To stop the institutionalization of children, stop volunteering in orphanages

How well-intentioned foreigners perpetuate the exploitation of children.
Photo: ryanne lai/CC BY-NC 2.0/Flickr

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 This makes the term “orphanage” outdated and inaccurate.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.

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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.  

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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.

Ways Forward

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.
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.
14 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Joseph Talbot
    2 November 2017 at 4:17 pm
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    It’s true that volunteerism is a double-edged sword. It’s also true there are orphanage out there that are run for profit and are exploiting there position to that end. That is an issue of inappropriate commercialisation. It’s true that many children in orphanages aren’t orphans as we would define them; many have one parent.

    It’s also true that the orphanages provide a vital support structure for many families. Being a single-parent family is simply not viable in many cases. Often putting a child in an orphanage is the only way to ensure that they have a roof over the heads and food to eat. Many single parents work two or three job, or have to travel to different towns or even countries to find work. Orphanages provide a vital service in this regard.

    I would be very wary of blanket dismissing orphanages, or of engaging with one as a volunteer. Neither should you simply assume that ‘orphanage = good’ and engage uncritically with an organisation.

    I don’t have a wealth of data t back up these assertions. I do have some experience. I worked in Buea, Cameroon for a year with HINT, an NGO providing computer skills training, small business loans etc. I also visited and fund-raised for HOTPEC orphanage. HOTPEC is run as as NGO, they struggle to cope with the demand for space and food, they don’t turn children away but would never seek to ‘recruit’ a child who has other options.

    There are orphanages that are not run for profit; that exist because there is a need, not because there is an opportunity. I don’t know what the percentages are of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ orphanages, though I’m pretty sure that the reality is not the clear cut, but many shades of grey. Certainly most orphanages work with foreign volunteer agencies if they can, as this can form vital sources of help and support.

    I wouldn’t say that foreign aid and volunteers is the hub of the issue; exploitation is the ket issue here. If an organisation is run for profit, that’s a bad sign. If an organisation is keen to recruit orphans, that’s not a good sign.

    The reality is that poorer countries are not full of people helplessly sitting around waiting for assistance, or crooks waiting to fleece anyone they can get hold of (as some quarter of the press would have you believe) . Certainly those spongers and crooks do exist, but like anywhere else they are a minority. There are also many many people running schools, training centres, health centres oprhanages etc. because if they don’t then there is not education, no health care, no safety net for the many families effected by AIDS, road deaths and other major killers. These organisations stay open any way they can, which certainly includes foreign aid. If volunteers from wealthier countries stop volunteering tomorrow, with all the ancillary fundraising and connections this entails, oprhanages will close, children will be homeless, children will starve.

    By all means be skeptical, do not throw your time or money at organisations uncritically, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The way to stop exploitation is think critically, ask questions, do your homework; simply disengaging will not solve the exploitation problem and will cause greater hardship for many.

  • Avatar
    3 November 2017 at 2:42 am
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    Absolutely valid points!

  • Avatar
    Phyllis beck
    3 November 2017 at 1:19 pm
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    Finding ways to give the extended families or communities of these children the tools and empowerment they lack is the ideal. Institutions can be a temporary help, but if no other strategy comes along to move toward a holistic and more permanent solution, another kind of harm is done to the child. Reuniting children and their families families is much more redemptive than putting vulnerable children into institutions. People who use these children for their own profit are oppressors. I feel strongly that the author of this article is right on target. … I also appreciate Joseph Talbot’s comments above. There is a lot of gray in the efforts people make to help and the reasons why. There is danger in immediately withdrawing from aiding in the care of these children going forward. We need some creative interventions.

  • Avatar
    3 November 2017 at 5:44 pm
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    have you been thoroughly critical of HOTPEC here? what indications have you gotten that this NGO turns children away who still have families? verbal assurances? your own assertions?
    I’m genuinely curious, but also skeptical that you’ve actually done the research

  • Avatar
    3 November 2017 at 5:45 pm
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    my above comment directed @ Joseph Talbot

  • Claire McMahon
    Claire McMahon
    3 November 2017 at 8:38 pm
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    @Josepth Talbot.

    Hi Mr. Talbot, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I do understand what your’e saying in that orphanages can provide a vital support structure. I believe I noted the same thing as you actually in that often, an orphanage is the only option a parent or child has when there is a crisis or they face hardships. What I’m advocating for is for there to be another option for families in these situations. In the case that a child does have a loving parent or adult family member, wouldn’t it be better if there was support for the child to stay with their family? If the parents have to go abroad for work, same argument could be made for extended family or other community members.

    I can see that there are instances when an orphanage could provide a beneficial service, but this service is only beneficial in the short-term (while another family/community based care option is being set up), as a last resort. All too often the orphanage is the only option and for an entire childhood.

    On your last point. I’m also not advocating to disengage completely, rather a redirection of support to organizations that help reunify and support families, or operate under models of family/community based care. Stay tuned for a follow-up on alternative options!

  • Avatar
    9 November 2017 at 8:11 pm
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    Love the article, well written and strong attempt to stay non-biased… but. One thing that threw me was the title, it leads one to believe that your article is swayed to the side of not supporting orphanages at all, hence the well thought out rebuttal from Joseph. I can certainly appreciate your use of it to draw potential readers in, it’s effective!

    One thing I must say, is that it’s a little dangerous to put into people’s minds that orphanages and child help organizations are harvesting children like pumpkins to generate profits for themselves. Many of the places that have the greatest need don’t pay employees, they have volunteers and themselves live in the orphanages, at times struggling to get funding to provide books, food, water, or even sanitation. We should certainly continue to support these organizations, regardless of the risks! You pay your taxes without knowing how the money will be spent, or wasted to purchase a yacht for a politician to sail the South Pacific.

    I do certainly recognize the issues that you mentioned and would love to hear more about it!

    My two cents, whatever it’s worth.


  • Claire McMahon
    Claire McMahon
    13 November 2017 at 9:38 pm
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    Hi Jakub! I appreciate your reply and two cents on the issue. I agree the title may be a bit strong to one side, but it does get people’s attention and it does make my point.

    On your second point, I think people (in general) are smart enough to know that not every single orphanage is corrupt and abusive. My point is not that you should be careful which orphanages you volunteer in or support, but that even the best ones (see section “what about ethical voluntourism”), are not the ideal option for children who have lost parents or children from poor families. This is, of course, not an issue you can solve in a day because we certainly don’t want children on the streets, abused, or malnourished. However, what we can all agree on is that we want what’s best for children, and the facts show that in the majority of cases an orphanage is not that (even the good ones), but too often it is the only option. My hope is that people who read this article might consider donating instead to organizations who reunify families and support children and families BEFORE they end up in an orphanage.

    In the next few days a follow-up piece to this will be published on alternatives for children and volunteers. So stay tuned!
    And again I appreciate your critical engagement with the piece.

  • Avatar
    18 November 2017 at 1:34 pm
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    OMG, what BS! So you´re saying stop volunteering so we can have ethical orphanages? It´s like putting the burden of the tobacco industry and health related issues – on the smokers! Tobacco exists on the market because it is not just tolerated but supported and vastly profitable for the governments and tobacco companies! You don´t ask the smokers to stop smoking while allowing the producers and distributors to put in the market. It´s just the wrong direction.

    Same goes for orphanages – as long as they´re is a commercial value, this is the issue to tackle. Go after those orphanages! Go after those companies! Discredit them, we´re living in the world of instant communication, ruin their reputation if you can´t rely on local governments. You can´t ask people to stop volunteering and being human. It is our nature – our BIOLOGY – to feel sorry when seeing a malnourished and sad child´s face.

    You can´t ask people to stop being human, because – where do we draw the line? We do our due diligence before we apply for a volunteering opportunity each time and sooner or later end up questioning each and every volunteering opportunity? Questioning each and every motive? Make a list of unethical orphanages or locations or NGOs or whatever. Don´t ask people to want to stop helping – for free.

  • Claire McMahon
    Claire McMahon
    19 November 2017 at 8:32 am
    Leave a Reply

    Hi Tatjana!

    I’m actually not saying stop volunteering so we can have ethical orphanages. While best-practice institutions are of course preferable to those out to make a profit, I’m saying that children deserve better than residential care. They deserve families and communities who love and support them. This is afforded to them in the UN Convention of the Rights of Child and in the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Further, I’m not asking anyone to stop helping, I’m asking them to consider redirecting how they help, i.e. to those organizations that facilitate family and community based care models. My apologies if I was not clear!

    Our desire to help does not excuse the harmful impact our actions may have.

    Thanks for reading! I encourage you to check out the follow-up

    • Avatar
      19 November 2017 at 11:14 pm
      Leave a Reply

      You should edit the original post with a link to your follow up piece! A few people asked me what they should do instead when I shared this. I’m sure many people reading it don’t scroll through all the comments!

      • WiB Team
        WiB Team
        21 November 2017 at 12:04 pm
        Leave a Reply

        Will do so Brian, Thankyou!!!

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