How you can help children without volunteering in an orphanage

Here are some alternatives to volunteering in orphanages.
Photo: roberto volterra/CC BY-NC 2.0/ Flickr

Recently, Words in the Bucket (WIB) published an opinion piece, titled, “to stop the institutionalization of children, stop volunteering in orphanages.” This piece argued that the increase of foreigners wanting to volunteer with children in developing countries has led to an increase in orphanages and, subsequently, the number of children in orphanages.

The article also addressed the negative consequences for children who grow up in residential-care institutions, abusive and corrupt orphanages, and called for a focus on more sustainable solutions.

The natural response to this is, “but what is the alternative?” Meaning both what are the alternatives for children, as well as what are the alternatives for people who want to help them.

Understanding push and pull factors

It is important to understand the push and pull factors that result in a child being separated from their families and becoming institutionalized. This knowledge makes clear where resources should be directed in order to address the underlying causes of the problem.

For example, Alternative Care Uganda, a civil society and government partnership supporting orphanage alternatives in Uganda, outlines several factors in the Ugandan Context.  These include poverty as the primary reason as well as illness or parental death, disability, lack of access to services (i.e. education), discrimination (i.e. minorities or children born out of marriage), and displacement or emergencies.

This is written with the caveat that the contextual factors at play in each scenario must be taken into consideration. Each child, family, and nation face different challenges which have resulted in the institutionalization of children. Solutions should be considered on a case by case basis with the child’s rights, safety, and security taking precedence.

Alternatives to Orphanages

We know that four out of five children living in residential care institutions have one or more living parent. In many developing countries, when a parent wants to care for their child but is unable due to family crises or financial difficulties, their only viable option is to turn their child over to an orphanage.

In these cases, the long-term solution would be to enact social protection policies which provide aid to struggling families and allow children to remain with their families.

Ghana, for example, in an effort to deinstitutionalize children in the country enacted a number of social protection schemes. The most notable of which is the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) program which was introduced in 2007 to provide cash transfers to extremely poor households across the country.

In a 2016  interview with UNICEF, an employee of the Department of Social Welfare stated Ghana’s intention to close down many residential care homes, especially those which do not comply with the national standards. Orphanages that stay open will be those operating as a temporary home, intending to find a permanent solution for children within 3-6 months.

Organizational Alternatives

However, not every government is poised to consider social protection policies and they are especially difficult to enact in countries with high levels of informal employment. To mitigate this, different actors, beyond governments, are showing greater involvement in social protection. These range from locally based community organizations to national and international NGOs.

Accompanying the rise in social protection initiatives is an increasing trend in organizations dedicated solely supporting children in orphanages return to their parents or extended families and ending the institutionalization of children.

Many of these have been started by former volunteers in specific regions who realized the harmful nature of the orphan industry, such as Alternative Care Initiatives in Uganda and Next Generation Nepal. Meanwhile, the Lumos Foundation works on a global scale.

What about children who do not have a loving family?

When stating that four out of five children in orphanages have one or more living parent, we can’t ignore the one who doesn’t nor the one who would alternatively be in an abusive household.

“Ethical volunteering is important because well-intentioned talented volunteers can make a positive impact.”

Alternative Care Uganda has created an alternative care framework which provides some useful guidelines for understanding what the better options are for children in these situations.  

Child Protection

When care by the immediate family is not possible, the next preferred solution is care by extended family, mirroring the policy in many Western countries where preference is given to an adult relative before a non-related caregiver. In the case that family-based care does not provide a viable solution, it is possible to turn to community-based care models.

Community-based care refers to support programs which are carried out by organizations to enable children to remain in a family environment (albeit not their own). In the short-term, this may look like a foster family and could extend to domestic adoptions.

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It’s important to note that any of these options require gatekeeping, such as social workers and family support services, to ensure children are properly looked after in any of these contexts.

Currently, funding for child protection is heavily focused on institutional care, leaving alternative care options underdeveloped despite research showing that institutional care is the more costly option.

Alternatives for Volunteers

For those individuals and groups who want to donate their time, skills, or money to support children in an ethical and sustainable manner, there are some considerations:

First, direct your search to organizations that support family and community-based care models. The following list of websites, provided by Next Generation Nepal, is a good place to begin your search for an ethical volunteering placement.

There are general considerations which apply to volunteers in any setting as well. As Next Generation Nepal tells us, “Ethical volunteering is important because well-intentioned talented volunteers can make a positive impact.” they continue saying that it is key to research the placement and ask a few questions during your deliberation “I am benefiting from this, but are the beneficiaries? Am I displacing local workers? Am I truly qualified to do what is being asked? Taking a bit of time to make sure you chose the right organization ensures that no one is hurt by your choices.”

Finally, if in answering these questions you reach a negative conclusion, know that being an ethical tourist and supporting local economies is a commendable option as well.  

Claire McMahon

Claire is a researcher at a non-profit in San Francisco which is dedicated to engaging the public in a broad range of international affairs issues. Previously, she worked in Nepal where she conducted a study on women's workloads and the gendered division of labor in the context of community forestry. She received her MSc in International Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2017 and has bachelor’s degrees in international policy and anthropology. Claire is particularly interested in advocating for gender equity and human rights, whether that's in her own backyard or within a global context.
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Words In The Bucket is a team of global citizens with the common goal of raising awareness and information about issues related to human rights protection, social inclusion, development and environment.

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