Media view of harm caused by volunteering with children - 8 things to know

We all know of the horror stories highlighted in the media over the last years about volunteering with children. One particular opinion seems to be the most accepted at the moment: that volunteering in an orphanage or children’s home is harmful to the children and should not be supported.

This opinion is defended with quotes from the International Rights of Children organisation, and other large organisations supporting the general wellbeing of children. My question, however, is whether volunteering at an orphanage is as harmful as they claim it to be, and if their opinion is well-founded - so let’s look at some different angles to see where this opinion came from, and what the motivations are for it.

1. What does the media say about volunteering with children overseas?

The media generalises most, if not all, the issues; and is very subjective when looking at this complicated topic. Some years ago, there were numerous stories, mainly about Cambodia, where it was discovered that children are placed in homes to play orphans for the day, and entertain tourists to solicit donations from them. The children are often not even orphans, but are taken from their families – either by force or bribery. The donations were not used for the benefit of those children, but rather a few sly individuals out to con ignorant but well-meaning tourists. We covered this terrible practice in our previous article about ethical volunteering with orphans.

This unfortunate practice has tainted opinions on all orphanages worldwide, and has influenced public opinion on volunteering with children. This has a positive effect in one way at least - visiting orphanages should NOT be part of your holiday itinerary. Children in need are not a tourist attraction and should not be made a spectacle of, so please decline to visit such a place if it’s offered by tour operators as part of your itinerary.

2. Is the media right about the harm caused when volunteering with children?

The negative (and rightly so) public opinion on “poverty tourism” has also been applied to volunteering in an orphanage or children’s home. If you believe the media, and opinions of some organisations, this can only be harmful to children and is grossly irresponsible. It should be noted that most media outlets, organisations or individuals making such claims do not work in the countries affected - they prefer to spread their opinions from warm offices in Western countries, unaffected by poverty and hardship. They make blanket statements like “children should not be living in an orphanage at all.” In an ideal world, every child should live in a loving family environment - but it’s not at all realistic in the actual world we live in.

Some people making these claims state that they have done extensive research on the effects of volunteering with children – this might well be true, but have they pinpointed the huge differences between various countries? Have they looked at country-specific issues regarding the situation of children in the country, the number of orphans in that country, the social structure creating the need for such institutions? Is there civil unrest in the country, or endemic diseases? Cambodia is not Malawi, or Peru, and some “expert opinions” on this complicated subject come from ivory-tower academia rather than first-hand study in the field.

3. Can volunteering with children really be harmful?

Not all children’s homes are the same. There is so much diversity and difference between countries, regions, cities, individual organisations, and ways of volunteering – which makes it impossible to stand behind bold generalising statements about harm to children. Some of it might stem from a neocolonial and possibly arrogant way of deciding what they feel is best for the world – “my way must be the best way!” It’s by no means easy to create policy around such sensitive matters – but making blanket decisions, in the face of such diversity, can surely not be in the best interests of all children!

Volunteering at an orphanage can, of course, be potentially harmful if not properly supervised and coordinated. Do we allow anyone (regardless of background) to come and play with children, do we look at specific skills needed that are lacking, is there professional supervision for volunteers, do they have a background in studies or work experience to justify their volunteer activities, do they provide counseling sessions to children or only come to help with household duties? There are so many questions to consider – but if done with insight and care and a view to harm reduction, volunteering with children can actually be of huge benefit.

4. What are the pitfalls of international volunteers working with children?

One of the biggest claims made about harm to children is that international volunteers come and go -  and then children suffer feelings of abandonment when they develop attachments to volunteers who are generally only there for a short period of time. This is partially true if volunteers become primary caregivers and take on the role of parenting children - but does it also apply when volunteers help with homework, teach kids new games, provide leisure activities, help run the household, and generally take the role of teachers’ assistants? I don't believe so.

Most orphanages, especially those in Africa, don’t have the resources to provide fun play activities for the children, nor do they have staff that are trained even to think that way. The main objective of these institutions is to provide a safe place for children - a roof over their heads, and food in their stomachs. There are probably no facilities to play in, there are probably no available staff members to provide afterschool activities - and yet it’s still claimed that it’s harmful to the children when international volunteers fill those gaps!

5. How do volunteer placement organisations affect volunteering with children?

Some volunteering organisations commercialise the fact that there are people willing to help and orphanages that need help - but where does the money go in these cases? How do they actually support these projects? I’ve seen it in Siem Reap in Cambodia, Arusha in Tanzania, and in Cape Town, South Africa - 20 young, mostly European, women pay to volunteer at an orphanage for 25 children, and have nothing much else to do than spend a lot of time snapping away with their cellphones to upload pictures to their Facebook pages. This is a waste of volunteer time and resources, and can be detrimental to the projects with so many extra people underfoot. It serves no other purpose than to make money for the volunteer organisation – money that could be used effectively elsewhere.

It’s surprising how some well-established companies in the volunteer industry knowingly still push large numbers of volunteers into small projects, where the overflow of unskilled young volunteers is far from beneficial to anyone but the volunteers themselves and their “social standing” amongst their peers. Yes, this is detrimental to the projects, but it’s not the case for all volunteering at all orphanages. Taking these situations as the norm is a skewed and unfair view.

6. How can large social organisations affect volunteering with children?

Another issue in this matter is how some experts in developed countries feel that they should decide what is best for everyone in the world.  An official at a respected aid organisation in the Netherlands recently defended not supporting volunteering at orphanages anywhere in the world – by arguing that no child should live in an orphanage at all, and they should be placed with families instead. It’s sobering to realise that this representative of a large international aid organisation – and therefore, for all intents and purposes, a policy maker - displays such ignorance of the reality of so many children in the world.

Many children raised in such group home environments are actually relatively fortunate, as so many have no other options than to live in abusive homes or on the streets. Utopia is great in theory; but in reality, child neglect, abuse and abandonment is endemic - especially in impoverished countries where such things become a cycle that perpetuates through many generations.  

It’s a shame that policies regarding volunteering with children are often based on such expensive academic research, when broader worldwide realities are not even acknowledged, let alone accounted for in the research. The fact is that there are not enough orphanages in this world to care for the millions of children who have no families, and are left to fend for themselves.

In South Africa alone, it is estimated that over 1 million children live in child-headed homes or on the streets without any adult supervision. Yet, somehow, magically, these millions of children should all be placed with families? Most families in South Africa and elsewhere are ALSO poor. It’s utterly unrealistic to expect them to take in extra children without funding and support.

7. What should researchers be asking about volunteering with children overseas?  

Studies of volunteering with children would do well to talk to the actual children involved, and how they experience foreigners coming to help them. One organisation based their view of no longer supporting any volunteering at orphanages on “extensive research” – namely, interviewing volunteers at a project in Arusha, Tanzania, over a six-week period. These volunteers were unhappy with their situation as they had selected irresponsible volunteer service providers who did not care about the actual project, but only about filling their own pockets.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all providers are unprofessional and unethical. A six-week visit to one project, with no further research into other projects, OR the opinion of the projects, or even the children involved, is not “extensive research”, and it’s certainly not sufficient to base expert opinions on. The organisation in question has positioned themselves as experts in volunteering with orphanages, based on just a fraction of the issues involved!

8. How can volunteers avoid harming vulnerable children?

Volunteering during a gap year at an orphanage or children’s home can be done in many ways, and I fully agree it can be harmful if not done responsibly. That is why Khaya Volunteer Projects has clear criteria for any volunteers working with children - such as a minimum stay of 6 weeks, a police clearance certificate, experience with or studying in the field of social work, child care or related studies, and not being given the role of primary caregivers. 

Local staff at the project are indisputably in charge – and because most projects are understaffed, underpaid and overworked, volunteers can be of incredible value and increase the levels of services provided to the children overall. Volunteering with orphans is beneficial rather than harmful in these situations. We work with projects such as Door of Hope in Port Elizabeth in an ethical and well-managed way.

After working with projects in South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi over the last 12 years, and before that as a Social Worker at a residential care center for children, I believe many things can be harmful to vulnerable children. One such harmful aspect is the subjective shortsighted opinions of international experts, who make broad claims without the extensive knowledge and research to back them up. They encourage the general public to accept their negative views. This is unfortunately harmful to children whose roof over their heads or meal in their stomachs relies on the support and financial provided by international volunteers.

So it’s up to you – the volunteer, gap year student, intern or service learner - to decide for yourself on how to avoid harming vulnerable children. Be critical of opinions and do your research. Ask how many volunteers will be at the project, find out what the selection criteria for volunteers are - and consider that if you are not really equipped to work closely with vulnerable young children, rather choose a project that allows you to work with youth outside of a residential care center; such as Izizwe Projects, where sports, dance, theater and other leisure activities are provided for the youth. 

And as a final message to those bodies who are so negative about volunteering with children - ask the projects themselves, ask the children involved, and only THEN consider publicizing your opinions. Khaya works with selected orphanages and children’s homes and has helped improve the standards of living at these projects over the years. These improvements would have never been made if the opinions of so-called experts in the West reflected the realities in any way. So we consciously continue to work with these projects and look for volunteers who can contribute to their needs - because the positive outweighs the negative so much more if done ethically and responsibly.

See you in Africa


P.S. This article reflects my personal opinion and views based on my experiences over the years working in the internship and volunteer placement industry. If you feel like responding or contributing to this subject, please contact me by email or leave your comments - only open communication can produce real change! 




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