Young boy and a baby

Gap year orphanage volunteering programs abroad (Africa, Asia, etc.): why it is a bad idea

Are you considering volunteering in an orphanage during your gap year? On the surface this sounds like a fun and meaningful way to spend a few weeks or months, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that orphanage volunteering isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


Gap year programs in orphanages in countries such as India, South Africa and Costa Rica are understandably really popular. Whether you’ve just finished school or university, or are taking a sabbatical, who doesn’t like the idea of hanging out and playing with some cute children for a few weeks whilst getting to explore a new country? But sadly, volunteering in an orphanage abroad, although it seems really worthwhile, is anything but for the children involved. Whether you’re hoping to do voluntary work on your gap year in an orphanage in Africa, Asia, South America or Eastern Europe there are a few important things you need to know.

1. Most children in orphanages are not actually orphans

Wait, what? Hard to get your head around we know, but research conducted by UNICEF and other child rights organisations has shown that around 80% of the 8 million children growing up in orphanages around the world have at least one surviving parent. When you think of volunteering in an orphanage you think you’re going to be caring for very vulnerable children who have lost both their parents, but the vast majority of times that isn’t actually the case. 

So, if these children have parents and families why are they growing up in orphanages? This is the million dollar question and the answer is simple: poverty. Poorer families sometimes struggle to meet the needs of their children in terms of healthcare and education, and so parents can be faced with a terrible decision to make. Should they send their child to an orphanage where they believe they’ll have access to better services, or keep them at home and potentially deprive them of a better standard of living? 

What’s being sold to you as a volunteer is a chance to give love and affection to children who have suffered the trauma of losing their parents, but in reality the vast majority of children in orphanages are not actually orphans at all.

2. Volunteering in orphanages actually creates more ‘orphans’

Organisations such as Save the Children have found that although the number of real orphans worldwide has decreased over the past decade, the number of orphanages has risen. This didn’t make much sense and so a bunch of child protection experts started to do some digging. What they found is quite shocking. 

As volunteering experiences in orphanages across the world have become increasingly popular, more and more programs have started to cater to the demand created by well-intentioned tourists. This means more and more orphanages have had to open too. But as we saw earlier, most children in orphanages aren’t orphans, so where are they coming from?

Parents see more wealthy orphanages springing up and become increasingly convinced that their child would have a better quality of life if they went to live there. Some orphanages owners even go to rural, poorer communities to convince parents to send their children to live in orphanages in the bigger (more touristy) cities. Sometimes parents can stay in contact with their children and visit occasionally when they can afford the travel, but not always. We know for some parents they never see their children again. 

In the worst situations, corrupt orphanage owners have been linked to child trafficking rings - forcibly taking children from their families in order to fill the places in their orphanages for the benefit of the Western volunteer.

Gap year volunteer programs in orphanages abroad are fueling a system whereby children are separated from their families. Many ‘orphanages’ that you come across in countries like Cambodia are unregistered and running illegally, providing scam programs selling experiences to Western volunteers which are nothing more than a lie.

3. Orphanages are not a suitable place for children to grow up

Eighty years of research has proven that an orphanage is never a good place for a child to grow up - regardless of how good or well run it appears. Children who grow up in institutions are much more vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and exploitation. They also face a higher risk of homelessness, mental health challenges and suicide. It was these findings that convinced countries such as the UK, USA and Australia to move away from using orphanages and adopt a family-based care model instead. Children in other parts of the world deserve the same chance to grow up in a loving family setting, where they can develop and thrive. Sadly, the practice of volunteering in orphanages is keeping them open and preventing the reform which is needed.

4. Child abusers gain access to children by volunteering in orphanages

The vast majority of volunteers are good-hearted people who want nothing but the best for the children they are working with. But not everyone thinks this way. Orphanage volunteer programs are often extremely unregulated, which means pretty much anyone can gain access to a vulnerable child. In the UK, USA or Australia it would be virtually impossible to pay some money and then walk into a safe house for vulnerable children to play with them. The safety measures which exist in these countries are in place to protect children. The only way to completely safeguard against child abuse occurring in orphanages overseas at the hands of foreign volunteers is to stop the practice of orphanage volunteering.

5. Children are not tourist attractions

On the whole, volunteers have extremely noble intentions. They want to spend their time and money trying to do some good at orphanages that need help. However, the scale of this practice has led to children becoming a tourist commodity. You might volunteer in an orphanage in Africa whilst on your gap year in the same way that you might go on safari. Volunteering with children has become another ‘experience’ to tick off the bucket list whilst travelling overseas. 

There are substantially more orphanages near popular tourist hotspots and it has become increasingly common to see adverts promoting orphanages visits or dance shows at hostels and in tuk-tuks. 

Children have become something that can be marketed and sold, earning a lot of money for orphanage owners. In the very worst cases, the children are kept malnourished and dirty so as to leverage increased donations from unsuspecting tourists and volunteers. Some children are forced to put on dance or cultural shows all day, whilst others are loaned and sold between orphanages like animals in a zoo. Check out this campaign by the ChildSafe Movement to find out more.

There is a better way to help children overseas

All of this is extremely depressing reading, but there is a better way to help children overseas! If you’ve just got your A-Level results or university degree, or just fancy a year away from the office, here’s some suggestions of alternative ways you may wish to support:

  • Tell your friends and family about what you have discovered about supporting orphanages. The only way we’re going to see this practice stopped is if more and more people change their behaviour!
  • Donate to or volunteer for programs which keep children and their families together. Volunteer your time with an organisation that doesn't offer orphanage volunteering, or support one of the organisations that are actively tackling the underlying reasons why children are ending up in orphanages.
  • Travel! It is absolutely brilliant to spend your gap year travelling and experiencing the world. You don’t have to volunteer abroad to make a difference. When you know where you’re going, do some research to find out about local social enterprises and ethical businesses that pay their workers fairly and offer some benefit to the community. Remember, if parents can afford to care for their children they won’t be as likely to place them in an orphanage. Buy and shop locally, talk to people and share ideas. You’re going to have an amazing time!
  • Check out the brilliant resources available on the Learning Service website, which will help you design a great gap year for good. They’ve even written a book all about ethical international volunteering.
  • Vote with your wallet and avoid giving your support to organisations who run or promote orphanage volunteering, visits or day trips. If the demand isn’t there children will not be unnecessarily separated from their families.
  • Do not give to children who are begging on the streets or buy souvenirs offered by them! Doing so only keeps them on the streets for longer.

Join us in building a better alternative for children and help families stay together. Find out more and get involved.

UCAS Points & University Credits

Lots of young people decide to undertake voluntary work in an orphanage during their gap year to earn UCAS points or University Credit. However, more and more Universities are now becoming clear on the harms of this type of volunteering. Check out this petition signed by Universities across the UK pledging not to support orphanage volunteering! 

Gap Years for Grown Ups

Gap years aren’t just for the under 18s. Hundreds of professionals take sabbaticals from work each year in order to set out to volunteer abroad. It’s a great opportunity to take a break from your career and add to your existing skill-set, all while seeing more of the world.  

Unlike gap year programs for teenagers or recent university graduates, professionals can apply for volunteer roles abroad which will see them putting their hard-earned qualifications and skills to good use. If you’re a qualified teacher, doctor or engineer for example, there are plenty of programs out there looking for people like you to get involved.

However, when it comes to volunteering in an orphanage, even if you are qualified in a relevant area, like social work or child psychology, it is still not a good idea to donate your time in this way. Look for roles instead which would see you using your skills to help strengthen families and communities. Read more about alternative ways to support vulnerable children abroad.

Can I volunteer in a good orphanage?

When hearing about the issue of orphanage volunteering for the first time lots of would-be volunteers understandably ask the question, ‘but can’t I volunteer in a good orphanage?’. Of course, not all orphanages are run by corrupt people who wish to exploit children for all their worth, but it is extremely important to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ orphanage. It doesn’t matter how great the orphanage appears, how knowledgeable and kind the staff are or how well they treat the children. It doesn’t even matter how happy the children seem or how much you paid to volunteer there. When all is said and done, it is still an orphanage and so isn’t capable of providing children with the one-to-one and continuous support and care they need during their development. By volunteering in an orphanage - be it well run or not - you are endorsing an outdated and harmful model or care, which isn’t doing what is best for children. Orphanages never trump a loving family.

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 gap year, 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 or volunteers in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education, the harms to children are the same!

What’s the best length of time to spend volunteering in an orphanage?

Most volunteers tend to only have a maximum of a few months over the summer to give to a volunteering project, but as a gapper you have the luxury of time on your side. There’s a general assumption that volunteering on a short-term project (2 weeks or less) is unethical, whilst volunteering for longer is better. When it comes to orphanages, this simply isn’t the case. Whether you spend a few weeks, months or years volunteering in an orphanage, you’d still be helping to sustain an industry that is exploiting children. In short, the best length of time to spend volunteering in an orphanage is no time at all.

Choosing a great volunteer program

So, you shouldn’t volunteer in an orphanage during your gap year, but that definitely doesn’t mean don’t volunteer at all! Volunteering abroad can be an excellent thing to do, but it’s often not as straightforward as it seems. 

Every year thousands of volunteers who want to do some good in the world set out to countries such as Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Ghana to get involved in one of thousands of overseas volunteering programs available. You just need to think carefully and do your research to make sure you’re participating in a program which doesn’t cause more harm than good. After all the world is a complicated place and social problems are hard to solve regardless of which country you’re in - it deserves some careful consideration on your part. But not to worry! We’ve got some great resources to help you:

Don’t participate in orphanage volunteering and join us in building a better alternative for children, helping families stay together!

Spread the word!

Apart from not volunteering in an orphanage yourself, the best thing you can do to help stop this practice is to talk to your friends and family about the issue. The more people who understand what’s happening the more chance we have at ending the cycle of support for orphanages which is breaking up families. 

Why not share our film on your social media or directly with a friend who might be considering volunteering abroad? You could even organise a screening during your gap year fair at your school or University to spread the message further by using our handy screening toolkit!