Monday, September 12, 2011

Orphan Tourism

I posted an article last week about Cambodia trying to limit orphanages in order to limit "orphan tourism." A reader emailed to ask exactly what "orphan tourism" was, and said she'd had a long-time dream to volunteer at her daughter's former orphanage for a summer. Would that be "orphan tourism," and if so, what exactly is wrong with it?

I've also thought about volunteering at my kids' orphanages; I think many adoptive parents have. I can see myself with a volunteer group building a playground for the kids, painting a classroom in the orphanage, repairing the orphanage roof, and spending all other spare time cuddling babies in the infant room. I know the intentions are good -- wanting to help the children left behind, modeling for our children the importance of helping those in need, giving back out of gratitude for all we have gained. But is that really the best way to help? Consider these reasons NOT to engage in orphan tourism, offered in a wonderful article in the journal Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care.

Packaging Orphans for Your Pleasure

Part of what makes orphan tourism possible are the images presented in the media of "orphan." Says the article cited above:
Globally circulated, the poignant spectre of “AIDS orphans” and “children left behind” portrays children as abandoned, innately vulnerable and in need of care. Such images, presented by the international media, NGOs and now tourism operators, conjure up a desire among those primarily in the Western world to take direct action in the care of such children. At the interface of global discourse and Western sentimentality lies the growing phenomenon of “AIDS orphan tourism”, by which individuals travel to residential care facilities, volunteering for generally short periods of time as caregivers.
Researchers argue that the image of the “AIDS orphan” is replicated and disseminated “because it has economic valence” and that “orphanhood is a globally circulated commodity.” In the case of rising trends in volunteer tourism, the commodification of “AIDS orphans” is particularly salient.

So orphan tourism commodifies children, packaged as orphans, for your vacationing pleasure. In this AlJazeera report from Cambodia, they talk of orphan tourism as a "human safari." Ick.

Attach and Release. Rinse. Repeat.

The hallmark of voluntourism is that it is temporary. On your two-week vacation, you can save turtles in Greece or restore cave paintings in Arizona. But with orphan tourism, we're talking about children, not turtles. Children are designed to attach to adults, but we all know well the dangers of frequent broken attachments. As the article above notes:

Volunteer tourism operators frequently advertise the enormous “needs” of both the institution and the children who reside there, and short-term volunteers are encouraged to “make intimate connections” with “previously neglected, abused and abandoned” young children and to take part in their daily caregiving activities.

In a Time Magazine article entitled Vacationing like Brangelina, the debate goes like this:
But some critics say transient volunteering is more suited to making participants feel like do-gooders than to doing good. "If you're going to work with children in an orphanage, [how will they] understand what you're trying to do when you don't speak their language and you don't stay long enough to form a relationship?" asks Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, an industry watchdog based in the U.K. "What does it mean to the child?"

Sally Brown, founder of Ambassadors for Children, counters that every bit helps. "If a kid can be held for a couple of days," she says, "you're able to make a small difference."
Really? Does it REALLY help for a child to be held by strangers for a few days, who then leave, to be replaced by new strangers, over and over again? The orphan tourism article says:
Unfortunately, many of the children they leave behind experience another abandonment to the detriment of their short- and long-term emotional and social development. Inherently, the formation and dissolution of attachment bonds to successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children being cared for in such environments. The early adversity faced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, putting them at greatly increased risk for developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being.
Adoptive parents are savvy enough about attachment to recognize how damaging this kind of orphan tourism can be.

Buffet for Pedophiles

Are orphanages screening who comes in to work with children? Are voluntourism operators checking to make sure volunteers are not child abusers or pedophiles? Somehow I doubt it. So exactly who is coming into the orphanages to work with children? Certainly, I'm sure, most are fine people with good hearts. But all it takes is one bad apple to do a lot of harm. In the AlJazeera report, several orphanage directors talk of the importance of police clearances, etc., for volunteers; one says he doesn't use volunteers because it's too cumbersome to screen them for just a few days' work.

Think Globally, Act Locally

The kind of jobs that orphan tourists do usually require low skill and little education. In many impoverished countries the unemployment rate is astronomically high. Voluntourists can displace in-country workers. As the orphan tourism article notes, "such opportunities would arguably be better suited to local youth, many of whom would be grateful for regular meals, basic training and a testimonial to their work experience."

As part of your altruistic visit, do you want to be taking jobs and food from locals?

If You Build It, They Will Come

Orphan tourism requires orphanages. Ninety percent of orphans (defined by UNICEF as a child who has lost at least one parent) are actually in the care of a surviving parent or extended family members. You can't have orphan tourism that goes to Aunt Tessie's house to see an orphan -- that home with an adult caregiver destroys the necessary illusion of "orphan" that the tourist has come to help.

Those seeking to exploit orphan tourism, therefore, are motivated to create orphanages and move kids to them -- even though we know that in-home care is the best option for those children. The AlJazeera report talks about that being a problem in Cambodia.

Volunteering to hug an orphan sounds like a win-win for everyone, but it's not. Special care has to be taken with vulnerable children in orphanages. Please think of other ways to help.


Research-China.Org said...

Excellent article!! It would also be good to shine the light on the impact of post-adoption orphanage donations, which represent an additional stream of income for orphanages. There are many stories of orphanages selling donated formula to the black market, ever needing just one more air conditioner or water purification system. The problem is that unscrupulous orphanage directors take the donations from adoptive families, sell them into the community, and use the proceeds for their own benefit. By keeping things looking "needy", future families come along and donate things all over again.


Denise Emanuel Clemen said...

It's heartbreaking to contemplate all the corruption in the world.
Thank you for your research and analysis.

Dawn said...

Your post as always is thought provoking, and I agree with most of it, however I think if a child has a primary care giver they have bonded with who works with the orphanage or group home then additional hands can be helpful. Not all "orphanage tourism" is bad. My son was in a foster/group home that had a lot of volunteers from the local community as well as primary care givers and I think this helped with his attachment and sensory input because it was similar to how a biological child is raised, with immediate care givers and visitors and many people playing with them. I also know that volunteers can sometimes "teach" orphanages how to create bonds with children, they can provide child development and medical support or simply change diapers and do laundry to provide an extra set of hands. That said what Brian wrote shouldbe taken with consideration because corrupt orphanages can take advantage of well intended visitors and APs.

Anonymous said...

Once again, so many opinions offered by so few who have actually "walked the walk".

I have been back to my daughter's origin of birth twice as part of a nonprofit group that raises money locally(in the U.S.) to build playgrounds, install water filtration systems, purchase wheelchairs for handicapped childrens' homes, etc.

Great care is taken that our efforts be focused on those installations and specific causes and not on hands-on caring of the children residing in those homes. In all cases this was the first hint of outside assistance these homes had received and all were desperately needed. A child who has never before had a playground to play on suddenly has one. That's a plus NOT a negative. Any. way. you . look . at. it.

Please don't lump all efforts into one giant self centered, selfishly motivated agenda.

Our group has delivered diapers, medicines and food to orphanages without those very basic essentials. We continue to monitor those homes for further needs and check back in when in country to ensure equipment is good working condition and still present in the homes.

It can be done and done well.

Don't sweep out the benefits simply because not all efforts are successful or modeled as you would have them. How does that help?

BTW, our daughter recently made the trip with us; her first time back and at her behest. Make no mistake that it was a life changing journey for us all, including the 4 children her age that reside in her former Babyhouse that we now sponsor via another philanthropic agency.

Yes, there are many ways to assist and getting bogged down in biased criticism of efforts you personally have not taken part of, just don't cut it IMOP.


Sharon said...

I think I covered this Al Jazeera report on my blog awhile ago, but it was interesting to see some of the conclusions you drew.

I don't think anybody is recruiting orphans for tourism. There are millions of kids who truly have no one. That said, I did see an interesting blog post recently aimed at Folks in the Christian orphan care movement that said to that community: let's shift the focus from building orphanages to funding programs that develop communities, sustain families, and I think that's a great idea.

The kinds of orphanages that will benefit from foreign volunteers aren't going to hire locals because they either don't have the money or philosophically take the approach that it SHOULD be all volunteer -- that's what you see in Mother Theresa's orphanages -- they only keep a few nuns in each facility and the kids don't get good care. It's a very unusual orphanage in which every kid has an affectionate relationship with a caregiver. Babies get good care, and care quality declines as kids get older and less cute. Sure, it's not good for kids to form attachments to people who leave...but at the same time, what if that is a child's only opportunity to experience an attachment? Bringing in foreign volunteers isn't a simple fix, but dismissing what good they can possibly do or attacking the motives of all who might wish to help doesn't work either.

Anonymous said...

It seems that people should volunteer, but question how their volunteering will best serve the children.

Monika said...

The article is informative and quite liked it.