunteering outcomes include not only physical projects, like water pumps, but also the emergence of global advocacy networks, which work to support global governance norms like transparency, inclusive participation, and human rights. As we cooperate carefully and conscientiously across cultures, with attention to capacity development and local leadership, we build global capacity and resilience.
That sort of optimism is tempered by realism. While Nepal has captured the global media spotlight due to the recent disaster there, that narrative pulls us away from the continuously unfolding crises all around us. If the value of human and ecological life matters to you, the world is in crisis. And yet we do see progress on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. We do see physical and more ethereal outcomes of global development partnerships. If you want to “do something” right now, by all means, do so. Give financially. Volunteer somewhere other than Nepal, with a responsible and well-established organization. Do your homework and learn more about global development partnerships before you go. History suggests we may make slow progress.
Eric Hartman is an Assistant Professor at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University and Editor of globalsl.org.