Here we have a clearcut case of good intentions gone awry. It does not mean that all international service is bad. But it absolutely does demand that volunteers or travelers interested in connecting across cultures do their homework about international service and global development. It demands that educators and community leaders go the extra mile to ensure young people are aware of the broader structures and incentives affected by their international experiences.
This post provides a concise breakdown of the issue: why people who spend their lives dedicated to child wellbeing do not want you or your students volunteering in orphanages. And why Friends International and UNICEF are behind the visually shocking campaign to end orphanage tourism featured above.
In 2013, The Better Care Network and Save the Children UK began a global interagency initiative to review and share existing knowledge on volunteerism as related to the alternative care of children in developing countries. They did so because:
- Ample child health and psychological evidence indicates residential care centers (orphanages) are simply bad for children. That is, even in orphanages with full-time staff in the best ratios seen around the world, children do not develop at the same rate as children in foster care or other community-centered alternatives for children lacking biological parents.
- Community and family-based alternatives have succeeded in countries at all income levels. There is a global network dedicated to supporting children as they move away from orphanages and into community and family-based care.
- Considerable evidence now indicates international volunteerism is increasing the rate of orphanage presence. That is, orphanages are increasing in number at a faster rate than orphans. UNICEF suggests 75% of children in Cambodian orphanages actually are not even orphans. Three-fourths of these children have living parents. Yet our demand-side for international service is developing a supply-side of children who do have other, healthier alternatives. In the worst cases, children have literally been trafficked into orphanages.
- Even in the best of circumstances, the institutional structures of orphanages are havens for physical and sexual abuse.
Learning Service, a group dedicated to responsible volunteer travel, has put together a brief video on this issue that can serve as a great instructional tool:
Sometimes looking at individual, horrific cases in Cambodia and Nepal can create the impression that the issue is only about the malicious acts of some of the worst offenders. That is not the case. This is fundamentally about the ways in which the funding behind travelers’ good intentions creates different financial incentive structures for people on the ground in developing countries. Infusions of cash from visiting volunteers can make an orphanage seem like a good option on the community side as well. But child health and wellbeing experts know orphanages are not the best answer.
Orphanages are bad for children. Therefore, orphanage volunteerism should be discouraged.
But then what? What about the children you’ve seen or been exposed to – through images online or perhaps through previous volunteering and mission trips? As I mentioned above, many developing countries have strong networks of family-based and community-based care. And of course, orphanages themselves are a colonial imposition. Childcare is something that communities have always cooperated to address. As efforts are made to move away from orphanages, a host of organizations are working to ensure there are clear steps toward responsible family and community care:
- Moving Forward: Implementing the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children provides a comprehensive overview.
- The Red Latinoamericana de Agocimiento Familiar is a Latin American network dedicated to the right to community and family-based care. It offers many materials to support the process of moving away from orphanages. Among its resources are contacts by country for individuals and organizations dedicated to child wellbeing and care.
- ACCI, in Austrialia, recently launched an excellent website dedicated to preserving families, preventing abandonment, scaling down orphanages, and developing family-based care.
If you want people to be able to give their best and actually contribute when they volunteer, please share this post. No one wants to let good intentions reinforce perverse incentives that do real harm.
Can international service be done well? Absolutely. Throughout the coming months we will feature additional blog posts on that theme. In November we will offer a series of posts as part of a special section on global service-learning in The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning. That series will include profiles of strong programs.
If you’d like to engage this conversation: make a comment below, post on social media, or sign up for email notifications of blog posts by using the box on the right. Thanks, as always, for reading. Let’s raise the conversation on quality in international engagements.
EXTRA: For more background on the harms and dangers relating to orphanage tourism, check:
- Daniela Papi’s Why You Should Say NO to Orphanage Tourism in the Huffington Post
- Cambodia’s Booming New Industry: Orphanage Tourism by Morgan Hartley and Chris Walker in Forbes
- NYU Stern School of Business Dean Connor Grennan’s Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal about his experiences in Nepal that led him to develop an NGO dedicated to returning children to their families and communities. Grennan’s NGO has also put together a frequently asked questions document for orphanage tourism. The book has been picked up as a common first year reading at numerous colleges and universities in the US.
Eric Hartman is an Assistant Professor in the School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University and serves as editor of globalsl.org.
The photo at the top of this page is part of the Think Child Safe Campaign.