Orphanage visits: Are they ever okay?

Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

When I started studying short-term overseas volunteer trips, I noticed how many involved brief (1-2 days) visits to orphanages. My immediate response was one of distress—how can such a short visit be good for the children? These are kids who have presumably already been abandoned by family, so is it not adding to their trauma to make warm and fun connections (at least as evidenced in volunteers’ photos) with a series of different visitors, who then quickly abandon them? When I expressed this concern to my smart and experienced friend Gail, she insisted that it was surely better than being left barely tended to for long stretches of time, as is the case in some orphanages. But I still had to wonder, is it better? What do we know about the impact on children? And what about the scams I learned about from my colleague Heather, who told me about reports of orphanages created to make money for their owners?

My research focused on health-related volunteering, so I was glad to avoid studying the “orphanage tourism” concern that made me so uncomfortable. But I learned that some groups, particularly community churches sending missions to poor countries, combine a few days of health clinic with a day or two of orphanage visiting. And as I started speaking frequently about effective and ethical global volunteering practices, I could not get away from this issue. I began to read more about it.

With the question raised by Gail most prominent in my mind, and knowing that many orphanages are run by responsible dedicated people, I continued to wonder if orphanage visits can ever be positive. I posed the question at a recent meeting of the GASP Working Group – the Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels – a group of colleagues whom I greatly respect for their work devoted to improving short-term volunteering.

“Can orphanage visits ever be a good thing?” Their unanimous and resounding response was NO.

Why so emphatic? It turns out that there are many reasons, and others have articulated them very well. Eric Hartman has written convincingly about this topic and about the international campaign to end orphanage tourism. UNICEF and Save the Children UK are part of the worldwide campaign, which you can read more about here.

Stephen Ucembe, a former orphanage resident in Kenya, makes an eloquent argument in support of the campaign. He has become active in supporting children in family settings rather than orphanages.

What are the main objections offered by these writers? There are the ones I knew about—the negative effects on children of forming ties that are broken, over and over again. And the money-making scams.

But there are others:

  • There is no screening of volunteers, and some of them turn out to be pedophiles. Why do we assume that all foreign visitors have good intentions? We would not allow just anyone to interact with children, orphans or not, in the US without background checks.
  • Related to the scams, the arrival of orphanage visitors creates very strong financial incentives for people to build and expand orphanages, often taking in children who are not actually orphans. There are also incentives to keep the orphanages in sub-optimal conditions. It’s a sure way to encourage “donations” to improve those conditions.
  • The potential for finding better ways to take care of vulnerable children is reduced when there is an operating orphanage available. Activists encourage support for families to keep their vulnerable children rather than give them over to institutions that promise to provide better conditions and often do not.

This is not an easy topic, and there are certainly many “good” orphanages that provide an essential service where alternatives are difficult. Children should not be abandoned to the streets and to predators and the horrors of sexual slavery.

People thinking about visiting orphanages should be well aware of the problems and risks and really do their homework. And they should definitely ask the four questions suggested here by Sian Ferguson, questions that apply to all of our thinking about “service” activities.

  1. Would you volunteer abroad if you had no cameras with you?
  2. Does the agency have the same intentions and values that you do?
  3. Are you going to be doing more harm than good?
  4. Would you trust yourself enough to do this job in your own country?

The questions may be hard to answer without more information, information that is often unavailable. (see my book, “Hoping to Help” about this). But Question #1 is under our control and very crucial. It would dramatically underscore that the visitor’s image and social media presence are not part of his or her motivation.

I welcome your thoughts about these issues.

July 13, 2016



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