Voluntourism: How Working At Orphanages Abroad Is Doing Little To Help


Each year, millions of young people venture forth to take part in the growing industry of “voluntourism." Young people from wealthy nations travel to developing countries to aid in various projects and can also take some time to have a typical, sightseeing tourist experience.

The combination of supposedly impactful work and tourist opportunities leads to the industry's name and growing popularity. Traveling abroad to help others has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

I recently partook in a voluntourism experience. I spent several months in Northern Tanzania, teaching at a high school and living at an orphanage. I hoped to make a positive impact and learn about another culture and country.

Unfortunately, I came to learn that the industry in which I chose to work, at worst, functioned as corrupt and, at best, served as inadequate. Many of my projects centered on orphanages.

After all, young people with little by way of experience or skill working for a short period of time doesn't constitute an overwhelmingly sound foundation for businesses hoping to make large changes.

Instead, organizations focus on projects into which volunteers can plug themselves with little prior knowledge or need for long-­term commitments. Orphan centers fit this bill perfectly.

Orphanages also have strong emotional pulls and can easily draw in people from abroad. Young people see the opportunity to impact one of the most disadvantaged populations imaginable and can't resist the urge to help.

The orphanages get the help they need from volunteers and millions of young people get to see the new country and culture while helping others and gaining valuable life experience. So, what's the problem?

The problem is simple: These orphanages represent one of the largest scams imaginable and serve to line the pockets of a few individuals and, more often than not, harm rather than help the children involved.

For starters, most of the kids in these orphanages have parents. Even those who don't have parents almost always have relatives who could take care of them. However, these children's parents and relatives have little by way of money.

Orphanage owners often exploit this poverty for personal gain.

Several scenarios exist to create an orphanage in an area with few to no actual orphans. Option one consists of going to poor villagers and telling them their children will go to a boarding school, not an orphanage, and have sponsorship for a great education from a wealthy donor.

Option two involves telling the parents that the children will, in fact, move to an orphanage, but they will have sponsorship to go to a good school. Option three involves finding children on the street, forging government documents to say their parents surrendered them and moving them into an orphanage with no due process.

All of these options involve school sponsorship because throughout many developing areas, the people put an enormously high value on education.

So, when a person approaches a poor mother and promises her child a better life and education, the mother feels obligated to give her child that chance at success. If an individual does this 30 times, there are enough children to start an orphanage.

Then, the orphanages seek out volunteers and donors from wealthy nations to fund the operation.

At first glance, this may not seem overly pernicious. After all, the kids do usually get to attend school. However, this distracts from the real issue at hand.

These kids do not suffer from a lack of parents; they suffer from poverty. Splitting up families does not solve this issue.

Would America ever go into a poor region and take children from their parents in the name of fighting poverty? Of course not. Simply put, you don't build a nation by breaking up families. And, the orphanage industry has begun breaking up families across the world at an alarming rate.

People have known about this issue in East Asia for years. In fact, most of the research on this problem centers in Cambodia.

In subsequent years, with the enormous demand for voluntourism experiences, individuals throughout East Africa and South America have copied the model from Cambodia and spurred enormous surges in orphanage construction.

The region in which I volunteered contained between 50 and 70 orphanages, each with between 20 and 50 kids. All of this existed in a region of just 20,000 people.

The orphanage industry has become massively profitable, leading to a growing number of individuals opening centers each year. As more and more young people look to move abroad, more and more orphan centers open up to meet demand.

This leads to one of the saddest aspects of the issue: The managers must create the right image for their orphanages, which means they must carefully maintain the correct level of poverty.

If the kids look too well­-off, people may not want to contribute. Instead, they will send their money to a charity down the street, where the kids look just a little bit thin and have a few holes in their clothes, and where they feel their money will make a larger impact.

Therefore, providing more and more money for orphans' centers rarely translates to a better life for the children, but more commonly, a better house and car for the orphanage owner.

Of course, not all orphanages arise from malicious intent. Many people operate under the impression that wealthy nations will only donate to orphanages.

Therefore, in order to get foreign aid and the all-­important sponsorships for school, villages believe orphanage creation is necessary, whether or not they truly need them.

What can we do to help?

This may sound odd, but it is a good problem to have, comparatively speaking. The problem for most development schemes consists of apathy: How do we get people in wealthy nations to care about people in the developing world? However, this problem shows people do want to help.

We simply need better aim for our charity. We need to find projects that keep kids in their homes and still provide sponsorships for school.

If you want to volunteer, find a project that places you with a family and requires you to have some skills. Plenty of problems exist and there are plenty of ways you can help.

The goals of any project should be to attack problems at their roots and to help people in the most direct ways possible.