Orphanage tourism, a no-go?

After your secondary school, after your bachelor degree, after your master degree or in between, taking a gap year is hot! A lot of students who take a gap year will travel and they often combine traveling with volunteering. As Emmy wrote in our Destination Magazine, voluntourism is rising. This article goes into depth on one specific aspect of voluntourism, namely volunteering in orphanages. In this form of voluntourism, participants pay to work for a certain period in an orphanage and they often have a supportive role in the upbringing of the children. The good work and the generosity of these volunteers is of course shared on Facebook or other social media. Despite the noble intentions of these volunteers, there are some issues in this type of voluntourism that need to be addressed.

First of all, most of the children in orphanages in developing countries have one or more living parents, or other family members. At least 80% of the children in care institutions are not real orphans. See the infographic for the exact percentages of some selected countries.

Percentage of children in institutions with one or both parents alive

(Csáky, 2009)

The next question is then, why do those children live in a care institution while they are not real orphans? Poverty is the most important reason for this, according to Defense for Children. An orphanage can provide shelter, food, education and healthcare. In some countries, the supply of western volunteers created a demand for orphans and orphanages. A voluntourism industry that brings volunteers and orphanages together thus appeared, and volunteers pay companies in this industry for this ‘service’. When more money comes into this industry, orphanages become more appealing for poor families with children. It then becomes an industry with perverse incentives and children are the victims. 

Furthermore, growing up in an orphanage can be very harmful for a child. It is not without reason that the ninth article of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says: “The child has a right to live with his or her parents”. Researchers found that children in institutional care show delays in the physical, hormonal, cognitive and emotional development. This is partly due to the fact that children cannot develop long-term relationships with their caregivers. After a few months, volunteers leave the orphanages and continue their journey. However, the children stay in the orphanages, and they can experience a lot of painful goodbyes. Such disrupted attachments have negative impacts on the self-image of children, their trust in adults and their capability to develop relationships. In fact, children need a routine with permanent caregivers.

The expertise of volunteers is also an important aspect to discuss. Volunteers do not always have the appropriate education for working with vulnerable children. There are strict requirements in most western countries for people who work with children, especially for working with vulnerable children. These requirements do not always apply to volunteers, and these double standards can harm children in orphanages. In worst case scenarios, people with bad intentions can also access vulnerable children.

Fortunately, institutions are more and more aware of the problems associated with orphanage tourism. In 2014, Unicef started a campaign against this type of voluntourism. Organizations like Defense for Children, Save the Children, the Child Safe Movement and the Better Care Network also highlighted the issues around orphanage tourism. This attention resulted in more awareness among possible volunteers. For example, pictures of volunteers with orphans on social media are criticized by other users. There is even a website created where a mockery is made of these volunteers: Pictures of them with orphans, found on dating sites, are posted on the website Humanitarians of Tinder. Besides these social media ‘judges’, politicians also try to fight the current form of orphanage tourism. In March 2019, the Dutch parliamentarian Wybren van Haga called for a ban on orphanage tourism. This actually already happened in Australia, which in 2018 was the first country to prohibit the act of falsely inducing children into orphanages. It is even considered as a form of child slavery. 


But should we stop with voluntourism at all then? That is not the best option, as voluntourism can be really beneficial for receivers as well! However, caution is essential and you should definitely be well informed before you undertake it. Ask yourself some relevant questions. Would I also volunteer if I would not have a camera with me (for posting pictures on social media for example)? The real question behind the previous question is actually deeper, because it is about your motivation for volunteering. Another question: Would I be able to do the job at home? In other words, am I suitable for the job? Further, you should also investigate whether local people could do the job instead of you, to whom you are paying and what the real effect of your work is. More detailed guidelines are online available, see for example the 10-point checklist from the website Rethink Orphanages. 


So, is orphanage tourism a no-go? Yes, definitely! This type of voluntourism has become a real industry with perverse incentives for parents and owners of orphanages. Moreover, children should not grow up in an orphanage at all, because it is harmful for their development in various ways. This industry could not survive without western tourists, and you therefore you should not volunteer in an orphanage. Happily, there are plenty of other forms of voluntourism and you should look into them. Consult one of the online guidelines and be critical towards the organization and yourself. 




Research about parents of children in institutional care:

Csáky, C. (2009). Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions. From link.

Research about the development of children in institutional care:

Van IJzendorn, H., et al. (2011). Children in institutional care: Delayed development and resilience. From link

by Bart