The Darker Side of Volunteering: Orphanage Tourism

by Emma Higgins

Volunteering in orphanages has been at the very root of voluntourism for decades now. Even though the spectrum for the kinds of projects you can work on continues to grow, travellers go back to orphanages time and time again, hoping to make a difference to young children all over the world. The majority of these projects have undoubtedly changed the lives of thousands of children, helping them to go to school and be integrated back into family life. Recently, however, the darker side of volunteering at orphanages has reared its ugly head, an ugly head that most of us never knew existed.

A few weeks ago, Responsible Travel dropped a number of orphanage programs from their website, which connects volunteers to projects across the globe. This put orphanage volunteering in the spotlight, and revealed that some orphanages were taking children and volunteers in for all the wrong reasons.

A number of these dropped orphanages were in Cambodia, and were prime examples of the corrupt projects that have rocked the world of voluntourism. The number of tourists travelling to Cambodia has more than doubled in the last decade, and it’s no coincidence that the number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased rapidly in that time also. Tourists are scouted down by tuk-tuk drivers who are paid to take them to certain orphanages, where children put on shows and ask tourists for donations. Some of the children pulled into these orphanages still have families, but are taken out of their home by persuasive orphanage staff who promise better living conditions and education. It has become apparent that the focus of these organisations has shifted from the welfare of orphaned children, to the income they can generate. Essentially, these children have become tourist attractions.

It should be stressed that this is an extreme situation and not the case for all orphanages in Cambodia, or other places across the globe. There are still thousands of orphanages out there that are working to make the lives of children better, and this news should not stop people from volunteering in orphanages entirely. In fact, many of the smaller institutions that really rely on volunteer placements to keep their organizations running may suffer from this news. That Responsible Travel has dropped some programs should simply be a call for better research into all placements and programs.

If you’re looking to work with children anywhere in the world, always do a good deal of research on the organization you’re thinking of working with—look into their mission or day-to-day practices and try to talk to former volunteers. Orphanages that let any person off the street simply walk into the grounds should raise alarm bells—where else in the world are complete strangers allowed to walk into safe places for children? Not all orphanages have a thorough application process, but they should at least be asking questions about you and your background before allowing you into their volunteer program. Similarly, don’t be afraid of asking plenty of questions yourself. A legitimate orphanage will be happy to see that you’re taking a responsible interest in their project, and should be able to answer any question you might ask.

Put in the simplest of terms, these orphanages should have the best interests of the child at the very heart of their organization. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for an orphanage volunteer opportunity