As I researched the truth behind orphanage volunteering, I was greeted with a photo parade of the smiling, blissfully unaware faces of global volunteers. A group of 20-somethings with large smiles stood kneeling beside skinny children in over-sized clothing at an orphanage in Nepal. Dreadlocked backpackers with handwoven wristbands swayed in tune to the dance performances of orphans in Cambodia. Sun-kissed travelers in faded, college t-shirts stood happily holding hands with toddlers at an African orphanage. All of these volunteers had come to these countries armed with good intentions and a desire to make a difference; none of them realizing that they were playing right into the hands of a sinister and corrupt form of tourism: orphanage volunteering.
Looking at these idyllic shots of Westerners extending a hand to children in need, I could see where the discrepancy rests between what is perceived about orphanage volunteering and what is the reality of it. The compassion of visiting tourists is an incredible emotion and unfortunately one that is monetized in countries such as Cambodia where UNICEF reports only 28% of children in orphanages are in fact orphans. It’s a shocking statistic that causes pause: Why are children who are not orphans ending up in orphanages? How can orphanages possibly be on the rise in a country where the number of orphans have steadily decreased?
The Nasty Business of Fake Orphanages
To explore the answers to these questions, it’s important to step back and look at the larger picture here, to look beyond the smiling faces of volunteers and understand the situation at hand. Most “orphans”–particularly in Cambodia–have at least one living parent; the reason these children are ending up in orphanages comes down to the simple age-old equation of supply and demand: there is a demand for volunteer opportunities from travelers, which is answered with the creation of fake orphanages that funnel children (who are not in fact orphans) in for the sake of making money off uninformed tourists.
Families from poorer, rural areas are manipulated into sending their children to these “institutions” where quality education, better living conditions and access to healthcare is often promised. Instead, the children are sent to fake orphanages where they grow up surrounded by strangers, are vulnerable to neglect, exploitation and even abuse. The sad and jarring truth of the situation then boils down to this: when travelers donate money and time towards these fake orphanages they are not helping orphans, they are creating them. Volunteering at these corrupt orphanages fuels a sinister tourism industry that poses displaced children as an exhibit for travelers to spend time with for a week, snag a few photos with and then walk away from.
Here’s How to Help:
Education is key in helping to debunk the idyllic images associated with orphanage volunteering and to encourage people to better put their time, money and effort into fostering local community programs. Rather than spend a week at an orphanage, volunteers are encouraged to explore ways to help the rural communities where children are being lured from–whether it’s supporting education programs, businesses or programs that fight to keep families together and better that community.
At the end of the day, the ugly truth of orphanage volunteering seems to go against the very future of the travel industry as a whole. Having just returned from a global summit on Sustainable Tourism at the United Nations, the future of travel is defined by sustainable tourism and the desire to not only visit a country but better its economy, society and environment in the process.
The Pin the Map Project’s Commitment:
It is education that marks the difference between visiting a destination and causing irreparable damage to its community (as in the case of fake orphanages). Sustainable travel aims to redefine how we see the world and help foster a mutual respect of one another’s cultures and homes. It’s an incredible effort and one that the United Nations has implemented on a global scale with admirable goals that include everything from eradicating poverty to creating global access to clean energy and water. Having recently joined Travel+SocialGood—a non-profit organization aimed at propelling the travel industry to meet its potential for global positive impact—The Pin the Map Project will leverage its following, readership and influence to promote sustainable practices.
This story was written as part of the Stop Orphanage Volunteering campaign organized by Better Volunteering Better Care. Help us spread the world about the dark side of orphanage volunteering by using the hashtag: #StopOrphanTrips on your social media accounts. Also, please sign the Avaaz petition: calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites! Together, we can change the world.