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?"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:
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."
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.