In recent years the popularity of ‘voluntourism’ has exploded and a huge number of people are now combining a holiday with the feel good factor of ‘giving back’ to the places they visit. At face value it is a hard thing to criticise – what could be wrong with giving up some of your time to help others?

The concept is a great one and there are many aspects of voluntourism that should be celebrated but the unfortunate truth is; that hidden behind the veil of ‘doing good’ there are many cases of exploitation, with unscrupulous individuals and organisations making large sums of money from tourists desire to help.

The other unfortunate truth is that many of us put our own saviour complex first and avoid thinking about the consequences of our actions. Take a look at the Barbie Savior; an Instagram parody account.

But the consequences can be devastating, particularly for children. The rise in voluntourism and interest from tourists to visit, donate and volunteer at orphanages has led to a profit making model that is tearing families apart.

According to UNICEF figures most of the 12,000 children in Cambodia’s orphanages are, in fact, not orphans. Nearly three quarters of them have one living parent. In Haiti 80% of the 32,000 orphans living there have one or two living parents.

In developing countries all over the world children are being separated from their families on the promise of a better life. This is a promise that is never fulfilled. Instead of a nurturing environment and proper education, children become poverty commodities, used to raise money from well-intentioned but misinformed fee-paying foreign volunteers and donors. Almost 90% of ‘orphanages’ in Nepal are located in the top five tourist districts for this reason.

Volunteering aside, there are a myriad of problems surrounding orphanages and institutional care itself with family based care systems proven to be far better for children.

Institutionalisation denies children individual love and care, can damage their brain development and destroy their understanding of right and wrong.  Of the 8 million children in institutions worldwide, more than 90% are not orphans.  Most have families who love them and want them but they are driven into institutions because of poverty and discrimination on the grounds of disability or ethnicity. – LUMOS

Protection, attachment and development issues

Not only does orphanage tourism break up families, it places vulnerable children at risk and is emotionally damaging – children can become quickly attached to volunteers who up and leave a few weeks later.

Children living or studying in schools, orphanages or slums shouldn’t be exposed to tourist visits. – ChildSafe Movement

Under international law, children in orphanages have the same rights as children across the world to a safe and private home setting.

Short-term orphanage visits from tourists and travellers lowers a child’s privacy inside their own home. Additionally, reports show that short-term visits can cause harm to a child’s development and emotional well-being. We think everyone agrees that children need safety, privacy and stability. – ChildSafe Movement

There are lots of great organisations working with vulnerable children and their families. Unfortunately there are also many organisations who operate without proper child protection policies in place including some that neglect to check the backgrounds of their short and long term visitors and volunteers. This leaves children open to mistreatment and abuse. Ask yourself, would you be allowed to visit orphanages in your own country without proper procedures? The answer is almost certainly no, so why should this be okay in other countries?

Ultimately if you visit an orphanage, no matter how good your intent is, you’ll likely be harming the children you are trying to help.

What you can do to help

Help to stop orphanage tourism by raising awareness of the issues and informing your fellow travellers.

The majority of people who visit and volunteer at orphanages are completely unaware of the damage they may be causing.  When they later find out many are left with feelings of regret about their experience.

Help to prevent misguided trips to orphanages by sharing this article and spreading the message of organisations like the ChildSafe Movement who offer great advice for travellers including 7 key tips to help protect children. 

Do your research and give your support to organisations who are making a positive impact

At Backpacker Bible we are proud to be official supporters of the ChildSafe Movement and share their belief that the best way for tourists and travellers to support vulnerable children and their families is to support vocational training and community based initiatives rather than visiting an orphanage directly.

Take a look at the following resources to find responsible travel advice and projects you can support that are having a positive impact on the host community.

ChildSafe Movement, great organisations to support: http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforedonating/support-these-organizations/

ChildSafe Movement, travel tips: http://thinkchildsafe.org/when-i-travel/

ChildSafe Movement, volunteering advice: http://thinkchildsafe.org/when-i-volunteer/

Backpacker Bible, responsible travel – take a look at our volunteering and country specific pages: http://backpackerbible.org/responsible-travelling/

UNICEF, travel tips to avoid orphanage tourism: http://www.unicef.org.au/blog/august-2016/travel-tips-avoid-orphanage-tourism