The advent of cheap air travel and Instragammable holiday photos, combined with a longing for meaning, has created a new breed of traveler: the voluntourist. This ever-growing trend describes people, most often young and affluent Westerners, who travel to the global South to help with community projects.
While no doubt sweetly intentioned, there is considerable concern over the fad of “voluntourism” and whether it does more harm than good for the communities in developing countries – especially when it involves children or work at an orphanage. On the surface of the problem, it’s questionable whether treating the developing world as a playground is an effective model to address systemic poverty and care for vulnerable children.
An anthropological study published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism has shown how volunteer programs can actually contribute towards a superficial understanding of poverty that distracts from the larger systems that produce inequality and poverty. Through a series of in-depth interviews with young people from the US who volunteered in Malawi, they found their volunteer work was often carried out through a colonial and “mythologized” image of a helpless Africa needing the benevolence of the West. The volunteers also viewed African poverty in terms of the “American Dream” and the idea of pulling oneself out of poverty through hard work, as opposed to deep-rooted economic, social, and historical factors at play.
But beyond these more abstract worries, there's a strong argument to say voluntourism enables exploitation and encourages child trafficking.
An undercover investigation by Al Jazeera in Cambodia found that Westerners can walk in off the street, without any credentials or even ID, and immediately join as a volunteer at an orphanage. Their undercover reporters were even able to take four children out of an orphanage on an overnight “excursion” without any supervision. Beyond whether volunteers are suitable for this job, the lax attitude towards Western recruits highlights how many of these schemes don't provide the necessary precautions to protect children from sexual abuse.
Research has shown that orphanages can be highly detrimental to a child’s development. Children who experience long periods of institutionalized care often suffer from “post-institutional syndrome", which includes behavioral issues, reduced intellectual capability, and poor physical health. This is even true in well-run and well-funded orphanages because of unstable staffing patterns and inadequate emotional support from carers.
Over 8 million children live in orphanages around the world, but some statistics show that a huge proportion of these kids are not actually orphans. In some parts of the Global South, up to 90 percent of the children in orphanages actually have parents or a family member that could care for them, according to Save the Children Australia. Children are bought or leased by the orphanages with the promise of a better life and better education. However, they are also used in some cases to satisfy the demand for voluntourism and make the voluntourism operations more profitable.
With this comes the problem of human trafficking. Orphanages have become a lucrative business in developing countries and can attract generous funding.
A 2016 report by ECPAT International, a leading children's rights organization, found that children are recruited into orphanages in Nepal and Uganda for the purpose of profit through trafficking from other areas. Children were shown to be removed from their family home and promoted as orphans for the consumption of Western volunteers wishing to engage in voluntourism. In one of their investigations, they concluded: "If not for Australian volunteers and donors, the original twenty children [at a] Nepali orphanage would not have been trafficked and kept separated from their families for eight years." This is a problem that's believed to occur in other parts of the world too, although it remains relatively undocumented due to its shady nature.
But should these problems totally discourage anyone from taking part in volunteering at home or abroad? Not necessarily.
“The problems outlined here do not necessarily mean that volunteer work should be abandoned. In an increasingly violent and xenophobic world, these kinds of cross-cultural engagement can help people understand and appreciate each other,” Andrea Freidus, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, writes in an article for The Conversation.
“But if this is to be achieved, volunteer experiences need to be reframed and programs reworked.“
There is still undoubtedly value and virtue in volunteering, even in different countries. However, it does take some work to make sure it's done ethically and appropriately with the right intentions. It's easy to get sucked into the glamourous packages offered by "volunteering" companies, but these are often businesses looking to make a profit, so closely look at the reputation and history of any organization involved with your volunteering.
Like any major venture you undertake, take a lot of time to research what you're getting into and make an informed choice. You can start by reading these resources and articles: here, here, here, and here.