A church in the Midwestern U.S. raises money for some of its members to travel to Uganda and volunteer with the orphanage they partner with. They show photos of church members with the children and the community lauds them for their good work.
The church has raised over $200,000 for the orphanage over the years and its members are eager to bring toys, love, and their religious teachings to the children. When an outsider asks if the orphanage they partner with works to reunify families, they’re unsure.
An Increasing trend
This scenario represents the increasing trend in what is called voluntourism, a term used to describe short-term volunteering done by foreigners. In many cases, the volunteer does not need any prior skills.
Typical voluntourist activities include construction, teaching, and conservation, but one of the largest markets are projects involving children—notably—orphanages.
According to the Lumos Foundation, a British INGO promoting an end to the institutionalization of children worldwide, there are an estimated 8 million children living in orphanages and similar institutions globally. International NGO Save the Children says that four out of five of these children have one or more living parent or family member who could care for them. This makes the term “orphanage” outdated and inaccurate.
Families convinced to institutionalise their children to meet demands
The vast majority of children living in these institutions worldwide are not orphans, they are children from poor families. Across regions, research from Better Care Network and Save the Children agree that poverty is the major underlying cause of children being received into institutional care as parents seek better access to services and material conditions for their children.
In many cases, orphanages are run as for-profit enterprises capitalising off well-intentioned foreigners who donate money, visit, and volunteer. To meet the demand of tourists who want to support poor children, according to Save the Children, there are many cases of orphanage managers taking children from their parents after convincing them they would be better off in the institution.
In these situations, there is often blatant deception, as journalist Kate van Doore puts it in a 2015 article in The Conversation. For example, Next Generation Nepal, a Nepali NGO dedicated to returning children in orphanages to their families, describes how in Nepal a common practice is for “recruiters” to target families who live in rural areas with poor access to education. They then convince the family that their child will receive better education at a boarding school, and “recruit” several children from the village to support the guise.
Children are then sold to orphanages and documents are forged to change their names and produce death certificates for their parents.
Does voluntourism really help?
The “orphanage” can profit in many ways. Some charge a fee to voluntourists who also help the institution by offering free labor. Others have children dance, sing, or even beg, to encourage donations.
Sometimes children are deliberately kept in poor conditions to elicit sympathy from tourists and generate more funds for owners.
In Cambodia, over the last decade the number of orphanages has risen by 75 percent, says Save the Children, despite the fact that the number of orphans in the country has significantly reduced. In Uganda, as reported by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, the number of children living in orphanages has increased by 1600 percent since 1992. According to Next Generation Nepal, 90 percent of orphanages in Nepal is located in the most popular tourist hot-spots.
This shows a direct link between the increasing institutionalization of children and the support from donors and volunteers engaged in supporting these institutions. As one tour operator who organizes placements for tourists in orphanages and schools put it in an article on Huffington Post, “Everyone wants to play with kids. It’s the biggest seller. We need to find more placements for these people since there is so much demand for it.”
But what about ethical voluntourism?
The argument could be made for thorough vetting and research on institutions before embarking on your volunteer trip, ensuring you are engaging in ethical voluntourism. However, the problem is not just with the previously referenced corrupt and abusive institutions where children are taken from their families and not properly cared for.
“Everyone wants to play with kids. It’s the biggest seller. We need to find more placements for these people since there is so much demand for it.”
Even when orphanages are bona-fide best practice institutions, research from Save The Children shows that they are never beneficial and should only be used as a last resort. Instead, the focus should be on addressing the underlying causes and directing funds which are currently going to residential-care institutions to family and community-based care.
One of the reasons that orphanages are not beneficial is that they are a costly and inefficient way to address poverty and household stress. In fact, research by Better Care Network found that institutional care is more expensive per child than a community of family-based care.
More importantly, orphanages have negative implications for the children who grow up in them. Child development specialists have consistently agreed that residential institutions fail to meet children’s developmental needs for attachment, social integration, and acculturation. Further research has shown that children who grow up in institutions are at a serious risk of mental, physical, and developmental delays.
A particular shortcoming is that children in orphanages worldwide don’t experience any continuity in care. Staff generally operates on a rotating basis and new volunteers and visitors are constantly coming in. As a result, children who grow up in orphanages often have trouble forming and maintaining relationship well into their adult lives.
Often, families are those in the best place to care for their children, but those suffering from chronic poverty or surviving on irregular income struggle to provide. It is in these situations that families can feel as if putting their children in a residential care facility is their only option. In areas with a lack of social welfare systems or services, orphanages promise to provide the basic necessities that they are unable to provide.
With poverty being the primary reason for families relinquishing their children to orphanages, the underlying causes must be addressed in order to end the institutionalization of children.
In Uganda, research by Mark Riley, founder of Alternative Care Initiatives, a Ugandan NGO supporting the implementation of family and community-based care models, found that mission trips to the country where an orphanage visit was the primary component totalled $5m a year.
Meanwhile, the cost of closing an orphanage of 30 children, addressing the reasons for separation, and supporting families for at least a year is $12,000.
There is a need to reform the child care system and clear solutions to do so. However, while well-meaning donors and volunteers from abroad continue to create a demand for orphanages, they will continue to exist. And while they do, those who aim to make a profit off of this will continue to exist as well; making recognizing this problem the first step in solving it.
Editor's Note: read our follow up informative piece on how you can help children without volunteering in orphanages.