Volunteering in orphanages has been in the spotlight a fair bit this year.The recent People and Power Aljazeera documentary exposing bad practices in orphanages in Cambodia paints a poor picture of volunteer tourism companies. Something I found particularly unsettling in this programme was the group of Canadian teenagers who were volunteering at the orphanage. Their good intentions were clear to see however it was also evident that the Cambodian children were not benefitting from this kind of volunteering and in fact, it could well have a negative impact as they formed emotional attachments to the Canadians who were only there for a short time.
The film also highlighted how Projects Abroad were placing volunteers in an orphanage that had failed inspections, despite receiving complaints from previous volunteers, and they aren’t running criminal background checks on volunteers under the age of 30. In addition, the volunteers filmed seemed unsure of their role and unsettled by the local situation.
Earlier this year, a campaign began to highlight the issue of exploitation of children in institutions which have been set up to profit from tourists and volunteers wanting to help orphans. This indicated that children were being taken from families who were paid to place the children in the “orphanage”. Michael Horton writes eloquently about the situation on the ground in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in Progress in Responsible Tourism. This is a freely available article and well-worth a read.
Then there was the article in the Telegraph which highlighted similar issues, in particular the emotional impact of short term volunteers in orphanages on the vulnerable children.
Ultimately this leads back to the issue of whether this kind of volunteering is more about the personal growth and experience of the volunteer than aiding the development of local people. My personal view is that inexperienced, unskilled volunteers should not be helping out in orphanages, playing with children or teaching English. There is a role for skilled volunteers who can provide training to local staff and bring expertise, for example a volunteer with experience in social work could help develop and implement a child protection policy.
There are projects that unskilled volunteers can do where they can be of use and contribute to projects in a positive way , for example collecting data to support conservation research or constructing energy efficient stoves or water tanks for rainwater collection.
I hope that the media exposure helps to raise awareness of the issues surrounding orphanage volunteer tourism and young people can make a choice about whether to keep paying companies like Projects Abroad to perpetuate the growth of unscrupulous orphanages.