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Study abroad in an orphanage (program for US students) in Africa, Asia and South Africa: why it is a bad idea 

Choosing to study abroad whilst at College or University is a brilliant way to see the world, experience a different culture, gain new skills and meet new people. But just in case you’re thinking of visiting or volunteering at an orphanage whilst studying abroad, a word of warning. 

Your college experience doesn’t have to consist of just your time on campus! Thousands of students take up exciting study abroad opportunities each year - some for just a summer or semester, others for a whole year at a time. There are literally hundreds of programs to choose from based all over the world!

If you fancy trying your hand at learning Swahili in Kenya, studying temple architecture in Cambodia or natural medicine in Peru, you may find you have the opportunity to spend some time at an orphanage. Or maybe you’re studying social work, child health or international development and think you might like to specialise in a career in child care once you graduate. An orphanage visit or program could make up a formalised part of your study abroad experience or it could be something extra you choose to do with your weekends or time off. The important thing to be aware of is that although on the surface helping out at an orphanage may seem like a brilliant way to give back, it's actually an incredibly problematic thing to do!

How an orphanage placement does more harm than good

It may appear completely counterintuitive to say that spending time helping at an orphanage whilst studying abroad is a bad thing, but here’s why:

1. Orphanages are harmful to a child’s development

Decades and decades worth of research has proven that an orphanage is not a good setting for a child to grow up. Children, and especially babies, require consistent and one-to-one care and interaction, which isn’t possible to provide even in the world’s best-run institutions. The lack of appropriate care leads to damage to a child’s mental, physical and emotional development, which often endures into adulthood. We know that children in orphanages are more likely to be abused, trafficked or exploited, and once grown up are more likely to enter into sex work, have a criminal record or take their own life. Ever wondered why you can’t volunteer or help out at an orphanage in the United States? Well, countries such as the US, UK and Australia turned away from that model of care a long time ago,when they realised how damaging it was to children. Why do children anywhere else in the world not deserve the same level of consideration regarding what’s best for their development?

2. The majority of children in orphanages aren’t orphans

For most people, they want to help out at an orphanage because they believe they’re doing something good for children who have gone through the trauma of losing their parents. However, we now know that around 80% of children growing up in orphanage care across the world have one or both of their parents alive. Bearing in mind what we know regarding the harm caused by growing up in an institution, the obvious question is why aren’t these children with their families?

3. Support for orphanages is creating a demand for orphans

Over the years, the number of orphans across the world has decreased, but strangely the number of orphanages has gone up. Why is this? As the act of supporting orphanages has become increasingly common in countries such as the USA, Australia and across Europe, a market for orphanages and orphans has been created. Millions of dollars are poured into the global orphanage industry each year via donations, sponsorship and volunteer program fees. All of a sudden, owning or running an orphanage is a very lucrative business. 

The main reason why children who have families are finding themselves growing up in orphanages is poverty. For some parents they feel they have no choice but to give up their child to an institution - often in the capital city - as they are unable to access good education or health services for them any other way. This is understandably an incredibly difficult decision for parents to make, especially considering that many know they won’t be able to see their child for years due to not being able to afford the travel.

Evidence gathered over the past few years by child right’s organisations also suggests the rise of a much more sinister practice - orphanage trafficking. This is where orphanage directors or owners actively ‘recruit’ children from poorer, vulnerable families in order to fill places and be able to make more money from well-intentioned volunteers and tourists from the West. These scam orphanages are established to make money and so little attention or care is given to the children. In fact, in some of the most corrupt ‘orphanages’, children are purposefully kept malnourished and dirty to increase the likelihood of donations. Abuse and exploitation is rife, completely hidden from the volunteers and visitors who leave believing they have done something really worthwhile.

4. The volunteer or visitor experience is often prioritised over the well-being of the child

When you understand that many orphanages across Asia, Africa and South America are running as businesses to make a profit, prioritising the desires of the paying customer - the volunteer, intern or tourist - makes much more sense. By having a volunteer-first approach, many orphanages completely negate their responsibilities to do what is best for the children in their care. We know of orphanages across the world who force children to perform dance or cultural shows all day to entertain tourists, or sell souvenirs on the streets to earn more money. In addition, due to the reason of wanting to get as many volunteers through the doors as possible, many orphanages do not require any kind of qualification or vetting to work directly with the children. Although volunteers or visitors nearly always come with the best intentions, without the proper training they won’t necessarily recognise when something they or another person is doing is harmful for the child. We also know that some people who wish to abuse children sign up to volunteer or visit orphanages abroad because they know they’ll have access to children, usually completely unsupervised.

5. Supporting an orphanage is an endorsement for the status quo

Some people when hearing about this issue for the first time respond by saying that surely we should be focusing on making sure that orphanages aren’t corrupt and not that they shouldn’t exist at all. After all, it is true that ‘real’ orphans do exist in the world and where are they suppose to go if all the orphanages have been closed? This argument is understandable, but it is important to remember that no orphanage - regardless of how clean or well-set up it is - is a good orphanage when it comes to child well-being and development. Children need to grow up in loving families. More and more governments, businesses, churches, charities and individuals are moving away from endorsing institutions, but currently, the support given by volunteers, tourists and visitors is helping to prop up the system. Whilst the support continues to be directed to orphanages, better alternatives for children such as foster care and adoption are not receiving the resources they need to get set up.

Learning through volunteering

Our friends over at Learning Service have written a brilliant book called Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, which we would highly recommend you read should you be considering participating in a voluntary experience whilst studying abroad. They also give some fantastic advice on how to increase your learning whilst travelling. 

Choosing the best study abroad program in Africa, Asia or South America

Hopefully this page has helped aid your understanding of why supporting an orphanage whilst studying abroad is not the best thing to do. So, how should you go about choosing a great study abroad program with opportunities to volunteer?

  • Firstly, it’s important to remember that not all orphanages will go by that name, so when you’re researching be sure to keep your eyes peeled for these terms too: children’s home, children’s institution, children’s village, boarding school, safe houses or shelters. Regardless of the name, if a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care, such as shelter, food and clothing, from paid staff members then it is an orphanage and damages children’s development in the exact same way
  • Why not start by checking out our volunteer checklist? It will help you think through some key questions about any placement that you might be considering that includes a volunteer project.
  • If you’re wanting to work with children take a look at our page on other child volunteering projects, or alternatives to orphanage volunteering.
  • Try and get involved in programs which keep children and their families together. Check out this list of organisations that are actively tackling the underlying reasons why children are ending up in orphanages.
  • Travel! It is absolutely brilliant to spend your free time whilst studying abroad exploring the country or region. You don’t have to volunteer abroad to make a difference. Once you know which country you’ll be in, do some research online to find out about local ethical businesses or social enterprises which pay their workers fairly and somehow give back to the community. Remember, poverty is the main reason why parents are forced to send their children to orphanages, so be sure to buy and shop locally.