ReThink Orphanages Study Abroad

    Orphanage volunteering trips abroad for university and school groups

    Whilst at School, College or University, students may have the opportunity to get involved in a wide range of volunteering trips, both in their own country and abroad. Volunteering experiences in orphanages across Africa, Asia and South America are particularly popular, but more and more institutions are beginning to actively discourage them due to the harm caused to the children involved.

    Volunteering is a great thing to do. It’s a brilliant way to utilise existing skills and gain new ones, meet people and make new friends, grow in confidence and have interesting experiences to add to a CV - all the while doing something good for society. It’s no wonder that it’s widely encouraged at Schools and Universities across the world. 

    However, volunteering isn’t always as simple as it seems - especially when it comes to volunteering abroad.

    International volunteering, or ‘voluntourism’ as it is commonly referred to, involves students travelling abroad to volunteer from between 1 week to a few months at a time - normally during their spring break or summer vacation. Some students participate in an independent gap year before or after their education; others get involved in volunteering trips organised directly by their School or University. Programs can range from anything from teaching to building projects, conservation to medicine.


    What is voluntourism?

    Voluntourism is the term used to describe short-term volunteering placements engaged with by tourists. It is formed by the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism’. In the majority of cases, ‘voluntourists’ do not have prior skills or qualifications relevant to the volunteer role, and the experience tends to be designed more for their benefit and enjoyment than for the community it is said to be helping. Both registered charities and for-profit private companies organise and run voluntourism programs sometimes charging upwards of $2,000 for a 3 week trip.

    When it comes to orphanage volunteering trips, lots of Schools and Universities are starting to actively discourage their students from participating, as they have come to realise that these trips are harmful to both their students and to the children involved. Here’s why:

    1. Volunteering in orphanages is creating a demand for more orphans

    The number of orphans in the world has been declining consistently over the past 18 years, but oddly the number of orphanages worldwide has been rising. Why is this? 

    As the practice to volunteer or visit an orphanage whilst abroad has gained in popularity amongst tourists, a market has been developing in countries such as Cambodia, Tanzania and Nepal in order to meet this demand. Essentially what is happening is well-intentioned volunteers wishing to support orphanages in need are unknowingly creating a demand for orphanages and orphans. Currently, over 80% of children living in orphanages across Africa, Asia and South America have at least one living parent. In short, they are not what we would commonly define as an ‘orphan’. They are placed in orphanages for two common reasons, both of which are fueled by the existence of orphanage volunteering trips.

    Firstly, for some poorer parents, often living in rural areas without access to good quality health services or education for their children, sending their child away to grow up in an orphanage seems like the only option available in order to give them a good start in life. As money from the voluntourism industry pumps into orphanages, parents can become even more convinced that they, in comparison to an orphanage, are unable to provide what their child needs to thrive.

    Secondly, a practice known as orphanage trafficking has begun in some parts of the world. Orphanage trafficking is a form of modern slavery and refers to the recruitment of children into institutions for the purpose of exploitation. Through this practice, children are separated from their families through coercion or force and taken to live in scam orphanages were they are often neglected and abused. In existence to make a profit, these orphanages are often run by people without any child care experience or qualifications, and operate completely unregistered meaning that there is no record of the children who enter and leave them. Within this murky system children simply disappear. Volunteers are rarely exposed to the abuse taking place and leave feeling like they have contributed something good.

    Although a volunteering trip to an orphanage as a student may appear like a great thing to do on the surface, these types of experiences when added together are fuelling something much more sinister. Namely, the separation of children from their families in order to make easy money for traffickers.

    How Universities and Schools are supporting the global volunteering industry

    Universities and Schools are helping to sustain the orphanage industry worldwide in three key ways:

    1. Through running or advertising orphanage volunteer trips abroad to their students. 
    2. Through encouraging or facilitating students and their families to fundraise for, donate to or sponsor orphanages abroad.
    3. By not actively educating students on the harms of orphanage care or the practice of orphanage voluntourism meaning that they may go on to support orphanages later on in their lives.

    2. Orphanages are harmful to a child’s development

    When hearing about the issue of orphanage volunteering for the first time school, university and college students often ask about ‘good’ orphanages they can volunteer with instead. It’s important to stress that no orphanage is a good orphanage, regardless of how well run it is or how well treated the children are. 

    Over 80 years of research has shown that an orphanage is never a good environment for a child in comparison to a loving family. Children in orphanages suffer damage and delays to nearly every area of their emotional and physical development. This bank of evidence is why we no longer have orphanages in countries such as the UK, US and Australia. Read more about why orphanages are harmful for children.

    When it comes to volunteering programs in orphanages, lots of people are attracted to get involved because they like the idea of showing affection and care to vulnerable children. However, the constant turnover of volunteers in the lives of the children harms their ability to form strong and stable attachments and relationships. They become used to being shown love for a few days or weeks at a time, before once again being abandoned and having to start the cycle again. What may feel ‘good’ for the volunteer is doing long-term damage to the child.

    Worryingly still, orphanage volunteering programs pose a risk to child safety due to the fact that the majority do not require a potential volunteer to undergo any background checks. This means that people with the intention of physically, sexually or emotionally abusing a child are able to gain easy access by posing as a volunteer wanting to do good.

    3. Orphanage volunteering trips put students at risk

    Students are rarely expected to have certain skills or qualifications to gain a place on an orphanage volunteering program meaning that often they are extremely unprepared for what they find. Volunteers can quickly feel out of their depth and hugely stressed as they grapple with what the best thing to do is for the children in their care. With little to no prior training or experience, the reality of volunteering in an orphanage can be extremely distressing. 

    Additionally, if volunteers witness or are told about abuse taking place in the orphanage and decide to try and do something about it, they may be placing themselves in danger. Orphanage owners have a financial incentive to ensure abuse remains behind closed doors and incidents have been reported of volunteers suffering verbal and physical threats.

    4. Children shouldn’t be treated as a testing ground for students

    Lots of school, college and university students get involved in orphanage volunteering each year as a way to gain experience and skills that may be useful to them in a future career. Students considering careers in international development, child care or social work may decide to sign up to volunteer in an orphanage abroad in order to ‘test out’ their suitability and help them stand out from the crowd in competitive job markets. Although done with the best of intentions, students would not be able to access vulnerable children in this way in their own countries and so they must ask themselves why it is any different with children from different parts of the world. There are lots of other ways that young people can develop the necessary skills needed to get into their career of choice, but even if there weren’t, a child’s development and well-being should never be jeopardised simply for the benefit of student employability.

    How can universities and schools support better volunteering abroad?

    Universities and schools which actively support student volunteering abroad often have policies in place which volunteer travel providers have to meet before their programs will be advertised to the student body. These normally focus on the cost to the student for participating on the program (it’s generally important to universities and schools that programs are affordable to as many of their students as possible) and also with regards the safety standards which the program must adhere to (especially for programs aimed at under 18s). 

    More and more education institutions are changing the way they support vulnerable children abroad and adding to their existing policies that they will not advertise or otherwise endorse orphanage volunteering placements. 

    Here are our top 5 suggestions of how you can do the same:

    1. Check out these educational resources designed to support you to understand more about the issue and how your institution may be involved so that you can do something about it.
    2. Spread the word about what you’ve learnt here about orphanage volunteering and help promote alternatives to orphanage volunteering to support instead.
    3. If your students are keen to organise their own overseas volunteering trip encourage them to read our volunteer checklist to help them choose an ethical, responsible provider. If they’re particularly interested in volunteering with children, check out our page on how to do this well.
    4. If you’re wanting to organise a volunteer trip to run with your students see our list of organisations that do not offer orphanage volunteering and contact us if you would like to discuss further.
    5. We know that support for orphanages can be encouraged in lots of different ways within a school, college or university. For example, by individual teachers, by volunteer or service learning committees, by church groups or careers advisors.
    6. Advocate across your institution to increase your chances of seeing a full transition away from supporting orphanages towards better alternatives.