I have to say upfront that this is a long post. Longer than what I would normally write. But there is little I want to edit and there is in fact more that I want to say. I spent a very troubled day yesterday when a friend asked me to send her some articles on volunteering in orphanages.
Sometime back I had read an article on how the whole idea of overseas volunteering was being exploited by some business operators to earn profits. The operators would organize volunteering visits or projects for foreigners in orphanages and after seeing the poor state of children, the volunteer, in all good faith, leaves a donation. The donation instead of being used for the children is pocketed by the owner.
So I set out to find articles on the same and forward her, little did I know that there will be no end to it once I start. NGOs, media, and personal blogs everyone had something to say on the ‘orphanage trade’. Most referred to the UNICEF report on rise in orphanages with a rise in tourism in Cambodia. While the official study is done only in Cambodia, the situation will not be very different in other developing countries. The report brings to front hard facts like since 2005, orphanages in Cambodia have increased by 75%, a number coinciding with the growth in tourism. What’s even more shocking is that only about 1/4th of the children living in the orphanages are actually orphans. Many have been separated from their families.
Why? Why should children be separated from their family? Why should a rise in tourism have any relation with rise in the number of orphanages?
Volunteers want to volunteer in orphanages. Volunteers want to do something for the war-torn country. The business operators see an opportunity. They open orphanages; find ‘orphans’; get volunteers and then solicit donations.
It’s just a demand and supply equation. An equation that is exploiting both the volunteer’s best intentions and the local family’s poverty. An article goes further to say that in the worst case children are ‘rented’ or ‘bought’ from the family because they can earn money by pretending to be poor orphans.
At first I was fairly shocked by reading all these articles. But then I thought in Cambodia like many other developing countries in Asia and Africa, poverty is widespread. In many cases if the child is with the family, he/she will be engaged in child labour; he/she will be malnourished and he/she will most likely have a low life expectancy. If the orphanage can provide education and food to the child, then probably that is what the parents thought was best for the child. I mean I have to assume that there is a moral dilemma involved here for the parent otherwise the child is actually an orphan. But then I saw the Aljazeera film which showed how the children are abused and kept in “deliberate poverty” in the orphanages.
Some people questioned that there is no police check for volunteers and they are allowed to freely interact with children, while in their countries (developed countries like US, UK, Australia and NZ) any person working with children has to go through a police check. As a resident of a developing country, I can surely say that unlike developed countries police checks are not a possibility here. Leave volunteers, even the staff of NGOs working with children do not undergo a police check. The most that the NGOs can do is to get references from former employers. I am myself guilty of volunteering with many NGOs working with children and not having undergone a police check. But yes in every NGO where I volunteered, my first interaction was with the staff and then only I was allowed to interact with children.
Another issue pointed out is that voluntourism projects may have adverse emotional and psychological effects. Many volunteers want to give all the love and care to the children, thus building strong emotional bonds. However, when they leave, these bonds are broken and the children are once again left alone. As a volunteer, I can understand the urge to work ‘hands on’ with the beneficiary; but I can also reason out with myself that maybe my skills will have a greater impact if I work with the staff. For example: I know a lot of games with children and I can engage them for long; but instead of playing for a couple of days with children it will be better if I train the staff who works with those children every day in those games. Don’t you agree? Yes I didn’t get to meet the children, yes I didn’t get to click a happy photo; but was that the purpose of my volunteering?
The reports and articles are not to dissuade the volunteer but to emphasize that in countries where systems are not so strong it is largely the organisation’s and volunteer’s responsibility to ensure child safety. We cannot get rid of all the unscrupulous elements in society but we can identify and avoid the traps.
Better and responsible volunteering is as much as our responsibility as the organisation we volunteer through and volunteer for.
Some of articles I referred to for understanding ‘orphanage tourism’ and child safe volunteering/ travel:
- UNICEF: A study of attitudes towards Residential Care in Cambodia –
- Thomas Perry: Voluntourism Traps by Thomas Perry
- Human Sciences Research Council: Inside the thriving industry of AIDS orphan tourism
- Aljazeera : Cambodia’s Orphan Business
- The Independent: Cambodia’s orphanages target the wallets of well-meaning tourists
- Friends-International: Childsafe Campaigns