I recently found myself in a group discussion on upcoming travel plans when one of the girls in the group eagerly brought up her experience of traveling to Uganda and spending a summer volunteering for an orphanage.
“Wow, that’s so great. That’s amazing that you’re doing that.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
Let’s pause here.
If you are considering volunteering abroad, especially at an orphanage, ask yourself: Does your trip do more to make you feel good than it does to actually do good?
Because here’s some tough love: Volunteering in orphanages is simply not in the best interest of children. It can increase the risk of abuse, as well as cause attachment and other developmental issues. Past that, 80% of children living in orphanages have more than one living parent. That means that, often, volunteers and tourists can contribute to creating a demand for orphanages.
One of the hardest questions I am frequently asked is regarding the ethics behind voluntourism. Actually — it is even more challenging to address when someone is naive to the fact that their actions may be more detrimental than helpful.
If you are considering volunteering abroad, your intentions are good, and your heart is in the right place. But far too often, volunteers are under-qualified for the jobs they are doing, or those ‘jobs’ simply are not needed.
“I spoke to one girl who went to Tanzania to build a school,” says Mark Watson, the Executive Director of Tourism Concern, a charity campaigning on ethical tourism issues.
“She told me the volunteers always gossiped about how lazy the locals were because they slept for most of the morning.
“It was only at the end of the placement that they discovered that every day, after they finished building a wall, the locals had to come and rebuild it again properly. So the whole thing was a completely pointless exercise.”
There is a better way to make a difference in the community you are visiting.
What is sustainable tourism?
My own world is so wrapped up in thinking of tourism in terms of sustainability that sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks of social good as the norm that can be integrated into your ordinary vacation. You can do good abroad simply by re-evaluating the terms in which you travel.
Sustainable tourism is travel that has positive economic, environmental, cultural and social impact for traveler, place and resident. Simply put, sustainable travelers support the community they are visiting.
I’m not saying that you absolutely shouldn’t volunteer abroad — there are plenty of sustainable ways to do it (I love the volunteer opportunities that Operation Groundswell sets up, and some of my favorite nonprofits are empowerment programs abroad such as Humanity Unified).
However, I am saying that it is often much easier than you think to have a positive effect on the community you are visiting, and you can do this on an ordinary vacation. (If you’re wondering how, check out my article on five ways you can change the world through travel.)
Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at the World Travel Market in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips, too!
For ideas on responsible volunteering abroad, check out this advice from Next Generation Nepal – an organization working with vulnerable children in Nepal. Watch these videos from Learning Service and read up on these articles on Globalsl.org.
To learn more about how to support vulnerable children and families, explore the work of the ChildSafe movement, discover Kinnected’s work in Australia and find out about what Alternative Care Uganda are trying to achieve.
This story was written as part of the Stop Orphanage Volunteering campaign organized by Better Volunteering Better Care.
You can read more articles from the campaign against orphanage volunteering here. If something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling, share it to your networks and raise awareness across global sectors and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips.