Short term mission trips to orphanages abroad (Africa, Asia, etc.): why it is a bad idea
For a long time, visiting or volunteering in an orphanage has been an extremely common feature of short-term mission trips to Africa, Asia and South America. But over the past decade, new research, evidence and thinking has come to light which shows that instead of helping, this practice is actually harming the very children it intends to serve.
Short-term mission trips to orphanages in countries such as Kenya, Haiti and India often provide extremely rewarding experiences to those involved and are done with the best of intentions. However, extensive research conducted by child protection organisations across the world, means that we now know the practice of short-term mission in orphanages is sustaining a system which is keeping children from what they need most - a loving, caring family.
It’s time for the practice of short-term mission in orphanages to be examined and the practice changed in order to do what’s best for children. Here are our top 5 things to know if you’re organising or taking part in a short-term mission trip to an orphanage this year:
1. 80% of children living in orphanages aren’t orphans
When we consider participating in a mission to or visiting an orphanage, we assume that we will be caring for children who have lost one or both their parents. However, out of the reported 8 million children growing up in orphanages across the world, only 20% are actually orphans - the rest have at least one living parent.
2. Short-term mission trips to orphanages incentivise orphanage trafficking
If the majority of children in orphanages have parents, we need to consider why they are there at all. A common assumption is that parents abandon their children, but we know that in the majority of cases, parents feel they have no choice but to send their child to live in an orphanage simply because it is the only way they can access good quality education and health services.
Very sadly, vulnerable families can also be specifically targeted by corrupt orphanage owners who wish to ‘recruit’ children to fill the spaces in their orphanage and exploit them for financial gain. This practice, known as orphanage trafficking, is a serious crime and exists due to the huge amount of money which can be generated by owning an orphanage and charging volunteers and mission teams to visit. We can now see a direct correlation between the number of churches and individuals choosing to support an orphanage and the number of orphanages being established worldwide - this, despite the fact that the number of orphans worldwide has been steadily decreasing over the past two decades. Although done with the best of intentions, the practice of volunteering in an orphanage is actively seeing children being unnecessarily separated from their families in order to be exploited.
3. Orphanages are harmful to a child’s development
A hugely important part of a child’s development is the consistent and stable attachment they have with their primary caregiver. This attachment helps them to make sense of the world whilst feeling safe and secure, as well as helps them to develop the ability to trust and form other relationships. Many children who grow up in orphanages, even those that are well resourced, experience attachment disorders and developmental delays. Read more about the harm done to a child’s development whilst growing up in an orphanage.
Children in orphanages are at high risk of experiencing abuse
Nearly 80 years of research has proven that children who grow up in orphanages are much more vulnerable to abuse and neglect. The practice of volunteering or mission trips to orphanages is also a way that children can be exposed to abuse. Volunteers rarely have to undergo any form of background check before signing up to visit an orphanage and so this type of volunteering has become a target for adults who wish to abuse or exploit children. The best way to prevent this abuse from happening is to make sure that access to children in an orphanage setting is restricted to professional, permanent staff only.
Supporting orphanages hinders care reform efforts
Countries across the developing world have made commitments to transition away from using residential care centres towards family-based care instead. However, with money from international donors, sponsors and short-term mission continuing to prop up the orphanage industry, little resourcing is being put to establishing child welfare systems which are better for children.
Find out more about the harms of orphanage care and what we can do instead to support vulnerable children.
How can I plan an ethical short-term mission trip?
If you’re planning a short-term mission trip you’re in luck! Our faith-based partner organisations have developed some excellent guidance documents and resources to support you in understanding how to avoid any potential harm and instead ensure positive outcomes for vulnerable children, their families and their communities.
Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO)
Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
Faith to Action
SOE (Standards of Excellence in Short-term Mission)
How can I help bring an end to short-term mission trips to orphanages?
Short-term mission trips to orphanages are an established component within the global church’s understanding of their responsibility to vulnerable children. It is definitely not easy to change this practice, but it is possible! Below we’ve put some practical suggestions for ways that short-term missions can be redirected towards programs helping to keep families together.
1. Raise awareness
Reading this webpage, you may be thinking how have you never heard of this issue before. Although gaining traction within the global church community, this is still far from being common knowledge and so everybody has a responsibility to talk to others and encourage them to think about their role and the role of their church in doing what’s in the best interests of children worldwide. Share what you’ve read here today about the harms associated with short-term mission trips to orphanages with your church leadership and congregation members.
2. Change policy
Advocate for policy to be created and implemented at your church which prevents short-term mission teams or individuals from volunteering in or visiting orphanages.
3. Examine your partnerships
Do you have current partners who encourage short-term mission trips to orphanages that you could arrange to speak to about this issue? Could you choose partners in future based on their commitment to not run these types of trips?
4. Short-term mission preparation
Include a session on the harms of orphanage volunteering and visits in your pre-trip training in order to raise awareness amongst team members before you depart.