SAY NO TO ORPHANAGE VOLUNTEERING: Why volunteering in orphanages is not in the best interests of children
On the surface volunteering in orphanages sounds like a noble cause. Eight million children are estimated to be living in orphanages worldwide
Indeed many well-intentioned Canadian volunteers travel abroad, even to volatile countries, to help children living in orphanages. This practice has become an increasingly popular venture and even got a new name “voluntourism”.
But once we scratch the surface, “orphanage voluntourism” has become a cause of concern for Save the Children and organizations alike. We strongly advocate against volunteering in orphanages and encourage people to look for other alternative ways to support children in need.
Children come to live in orphanages because of abuse, violence, poverty, parental illness such as HIV AIDS, disability or humanitarian disasters such as wars or tsunamis. They are very vulnerable and many have suffered trauma. Yet this type of institutional care is not a solution, nor is it in the best interests of the child.
Years of research have shown that in fact, orphanages have negative impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children.
In Canada, we have moved away from orphanages as such to a family-like type of care, such as foster care. Orphans here are raised a family environment. So why should we support a type of institution abroad that has been abolished here?
Volunteering can only worsen the situation. Here is why:
Furthermore, orphanages who take volunteers usually have very limited resources to conduct necessary procedures or legal systems in place to carry out background checks. Without adequately vetting all volunteers this can put children at risk of predators and further abuse.
The other issue is detachment. Volunteers spend a limited time in the orphanages, but they do create bonds with children. Every time a volunteer leaves, children are left behind, repeating the cycle of abandonment, which can have adverse effects on their well-being and development.
But the most perverse effect of volunteering in orphanages is the more people do it, the more orphanages become profitable. This creates the need for a growing the orphanage “industry” and can perpetuate a supply and demand chain for child trafficking. We have come across of many cases of children being trafficked into orphanages for the sole purpose of generating funds.
How can you help?
Did you know that 80% of the children in orphanages worldwide actually have at least one living parent? And those who don’t have parents often have grandparents or relatives who could take care of them?
Rather than reinforcing and strengthening the orphanage system, we need to prioritize understanding, and address the root causes of why children are separated from their families in the first place. We must create the means for their families and communities to be able to sufficiently care for them.
Save the Children, together with the Better Care Network, established the Better Volunteering Better Care global initiative to promote more responsible alternatives to orphanage volunteering.
If you still want to volunteer, the best way is to support programs that promote sustainable solutions and alternatives to orphanages including family strengthening, economic development, social work training, family-based care alternatives, and the development of laws and policies to protect children.
So before making your decision as to where to help, educate yourself, ask questions about the work that the organisation you are interested do (is it sustainable, does it involve the community, do they have strong procedures that vet volunteers), evaluate what skills you will bring to this community. A good tip: put yourself in the shoes of those who you are planning to support and see if this is something you would like for yourself!
Additional resources to read before making your choice:
- Better Volunteering Better Care
- Testimony from Anna McKeon after volunteering in an orphanage
- Blog on ethical volunteering
- Some tips for making SMARTER volunteer tourism decisions
Olivia Lecoufle is a Child Protection Advisor and global lead on Children and Harmful Work for Save the Children Canada.