In the process of realizing GivingWay, we were almost immediately confronted with one of the most debated issues in the volunteering community: “orphanage volunteering”. While the concept of the GivingWay, as an open platform that enables volunteers and organizations to communicate directly and freely, was unique – it was clear that a certain policy and clear guidelines had to be created, and followed by all sides. The decision was not easy because of its obvious complexity, but from the outset, we knew we would not promote any orphanage volunteering on our platform.
Here are the top 3 reasons why we are not promoting orphanage volunteering:
Countless research and study cases have time and again shown the negative effects orphanages and similar institutions have on children. Most of the studies in this field conclude that institutional housing should always be the last resort and alternatives such as foster homes or extended family care are always superior choices. Studies indicate that children who grow up in orphanages are, at best, highly disconnected from the rest of their community, impacting their ability to form bonds and healthy relationships as they mature and enter adult life. In addition, orphanages generally do not provide the children with the necessary life skills that they need, which again leaves them unprepared and unequipped as they grow up and leave the institution. In the more extreme cases (but not rare), orphanage staff are untrained and cannot properly provide the children with the care and attention that they deserve. Studies further demonstrate the high percentage of physical and sexual abuse prevalent in such institutions. For all of these reasons, most Western countries have all but abolished the practice of institutionalized care and have opted for the community integration alternatives mentioned above.
It comes as a shock to learn that in many places more than 80% of children in orphanages actually have at least one living parent. The decision to send a child to an orphanage is not a result of loss of parents, but rather motivated by promises made by the orphanage to save the child from a life of poverty. Children are often times sent, and even sold off, to live in orphanages by parents wanting to provide their children a better future. Unfortunately, in many cases this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality, many orphanage owners deliberately leave the institution in dire shape to add to the guilt and poke even deeper at the hearts of well-intentioned travelers and volunteers. Such owners have well understood that “orphaned” children can be a great source of income and therefore take all sorts of measures to earn more tourist cash. In Cambodia alone, the number of orphanages increased by 75% in a five year period from 2005, which in no way correlates to the number of actual orphaned children.. These orphanages may very well be termed a bustling business, while many travelers relay stories of very well-rehearsed visits to such orphanages, where children know all too well how to offer a welcoming smile, perform a dance and grab a visitor’s hand – all of which to make sure the visitors don’t leave without making a proper donation.
Since many orphanages are evidently more in it for the steady flow of cash, their volunteer requirements are almost non-existent. Many orphanages do not require any relevant skills or knowledge in working with children, do not perform background checks on prospective volunteers, and do not ask for a minimum time of volunteering that will help to ensure the children are in safe hands that will not continuously change. What they do make sure to ask for is, of course, a volunteer fee or donation which is pocketed for their own benefit. Psychologists, social workers, and other professional care-takers all agree that one of the most important things that vulnerable children need is stability and the ability to form long-term relationships, especially when it comes to caregivers and grownups around them. Having a constant string of volunteers, warm and affectionate as they may be, coming in and out of their lives, is highly detrimental to such children’s well-being. It is also said that in such institutions the children are so focused on obtaining the short term affection of passing-by strangers that meaningful and long-term bonding and relationships with their local, “regular” caregivers are neglected. While countless volunteers choose to volunteer at orphanages with the notion that they are truly helping the children, the truth of the matter is that they are unintentionally giving hand to a long line of irresponsible, illegitimate and exploitive businesses.
We are glad to see that many other organizations and companies are taking the same standards as us, or better yet, have set it their goal to spread the word about the harm done by the orphanage volunteering industry.
After conducting an extensive research which focused specifically on orphanages in Cambodia, UNICEF came out with a clear message urging travelers against volunteering at orphanages. Their findings showed that in 2013 the number of state-run orphanages remained at 23, while the number of NGO-run orphanages hit a staggering 225 (compare this to 154 NGO-run orphanages in 2005), even though it was reported that the number of orphans had only decreased over the years.
UNICEF is also one of the supporters of the Think Child Safe campaign, whose aim is to connect with tourists in order to end what is known as “orphanage tourism” in Cambodia.
Save the Children is a global organization dedicated to transforming children’s lives, protecting them, and equipping them with important opportunities for a healthy and positive future. Better Care Network is an international network of organizations committed to supporting children without adequate family care around the world. In 2013, both organizations initiated a global interagency to review and share existing knowledge with regards to volunteering in orphanages in developing countries.
In addition to various activist groups, we are also seeing commercial companies that have started to take a stand against orphanage volunteering, such as the travel website Responsibletravel.com which in 2013 reportedly removed orphanage volunteering opportunities from their itineraries. In doing so, they sent out a clear and definite message against volunteering at orphanages worldwide.
Reports about the negative effects of orphanages on children are quick to offer viable solutions that should be highly endorsed by local communities and travelers worldwide. In agreeing that the best solution for children is to stay with their immediate or extended families or with significant ongoing caretakers, there is a strong urge to support programs that promote the keeping of families together. Programs that offer family-based care, income generation, and social support programs are a few choices which provide for a much better future for the children and their families. These types of programs, which are quite popular in Western societies, do a much better job in solidifying communities and their members while providing children with useful skills and a much safer surrounding to grow up in. When considering volunteer opportunities abroad with local communities, be mindful of such projects.
One example of such an organization is Gozololo (also called “Volunteer & Travel”) in South Africa. Originally, the organization ran 3 different centers which functioned as orphanages. After learning of the recent research and reports on the subject, Gozololo decided to close its orphanages and arranged for all children to be placed with their extended families or significant caretakers. According to the organization, the centers function as day centers for education, and all children return to their homes at the end of the day.
Even though it seems like these are only a drop in the ocean, we are hopeful that with time more will join in the efforts to end orphanage volunteering. We are happy to be doing our part in the collective effort to end orphanage volunteering by prohibiting such volunteering opportunities on our platform.
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