Would you like a stranger to pay to spend time with your child? A stranger, recently arrived from another country, who doesn’t speak your language, who has no child-related qualifications or experience and who may not have undergone adequate CRB checks? What if something had happened to you and your child was in residential care? Would you like them to spend time with an endless series of unqualified volunteers in their care home? I thought not.
But that’s exactly what’s happening across the developing world when tourists pay to volunteer at so-called ‘orphanages’: I was shocked to read that 74% of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans at all. Sickeningly, it seems that the increasing popularity of volunteering with children abroad has led to an increased demand for orphans. Children are being separated from their families in order to satisfy the needs of volunteers who want to ‘help’ them. Orphans are now a commodity, it appears.
Today I did a quick Google search for these types of voluntourism trips and was presented with countless options. I called a UK company offering voluntary work with children in ‘amazing, cheap destinations’ and asked them what kind of checks volunteers have to undergo before getting involved. I was told by a breezy call handler that ‘a cheap £10 general CRB check’ would be fine and that ‘most of these projects don’t even know what a CRB is.’ I don’t suppose they would, really, but the whole thing makes me uneasy, especially as CRB checks for contact with children are so thorough in the UK, even if you’re just going to help with reading in your child’s class at school.
Effects of trauma
As an adoptive parent I’m very aware of the long term effects of trauma on children. The trauma of the loss of birth family and of neglect and abuse affects children’s development and makes them particularly vulnerable for years afterwards. They can struggle with change and attachment, can find relationships difficult and can be inappropriately friendly to strangers. This must be the same for children wherever they live in the world, from UK foster homes to Cambodian orphanages. These children need stability, security, patience and understanding from constant carers, ideally in a family situation.
Living in an orphanage with a procession of well-intentioned foreigners parachuting in for a cuddle and then abandoning them for ever is not going to help these children, even if it makes those ‘helping’ them feel great.
That’s why I’ve long been wary of voluntourism trips where people pay to work directly with orphans in orphanages and why I’m really pleased that Responsible Travel has announced a decision to ‘temporarily remove all volunteering trips to orphanages from responsibletravel.com.’ I hope that the company makes a permanent decision not to promote trips enabling volunteers to work directly with orphans in orphanages. There are some great volunteering trips on offer and there are some where you can even get involved in family volunteering. If you really want to support vulnerable children then you can help children indirectly, in schools, for example, leaving local professionals to work in orphanages with the children who need them.
Ultimately, if you want to go on a volunteering trip, research it very carefully and make sure that you’ll actually be doing some good – rather than just making yourself feel good.