Why you Shouldn’t Volunteer at Orphanages Abroad

Uff time to get controversial on y’all.

So there’s this trend I have a huge problem with: voluntouring at orphanages abroad. The entire idea of volunteering makes me a bit uneasy (you can’t blame me, I spent a year reading and writing about the problems with philanthropic aid for my thesis). Yes, I understand this is a complicated subject so I won’t get into the idea of voluntourism as a whole.

Volunteering in orphanages, however, is an aspect of voluntourism that I feel so strongly about I am willing to say it is immoral at its worst and unconscientious at its best.

Children are extremely vulnerable humans and we should always be careful and aware when working with them. But when you’re working with children who have suffered extreme trauma I think it’s safe to say only experts who have been trained and who are willing to make a commitment to these children should be allowed to work with them.

I mean, let’s think about it for a sec: We have children who have lost their family (in a lot of cases to violent wars), and we think the solution is to have random strangers come in, stay for a couple of weeks, play with them, form an emotional attachment and then leave them? Do we really think that having a constant influx of parental figures who leave is helping the children instead of traumatizing them even more and creating horrible attachment issues?

As much fun as they have with volunteers, these children don’t need to have the repeated message that they will be abandoned by all the adults they form a bond with, what they need are constant, reliable figures who can stay with them for years and develop a real, long-term relationship with them whose high point isn’t a cute facebook profile pic.

Let’s be real, these  types of initiatives aren’t even really about helping the children. If anything, they’re commodifying and exploiting their suffering, because they know people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the experience of “helping” them. There have been reports that show that some orphanages actually keep their facilities in awful conditions in order to bring in more donations and money. Many set up their programs around the volunteer’s needs and wants rather than the children’s needs. This is demonstrated by the fact that most programs offer one or two-week stays, which clearly benefits the volunteer more than the children. I have worked with children and, let me tell you, two weeks with them ain’t shit. If the teacher changes every two weeks, how are they ever going to make any real progress on a subject? The best part is you don’t even need to speak the children’s language because obviously there’s no better way to help children than by getting unskilled people who they can’t communicate with to spend two entire weeks with them!

The fact that the children are not a priority is also made evident by the discourse used by both the programs and the volunteers. Check out, for example, this page in which the highlights talk about how beautiful Sri Lanka is and the Buddhist temple that’s near by. Do I hear anything about the children? Nope. This one promises the experience to be “life-changing and provide lasting memories”, and talks about how riding the city bus in Dar es Salaam “is an adventure in and of itself.” Oh la la! Even when pages talk about the children, it is almost always in the periphery of the amazing experience volunteers are sure to have. Like this page that sells you the idea of being like “a parent” to the children. Parenting that involves no experience or commitment? Hooray! They go even further and explain what volunteers will get from the experience:

“-An exciting, never-to-be-forgotten adventure into Latin America. (oh em geee!)

-The enormous satisfaction of helping disadvantaged children and knowing that you made a difference to them. (‘cause what disadvantaged children in a hospital need is some unskilled nobody who doesn’t know how to care for them)

-An entry on your CV or résumé that will put you head and shoulders above most others in the job market (no, but it’s about the children, I promise!)

-And best of all … an unforgettable experience! (see what I mean about it being much more about the volunteers having a good time than the children?)”

This other project has opened my blind eyes to the fact that all you need to be qualified to work with victims of rape and disabled people is “a big heart and a desire to provide care and support.” Why do people even study to be able to get these jobs in the US?!?

And let’s not forget about the altruistic people who willingly pay to work for someone. Like the guy who claims that “needing some perspective on life I wanted to volunteer working with children.” Isn’t it lucky that there’s children in need in exotic countries so he can gain some “life perspective?”

Or this girl whose favorite memory from her time volunteering with orphans was going to Victoria Falls and meeting people at the hostel. Damn girl, can’t you even pretend to actually give a crap?

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that this is just another industry with a market, and a way to get Westerners to give money to the wrong peeps. There’s even some tour companies that offer people trips to orphanages as part of the tours! I mean, WTF people, WTF!!!! Do we not realize how fucked up it is to go to an orphanage and observe vulnerable children as if we were on some kind of safari?! Do these people honestly believe that this is in any way helping anyone?!

You get a chance to not pay someone for the chance to traumatize a child, how generous!
You get to not pay someone for the chance to traumatize a child, how generous!             Source

I’m not even done yet because we also have to talk about the fact that most of these places don’t even background check people. I have gotten messages in workaway from orphanages asking me to volunteer with them. I mean, I could be a sociopath! Why are they looking for volunteers in a page that offers no background checks? How dangerous this is is evident in the number of sexual and physical abuse cases that happen. Of course, abuse can happen with caretakers that dedicate their lives to these orphanages, as it could happen with families, but we have a moral obligation to do the most that we can to protect these children from it. The fact that any registered sex offender could go volunteer with children makes my skin crawl.

If you’re offended or scoffing right now, I want you to imagine this as if it were your country or your children. Let’s say there is a horrible war and you die. Would you be okay with your children being put in a home that welcomes anyone from another country who is willing to pay for the experience of playing with your kids, but has no real investment in them? Wouldn’t you want them to be cared for by people who have experience, education, and expertise in working with children?

I know people mean to do well, I do. And I’m not saying anyone who has done it/is doing it/wants to do it is an awful person. I just think we need to be more conscious and if we want to do well, we need to be hyper self-aware with our actions and their implications. This is true for anything dealing with international work, but ESPECIALLY when you’re working with children.

If you really want to help but can’t do a long-term commitment, then donate to organizations that actually make a difference and that use your money to provide the children with necessities rather than provide you with an “unforgettable experience,” or volunteer with children in your own community so that you can build a real relationship and actually help them. If you want a trip to an “exotic place,” then do just that and make a difference by buying local or something, but don’t get this experience at the expense of the children’s emotional and mental health. They aren’t there to help you develop a more conscientious global perspective. They’re human beings and we shouldn’t allow them to get anything less than what they need and deserve.

So let’s work for these children and advocate the end of voluntourism at orphanages.

19 thoughts on “Why you Shouldn’t Volunteer at Orphanages Abroad

  1. Yes yes yes yes! Thanks so much for writing this. Really well said, and I completely agree. It’s funny that you wrote this because I just wrote an article on voluntourism (http://www.pinkpangea.com/2014/10/volunteering-abroad-make-sure-youre-actually-helping/) with projects like this in mind where people basically get an ego trip out of “saving kids” when they’re really causing a lot of problems. I didn’t specifically cite volunteering in orphanages since my article was more general, but yes, I do think this kind of project is among the most insidious. Hopefully there will be more criticism about international volunteering projects that will spur people to think critically about these projects. There are great opportunities, but I think they’re often less ego boosting and less trendy, so sadly they get much less attention at the moment.

    1. Hey thank you so much for this comment. I read your article and the whole time I was like “yes, yes, preach.it.girl!!!” I know that people do it because they genuinely care but that’s why I think it’s so important to be conscious about it, we definitely don’t wanna make things even worse and just leave feeling satisfied with ourselves. I agree that there’s really cool opportunities that just aren’t as glamorous but I hope that there will be a shift towards more conscious volunteering.

  2. You got a point here, I never thought it this way. There are many volunteers coming to my country, and these institutions offer this sort of “experiences”… and some people like me don´t even realize about the cons of these programs… thanks for opening my eyes:) and thanks for following my blog:)

    1. Wow thank you so much!! I also didn’t realize it for a while but reading about it made me realize how against it I was haha.

      Looking forward to reading your blog!:)

  3. I’m going to nursing school and am hoping to work for NGO’s and non for profits possibly even UNICEF one day. From what I’ve researched it’s really important to have a solid background volunteering for months at a time in similar places and settings you will want to work in. While I definitely agree that voluntourism is not healthy or good I’m not against spending a month or two (maybe even more) volunteering in places like this especially when it’s a job field you’re interested in joining. That being said research is key to any venture like this to make sure you don’t end up with an organization that’s attracting you for the wrong reasons.

    1. I’m sorry but this is what I mean when I talk about putting your career before children’s emotional health. Children in other countries are people and should not be submitted to being abandoned by parental figures every couple of months just so people can put it on their CV. Yes, I think you should make sure organizations aren’t attracting you for the wrong reasons, but you should also examine whether you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If this is something you’re passionate about, then look up places where you can work with vulnerable children near you and volunteer there regularly for a couple of years, or look for volunteering programs where you can do other things that don’t involved potentially harming children, or dedicate more than a month or two to bettering these children’s futures since, let’s face it, you’re not gonna do much for them in two months.

  4. Woah, a very passionate post but very enlightening.

    Frankly speaking, I can say that I never looked at volunteerism abroad as one of my options because I’ve always thought it to be too superficial or rather, not going to be of much help if I do volunteer. Spending time is good and all but I would rather have something in place long term that can actually help them be independent rather than depend on volunteers all the time. I also feel that if you are really interested to help the less fortunate, it’s way better to help those in your own country first.

    I can’t really comment much about volunteering with children though because I’m not sure how these places are being run other than the ones cited by you. It would be generalising it, wouldn’t it to imagine that all are being run the same way? I’ll give them the benefit of doubt instead.

    I feel that you can still volunteer with children for a short period of time but it depends on the work that you are involved in. I’ve done that on and off with the centres here in Singapore, more to play and entertain them, of course. However, I certainly do not condone those who try to attract volunteers like what you have given examples for. Volunteering should be from the heart, not for any other motives.:)

    1. Yeah I definitely agree!! I don’t think all orphanages are like that but I do think that they should make more of an effort to require long term commitments so as to not cause more psychological harm to the kids.

      I definitely think you can do short-term volunteer work with kids, I also volunteered for a semester at my college’s child care center and it was mostly to play with them, but I think orphans are in a more delicate situation than other children, and especially when volunteers are living with them. Also, I think when it’s children from your own country you can give them more since you can actually talk to them haha.

      I know most people and orphanages do it because they care but I think we should be more conscious of the impact of our actions beyond our intentions.

      And yes, volunteering should come from the heart, you’re so right!:)

  5. A great post, thank you so much! I hope you were able to give some people who didn’t know about how bad it is for the children a reality check.

    I love how passionate, critical and well informed you are about this subject! You’re doing a great job spreading this message.:)

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