Ethical Volunteering - Things To Know About Volunteering With Orphans

reading to orphansIn some countries, especially in Asia, it’s a fairly common sight to see a number of children walking in the street in procession, singing or playing a variety of traditional instruments. They are led along by adults with placards reading "Support our orphans." Anyone who makes a donation is then invited to visit the nearby orphanage, and perhaps even spend some time working there.

This eye-catching display is often a blatant attempt to reel tourists in; tugging on their heart-strings with painful stories of bereavement, abandonment and poverty. Some orphanages rely on a less direct approach: websites filled with pictures of sad street children becoming happy in the nurturing care and bounty of the orphanage, funded by YOU as a privileged Westerner. Look at the difference you could be making! Some of these sites also link with those of various local guest-houses or hotels, or tour companies that advertise volunteering work with the orphans while you have your holiday of a lifetime.

Only the most impervious of hearts could fail to be stirred by this emotive imagery, and many become keen to work with society’s most vulnerable and needy members. But volunteers must beware: some orphanages are merely part of a booming business venture, capitalising on Western guilt and the suffering of the country’s own children. It’s been reported by witnesses that many of these innocent-seeming ‘orphanages’ are even made to look deliberately poor and run-down, and the children particularly ragged and needy, while the owners live in luxury far from the premises. Well-meaning westerners are naturally inclined to step up and donate time and money, thereby inadvertently promoting this cruel and unethical practice. This is, unfortunately, only a small facet of the dark side of helping the developing world.

The so-called "orphans" might have been rented for the day, enticed away from families with the promise of money or food for a longer period, or maybe even BOUGHT from very poor families. An official study of orphanages in various developing countries found that only about 25% of the children in these facilities have actually lost both parents or have been abandoned. Even worse statistics – in Cambodia the number of fake “orphanages” has increased by 65% in the last 5 years.

Other unfortunate side-effects of helping impoverished communities worldwide have been uncovered. Foreign aid which is unregulated or mismanaged, may encourage corruption and despotism amongst community leaders, and destroy fragile local business structures. Similarly, mass donations of cheap food and clothes by various welfare organisations may encourage a dependency culture and the destruction of entrepreneurship. Lately, the rot has been observed in the volunteering sector – which, when aligned with tourism, is the fastest-growing element of one of the fastest-growing industries on Earth, and therefore it has an element of vulnerability.

In southern and western Africa, various projects have been discovered that offer "Aids orphan tourism.” Tourism companies include a visit to an orphanage in their holiday packages, alongside the usual beach or safari trips. It can be argued that strolling around taking photographs of orphans, who may be traumatised witnesses of the deaths of both parents, reduces vulnerable children to the status of mere objects of interest rather than fellow human beings, and is to be strongly discouraged.

There has been massive growth in the number of unregistered and therefore uncontrolled orphanages in countries like South Africa and Ghana. A government study found up to 90% of an estimated 4 500 children in a group of orphanages had at least one healthy parent, and many had both. UNICEF officials said children's welfare was a distant second to profit-making in these places, with figures of less than one-third of income estimated as going towards actual child care.

In many cases, the demands of wealthy visitors undermine the needs of impoverished communities. Unethical tourist companies and volunteer organisations use orphanages in their sales pitches because they work well for Western societies – after all, needy children have a particularly special place in the social consciousness, and we all want to help those who “can’t help themselves”. Volunteers are often used to perform work for free that locals were (or could be) doing, while donating their resources and money to the business. Not only is this economically harmful to the community in the long run, it could also stir up resentment. Well-managed, ethical projects become harder to run and may experience more difficulty in obtaining funds from legitimate sources. Volunteers who realise they have been duped will report their experiences back home, and ethical volunteering projects then becomes tainted in the public perception alongside the bad ones.

Volunteers with a naïve or romanticised idea of doing good and making changes may be drawn in and unknowingly support environments that may be abusive or neglectful of children – but of course, this is not the case across the board. Many orphanages in developing countries are run with the needs of children paramount, and no greedy owners looking to use them to milk tourists and volunteers for profit. You can avoid falling into their trap if you do your research, raise awareness if you find a project that looks ‘fishy’, and engage with volunteers who have worked previously at the place in question. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be part of the solution and not the problem.


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