A woman hugging a child

Universities and student orphanage volunteering: why it is a bad idea

University is a great time to do things you’ve never done before. Whether that’s playing a new sport, learning a language or travelling abroad, thousands of students each year step out of their comfort zone to try something new. A particularly popular activity is to get involved in a student volunteer trip overseas. But here’s a word of warning about volunteering in an orphanage.

Are you a University staff member? We have specific advice for you at the end of this page.

Universities across the world spend a lot of time and resources on supporting their students to volunteer, both in their own communities and further afield. Voluntary action may be a service learning component of a student’s academic study, form part of an internship or be an extracurricular activity they pursue in their spare time. Often promoted as a way to gain extra university credit, boost a CV or develop new skills, volunteering overseas for those who wish to make a positive difference in the world seems like a great thing to do! However, it is much more complicated than it first appears - especially when volunteering with children.

Student volunteering programs to orphanages in countries such as Sri Lanka, Ghana or Ecuador have in the last few years started to be heavily critiqued by a range of child rights organisations. This has meant more and more universities and students are actively turning away from supporting these types of volunteer trips. 

If you’re a university student looking to engage in a volunteering program in an orphanage  during your spring or summer break this year, here’s what you need to know:

1. Volunteering in an orphanage benefits child traffickers and child abusers

The vast majority of people who wish to volunteer in an orphanage want to do so because they care about the well-being of children. However, what most people don’t realise is that they are actually helping sustain a global industry which is hugely damaging to the very children they are trying to support.

As volunteer trips to orphanages have become increasingly popular, especially amongst students, a demand for orphans and orphanages has been created. More and more orphanages are opening in countries such as Kenya, Cambodia and Nepal in order to cater to this demand, and they’re filling their places by separating children from their families. Today, around 80% of children growing up in orphanages across Africa, Asia and South America aren’t actually orphans and have one or both living parents. They find themselves in orphanages largely due to poverty and not because they don’t have a family to care for them.

Orphanage trafficking is the practice of actively recruiting children to move into orphanages away from their families and pretend to be ‘orphans’ for the financial gain of corrupt orphanage owners and directors. Vulnerable families, often from poorer, rural communities, are coerced into giving up their child with the promise that they’ll have a better standard of living growing up in an orphanage with access to high quality education and health services. These scam orphanages are often set up illegally by people with no experience or qualifications in child care. Children are used to give volunteers a ‘good’ experience and may be subject to neglect, abuse and exploitation. 

Volunteering sustains the demand for such orphanages to exist, whilst also normalising access to vulnerable children. The majority of volunteer trips do not require volunteers to undergo any kind of criminal background check, which results in cases of child sex abusers travelling from countries with far stricter child protection regulations to countries across Africa, Asia and South America in order to gain easy access to children. 

The only way to prevent this child exploitation from continuing is to stop the practice of orphanage volunteering.

2. Volunteering in orphanages exacerbates attachment disorders in children

If you walked into a nursery or child care day centre in your own country it is unlikely that the children would all come running over to you wanting to give you hugs and hold your hand. These types of displays of affection by children in orphanages often make volunteers feel that what they are doing is benefitting the children. However, what we need to do is consider why they react to complete strangers in this way. Showing such indiscriminate affection is a sign that a child is suffering from an attachment disorder where they are unable to form secure attachments and thus build healthy relationships. 

Experiencing a constant influx of volunteers who show them affection and care for a few days or weeks at a time only to then leave ensures that children do not receive the consistent and reliable support they need at an extremely important developmental stage in their lives. They come to believe that care and love cannot be relied on - a belief that is hard to shake even when an adult.

How long should I volunteer in an orphanage for?

Often student volunteers are restricted by the time they have available during their spring or summer vacations to take part in a volunteer program. However, when hearing about the damage caused to children by short-term volunteer placements, some students decide to take a gap year in order to be able to volunteer for longer or sign up to take part in an internship scheme. Whether you wish to take a gap year before, during or after your studies volunteering in an orphanage is still also highly problematic. Regardless of whether you volunteer for a few hours, days, weeks, months or years, you are still contributing to the growth of a global industry profiting off the exploitation of children. Read on to find out about better ways that you can support children abroad.

3. All orphanages are harmful to children

Although some are worse than others, it’s important to understand that it isn’t just the obviously corrupt orphanages that are harmful to children. Even orphanages which are clean, well resourced and staffed by kind, qualified professionals are still no substitute for a loving family. 

Over eighty years of research has shown that growing up in an orphanage is harmful to a child’s development and wellbeing - regardless of the standard of that orphanage. That is why we don’t have orphanages in countries such as the UK, USA or Australia anymore and instead use family-based caring methods such as fostering or adoption. 

Despite governments across the world committing to transition away from orphanages to more appropriate models of care for children, the orphanage industry continues to grow due to the financial support which pours in generated by things like volunteer programs, donations or purchasing arts and crafts made by orphans whilst travelling. Volunteering in any orphanage ultimately means that resources are not being put to developing better solutions for children. Read more about why orphanages are not a good place for children to grow up. 

4. Not all orphanages go by that name

As volunteer audiences are becoming more aware of the harms of orphanage trips, some institutions are changing their names in order to continue to attract business. Whilst searching for a student volunteer trip to get involved in you may see orphanages referred to as: children’s homes, shelters, safe houses, children’s villages, transitional homes or residential care institutions. The key thing to remember is if you can visit an institution where a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care from paid staff members, usually in the form of food, shelter, clothing and sometimes education, the harms to children are very likely going to be the same and you should avoid it.

5. Just because a volunteer trip is organised by your university doesn’t mean it is ethical

Staff at universities who organise volunteer trips abroad for their students tend to do it in one of two ways. Either they organise a trip directly with a community member or group in a particular country, or - and this option is more common - they organise the trip via an organisation that specialises in volunteer experiences. 

There is a lot of money to be made in voluntourism and thousands of organisations exist offering every opportunity from building latrines, to animal conservation, to medical placements and of course, volunteering in orphanages. 

Seeing as the majority of volunteer-sending countries no longer use orphanages, the general public generally are not aware of the harm they cause children and see them as a necessary evil. Those organising trips for their students more often than not simply do not know that what they are doing has a huge negative effect. Just because your volunteer trip is organised by your university, or could earn you university credit, does not mean it isn’t replicating the exact same problems as if you were to organise it yourself.

What is voluntourism?

Voluntourism is the term used to describe short-term volunteering placements for tourists. Seeing as the majority of voluntourism placements are under 4 weeks in duration, this tends to be a particularly popular form of overseas volunteering for university students. 

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 companies organise and run voluntourism programs sometimes charging upwards of $2,000 for a trip.

There are better ways to help children abroad

We don’t support any volunteering in orphanages, but that doesn’t mean to say we don’t support volunteering at all or the intention to help children in countries abroad! Luckily there are lots of ways to make a difference as a university student, both during your summer vacation and during term time.

  • The best way to support vulnerable children abroad is to donate to or volunteer for organisations which are working to keep children and their families together. This means tackling the underlying causes of why children end up in orphanages in the first place, as well as working to reunite children in orphanages with their families or supporting the development of more ethical, family-based care initiatives for children whose families cannot be located or are truly unable to care for them. 
  • If you have been convinced to not volunteer at an orphanage abroad, but you’re still interested in volunteering with children, check out this page which gives more information and advice on how to do this in an ethical way.
  • You don’t have to volunteer to build skills, have new experiences, explore different countries or have interesting things to put on your CV. Responsible travel is itself an excellent thing to do during your holidays! Be sure to read these pages on visiting orphanages and buying souvenirs from children whilst travelling before you go though!
  • Why not see if you can research and write an essay on this topic during your studies? This will give you a great opportunity to look into the issue more and will help raise awareness amongst your teachers and peers. There are plenty of resources on this website to get stuck in to and get in touch if we can help
  • One of the most important things you can do to effect change on this issue is to tell other people about it! Whether that’s your friends or classmates who might be considering volunteering abroad, your professors and lecturers, or your campus chaplain - we’re only going to change the tide around orphanage volunteering if as many people as possible know what you now know. Why not host a screening of our campaign film on your campus to raise awareness?

Careers in International Development

Are you considering a career in the international development sector? It’s common for employers to expect candidates to have some overseas experience when applying - hence the popularity in volunteering trips for students in this area of study. As well as organising an ethical travel trip, here’s a few things we recommend:

  • If you’re considering volunteering abroad, read our volunteer checklist to help you make an informed decision about what trip provider to choose. The majority of development organisations, United Nation bodies or social enterprises are very familiar with the arguments against voluntourism, so be sure to do your research and pick your experience wisely.
  • Read widely on issues within development and show you’re thinking about things critically by writing blogs or essays which can be shared with future employers. Maybe you’d like to write something on how you came to the decision not to volunteer in an orphanage!
  • Consider applying for internships or volunteering roles within development or humanitarian agencies in your own country. Gaining experience as to how these organisations work is a great way to help you think through the type of role you might like to apply for. Your university will be able to support you in finding a great opportunity!

Here’s a quote from Kate Adams, Senior Policy Advisor for Hope and Homes for Children, about working in international development:

“Working in international development is all about diligence, dedication and compassion. But most of all, it has to be about having the skills to generate genuine change. If a candidate explained to me that they didn’t volunteer with children abroad because they had done their research about the negative impacts, that would show they had put communities first and would blow me away more than any overseas experience ever could!"

Are you a University staff member?

If you’re a University staff member supporting students to volunteer all this information can feel somewhat overwhelming. But don’t fear! There are lots of ways to get additional support. 
An increasing number of universities across the world are changing the way they support children abroad. 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 university. For example, by individual lecturers, by volunteer or service learning committees, by church groups or careers advisors. Advocate across your institution to increase your chances of seeing a full transition away from supporting orphanages to better alternatives.

Universities take a stand against orphanage volunteering

In Europe, several universities have pledged to not support volunteering in orphanages overseas. The pledge has been designed as a collaboration between the London School of Economics Volunteer Centre and the ReThink Orphanages coalition. Find out more about the University pledge and how your institution can sign up.