What is an orphanage and how does it relate to voluntourism?
I always thought I was quite clued up with responsible travel and would deem myself as quite educated with understanding credible and ethical organization's focused on communities, sustainability and empowerment. However until volunteering myself, I never actually quite understood the vast amount of tourism that was created through volunteering, and a whole world of issues I had never been exposed to.
When deciding last year, that I wanted to do more than my day to day job, something that my skills could benefit people in need rather than benefitting my corporate clients at work. I decided that just doing two or three events to raise money wasn't quite enough, and I wanted to work out how I could raise more money and make a better impact. I decided to reach out to a friend who recently had managed an NGO in Uganda for a few years, to find out more about the organization and if it was something I could and wanted to get involved with. My biggest fear was working with a large organization that the money crossed through so many hands before it was delivered to the people in need or a non-sustainable organization.
I was in luck, the more I understood and researched about what Child's i Foundation did and their goal of seeing a Uganda without Orphanages, was something I really wanted to be part of. In my initial plan I wanted to volunteer in Uganda and in Kenya following, perhaps in a different type of organization. However the more I researched and the more I raised money for this organization, I realized that actually I wanted to spend all my time here, and not spread myself thinly. This gave me a better chance of making a difference, and it's the best decision I ever made, one even better would have been to stay longer.
Orphanages, well I can't say i've ever really looked into what they are about, how they are run and who runs them? Why would you when it's a concept that is foreign to you, when in London we have a social care system so an Orphanage doesn't exist. Of course i've seen in the mainstream and social medias countless images of western volunteers visiting orphanages, and 'trying to do some good' but I never thought anything deeper into it. Sadly these images just start to become common place, and slowly begin to represent our created visual image of places in Africa, Cambodia and other places in the world, and just something that people do. What goes through people's minds when they see these pictures? 'aw how cute is that' 'that's so good of her' 'you are such a great person' not the questions that should be raised of 'why is this child on social media at this age' 'does this person have permission from their parent or a guardian'
if this child grew up and saw this picture of them wildly spread on the internet with comments like #africankids #culturetrip #grateful #orphanage #travelafrica (all taken from current images trending on instagram) How would this make them feel? Wanted and supported? Or a victim of #povertyporn and #exploitation. You have to ask yourself why are people promoting traveling Africa with pictures of children in an orphanage. A stop off in an orphanage, spreading these pictures on the internet and then in three months time when you ask them how those children are doing, they don't know because they don't care anymore. This is a bad representation of 'helping others'.
I guess I just assumed that orphanages were state owned, run and managed by a social care system that were just a holding place until they found foster care or adoption and that people were volunteering to support services that may struggle with funding for staff. But little did I know that these pictures online were day trips, week long trips run by institutions that are privately owned, creating no background checks on visitors, and some with absolutely no child regulations for child protection, and most being profit making businesses.
Would you let a stranger come into your house and allow them to them spend time with your child, take pictures and put it on their instagram? So why is this okay to somebody else's child. Without CONSENT!!
How can something of this nature be called a business, and if it's a business, then their main goals will not be searching for parents, but instead the income created by funding from overseas volunteers.
Only then did I start understanding the damages that these institutions were having on these children, and the vicious cycle of dependency for this type of tourism. If the owners main focus is not the children, who is taking special care for the children with disabilities, and who is searching for their parents rather than promoting overseas adoption from the same demographic of people who visit these orphanages. Is this really giving them their best chance in life? Some of the answers I hear to this are; ' but they are given a better chance'. Wouldn't a better chance be people investing their time to help find their biological families, or to notify parents and families that their children have been found after running away? This is exactly what Child's i Foundation was and is currently doing.
How can we think that a rotation of strangers with no experience, mostly with no background checks made, be given intimate access to children?
I thought to myself, if a child suffers from vertigo, would we constantly on a day to day basis take them up to look out the edge a glass window 10 stories high? No because this would be uncomfortable and potentially make them feel sick.
So why is it ok for children that could be dealing with abandonment issues, to be subject to a constant visiting spectacle of strangers to create an emotional connection and then let them leave again? "how cute she cried when I left" yes because you left not because you were there. The statistics that really stayed with me are that
80% of children in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent, relative or someone that could look after them. Also Children with disabilities confined to orphanages were 100x more likely to die than those with out disabilities.
How are these statistics out, and yet still today if you go onto instagram, facebook and follow the #orphanage hashtag you will see countless of the same image of promoting orphanage visits. Maybe if there was more media coverage and more stories told of the damages of people who think they are helping a community by visiting and funding these orphanages whilst enriching their travels! The reality that they are supporting an industry that exploits vulnerable families.
Many times families are sold a story that their will be taken away for a better life, better education and in turn is one less mouth to feed, instead it creates child slavery and put into conditions that are sometimes made worse to create more sympathy from tourist visitors. In fact studies such as The Bucharest Early Intervention Project , have suggested, that early institutionalization leads to profound deficits including cognitive (i.e., IQ) and socio-emotional behaviors, brain activity and structure, alterations in reward sensitivity and processing, and a greatly elevated incidence of psychiatric disorders and impairment.
How can we help?
Never take pictures and upload images of children online without consent. If you wouldn't do it in your own town at home, don't do it in someone else's town. This constant increase in media coverage feeds more curiosity of travelers to add these type of visits to their travel itineraries.
Support local businesses, street vendors and families with your tourism, so that family separation becomes less of an option #responsibletravel
Research and support NGO's that supports family return and re-purposing orphanages into alternative hubs or support on preventative, alternative family and community based care services.
NEVER volunteer without qualifications, you will do more harm to a community taking a role you are not qualified for against a person in country who can do this job. You're want to do good is not good enough to qualify you for something you are not qualified for.