The Soapbox: Don't volunteer in orphanages!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017



This post opens a series I’m calling “the Soapbox.” As you can imagine, it’ll be my space to vent, rant and be grumpy!

You may have noticed that a couple of links in my Friday Favorites encourage people who are not aid workers to stay home instead of going on what is commonly called a voluntourism trip. Voluntourism is mixing volunteering with international tourism (in a developing country). For instance, you go and help build a home in Kenya or you teach a class in Peru for one week or two. Voluntourism is frown upon by aid workers, for good reasons. Unless you have real skills to offer that others in the village you’re traveling to don’t have or don’t have enough of (you’re a nurse, a doctor, an engineer), you will not actually help anyone. You will feel good but you won’t really help “the locals.” And the absolute worst you can do is volunteer in an orphanage.

If you’re thinking about going to an orphanage during your vacation or on your church’s next mission trip, I have two words for you. Stop. Rethink. I’m not the only one who says that. Others have done it before (here or here). I’m just going to give you my very passionate yet respectful opinion.

Now I understand that aid workers are cynical people who scuff a lot at people’s good intentions. And I know people who want to volunteer abroad have a lot of good intentions, especially when it comes to children. They might have heard about the toll orphanages take on children -the more they stay in orphanages, the more attachment issues they experience. They want to reverse that by giving children love during a week or two. I get it. BUT, and this is the most important thing: volunteering in orphanages will damage children even more. Children in orphanages do develop attachment issues. Some will cling to anyone who shows a bit of love. So, say you come to an orphanage to cuddle and play with children. These children will love you back. But then you leave -your head full of wonderful memories, your camera filled with beautiful smiles. But these children? They’re left alone, abandoned. Again. And that happens anytime an outsider comes to an orphanage. Attachment / hope, heartbreak, attachment / hope, heartbreak. Repeat. The children will be even more hurt and will have much deeper trust issues. In short, you have done immense harm to the children you wanted to help.

Another reason why volunteering in orphanages is harmful is that it worsens the orphan problem. About 80% of children in orphanages have a living parent. They are “orphans” by definition (UNICEF defines an “orphan” as a child who has lost one or both parents) but, with adequate resources, they could live with their relatives, or in their birth / local community. But parents see well-funded orphanages and think their children will have a better life in these establishments. Orphanages are still popular recipients of donations from people like you and me -either individually or through places of worship. The problem is that in some countries, orphanages and, at higher level, the whole adoption system, become corrupt. Orphanages might receive money but not spend it on the well-being of the children in their institutions. They may take bribes when wealthy parents want to adopt so as not to go through the formal system (which is usually lengthy) or even offer parents money to place their children in their orphanages to increase the number of children available for adoption. As a result, some countries have decided to stop international adoptions, putting the lives of actual orphans who legally can and need to be adopted at risk because their only future now is to remain in the orphanage until they’re adults.

Next steps:

If you want to volunteer in an orphanage, please reconsider or make sure that you will not be in contact with children. For instance, offer to help with administrative tasks (writing grants or reports, filing).

If you want to donate to an orphanage, please do your research. Make sure that the institution is well run and that it offers opportunities to give back to the local community to reduce the number of orphans -in other words, you want to donate to an organization that doesn’t seek to raise the number or orphans but takes steps to intentionally reduce it.

Consider donating to organizations that work in communities to improve maternal health care, offer economic empowerment opportunities, encourage young girls to stay in school, and work on strengthening families by developing positive parenting behaviors.

These two non-profits are but a sample of organizations that seek to solve the orphan issue:
Better Care Network (this paper in particular is worth reading) and Heartline Haiti.

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