Young children laughing

Individual volunteering opportunities and programs in orphanages: why you should avoid them

Volunteering your time whilst abroad might seem really worthwhile, but unfortunately some types of volunteering are extremely harmful. Especially in orphanages.

Are you thinking of undertaking voluntary work abroad this during 2019 or 2020? You’re not alone. An estimated 1.6 million people volunteer overseas every year! Whether you’re a student taking a gap year, studying abroad or doing an internship, a professional seeking a sabbatical or a family looking to give back whilst on vacation, orphanage volunteer opportunities are some of the most searched for volunteer programs online. 

However, over the past few years more and more evidence has come to light that shows that orphanage volunteering programs actively harm the children they are supposed to help. The practice has become so popular that it is creating a demand for orphans, which is leading to the separation of children from their families.

How volunteering in orphanages harms children

Here’s what’s happening:

1. We know from decades of research that a child’s physical, social and intellectual development suffers when they grow up in an orphanage. Children belong in families where they can receive the individualised attention and care they need in order to survive and thrive.

2. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed by nearly every country in the world, affirms that every child has the right to grow up in a family environment and not be separated from his or her parents unless it is not possible to to stay with them or it is in the child’s best interests. Over the past decade, more and more Governments have publicly committed to moving away from residential care institutions, also known as orphanages,  in favour of more effective family-based care for children.

3. Despite heaps of evidence against orphanages and governments committing to move towards a family-based care model, we know that over 80% of children growing up in orphanages across Asia, Africa, South America and parts of Eastern Europe have at least one surviving parent. If children have parents and families why are they still being placed in orphanages?

4. The vast majority of children are not being placed in orphanages due to abuse or because they have no surviving family to live with. They are being moved into orphanages due to poverty and their parents believe that growing up in care will afford them access to education and healthcare which they may not otherwise receive. Supporting orphanages through volunteering or donating simply perpetuates the problem. It doesn’t help families to stay together, which is ultimately what is best for the child. Read more on the problem of orphanages and orphanage volunteering here.

5. The majority of orphanages worldwide are not funded by governments, but by churches, organisations and volunteers from the West. Well-intentioned volunteers and donors are unknowingly jeopardising efforts to reform care systems and instead are helping to sustain the orphanage industry across the world, fueling the continued separation of children from their families.

Orphanages are either being seen as a solution to poverty, or are being run as businesses, making profit from people wanting to donate their time and money to help ‘orphans’. In the worst cases, some orphanages have even been found to be linked to child trafficking rings in order to fill their places and meet the demand for ‘orphans’ from volunteer programs. 

Check out these testimonials from volunteers to hear more. 

And if that isn't enough…

Disrupted attachment

One of the reasons why people seek out orphanage volunteer opportunities is because they assume that children growing up in institutions are in need of love and affection. The issue with volunteers fulfilling this role is that they are only there for a short period of time - be it 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month or a year. The children are exposed to a constant cycle of volunteers who come into their lives, give them attention and care and then disappear. This experience at such a young age reinforces the idea that people cannot be trusted and often does significant damage to a child’s ability to form healthy relationships throughout their life.

Child abuse and mistreatment

Even more worryingly, orphanage volunteer programs are quite often completely unregulated meaning that anyone can gain access to vulnerable children. You may have noticed when searching for orphanage volunteer opportunities that you are rarely required to undergo a criminal record’s check or have a qualification to work with children. Even when you are expected to undergo a background check, child protection regulations in the countries where you’ll likely be volunteering tend to be very weak meaning that abuse is difficult to recognise or do anything about. The safest way to prevent this type of child abuse from occuring is to prevent the opportunity to volunteer with children in orphanages altogether.

‘Good’ orphanages vs. ‘bad’ orphanages

Lots of prospective volunteers when hearing about this issue for the first time understandably ask the question, ‘can’t I volunteer in a good orphanage?’ Although there is definitely a spectrum when it comes to quality in orphanages, it is extremely important to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ orphanage for children. 

Regardless of how wonderful an orphanage appears, how clean it is, how friendly and qualified the staff seem, how put-together and happy the children look, even if it is a registered charity or NGO, at the end of the day it is still an orphanage and thus cannot provide the same one-to-one, constant support and care that a family can. 

Orphanages, as a model of care, are fundamentally flawed. That is why the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and many other countries across the world no longer place children in orphanages, but instead operate a family-based care system. Why do children in other countries deserve any less?

How long should I volunteer in an orphanage for?

Often people volunteer during their spring break or summer vacation, which means the time they have to give is restricted. However, when hearing about the damage caused to children by short-term volunteer placements, some people decide to try and volunteer for longer in the hope that it will cause less harm. Regardless of whether you volunteer in an orphanage for 3 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks or 3 months, you will still be contributing to the growth of a global industry profiting off the exploitation of children. Read how you can spend your summer supporting children abroad in a better way.

How much should I pay to volunteer abroad?

Volunteering abroad is rarely a cheap thing to do. As well as covering the costs of your flights and insurance, you also have to pay what’s called a ‘program fee’, which covers things like accommodation, food and support throughout the duration of your trip. 

Although you, as a volunteer, are not getting paid for the work you do, volunteer trips are by no means free to run and so you should expect to have to pay something in order to participate.

There is a common misconception that the amount of money you pay has a bearing on how ethical the program is. Unfortunately this isn’t true. Regardless of whether the program you apply for is affordable, hugely expensive or government-funded, you still need to consider how the program itself is designed. See our volunteer checklist for further guidance.

Beware other names for orphanages

Not all orphanages go by that name. In fact, as Western audiences are becoming more savvy to the harms which orphanages can cause children, some institutions are changing their names in order to continue operation. Whilst on your travels, you may see orphanages referred to as:

  • Children’s homes
  • Shelters
  • Safe houses
  • Children’s villages
  • Transitional homes
  • Boarding schools
  • Residential care institutions

It’s important to remember that if you visit an institution where a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education, the harms to children are the same!

If I can’t volunteer in an orphanage what should I do instead?

Our message is not to volunteer in orphanages, but we definitely don’t want you to feel that you can’t volunteer at all! Volunteering abroad, when done ethically and responsibly, is a great way to learn about the world and work alongside people with completely different life experiences to you - be they local communities members or other international volunteers. 

Here’s a few things to check out to make sure you’re volunteering in the best way possible:

Join us in building a better alternative for children and help families stay together!