There has been a lot of bad press lately about volunteer tourism and I’ve heard a few horror stories myself, such as local teachers being dismissed because the school knew that a volunteer teacher was on there way. Even more disturbing still though are cases involving vulnerable children being exploited in orphanages.
Just the phrase sends shivers down your spine. What has tourism got to do with orphanages? In some countries quite a lot.
On my second visit to West Africa, back in 2007, I went on an organised tour which included visiting an orphanage. I loved it, lots of doe-eyed little children to photograph, but would we allow herds of people into to our orphanages here in the UK, all clicking away with their cameras? Of course not. So why is it OK to do this in any other country? I hold my hand up; I’m as guilty as the next person.
Volunteering in orphanages
When it comes to volunteering in orphanages further problems arise as volunteers arrive and are encouraged to form a bond with the children. Sooner or later, they leave and the children feel abandoned. New volunteers arrive and then leave. And so it continues.
Orphanage numbers on the rise
Shockingly, in extreme cases, the abuse of children goes far deeper still. In some countries it is believed that many of the children in these homes are not even orphans. They may well have a parent still living or a close relative that they could live with but, all too often, little has been done to enable them to stay with the parent or a member of their extended family. This is because orphanage tourism is BIG business; some people pay a lot of money to volunteer or simply to visit. The number of orphanages in many countries is rising alarmingly and I do not believe that this is because there has been a rise in the number of orphans.
In the worse cases it is believed that these institutions are actually set up solely to make money from tourists. The children, looking scruffy and malnourished, are there solely to pull on the tourists heart-strings.
Concern is so great that ResponsibleTravel.com have temporarily withdrawn all orphanage volunteering opportunities from their website while industry leaders develop best practice guidelines.
Responsible orphanages and volunteering
The down side of this is that if people stop visiting genuine orphanages and as a result, stop donating, I can imagine that some will struggle to look after the children in their care.
The organisation I visited back in 2007 was the SOS Children’s Village in The Gambia. The children looked happy, healthy, smartly dressed and were receiving a good education. Each lived in a family unit, with the same ‘mother’ from when they arrived at the orphanage until they left (and probably beyond). Since my visit they have stopped all such group tours. Instead they have visiting times from Tues to Thurs, 10.30am – 12.30pm where, by appointment only, you may meet with the director, take gifts or contributions and learn about how the village is run.
Further more on their website they clearly explain why they do not offer volunteer placements to people who do not live locally as they require long-term commitments.
There are still many volunteer organisations that are well run but as a prospective volunteer it is not always easy to tell which is which. One thing I would like to say here though is that if all it takes is a click on a drop down menu on a website to sign up as a volunteer – look elsewhere.