Let’s think twice about orphanages and volunteering by Manasi Nikam

Volunteers jump at the chance of going to developing countries to help orphans, believing that they will make a difference in the lives of these children. But there is a dark side to orphanages, that is orphanage tourism, and ISS scholars are increasingly advising against engaging in this pursuit.

Studies indicate that 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent[1]. The next question that springs to mind is: Why are they living in orphanages, then? The answer is obvious—poverty. Parents often choose to send their children to a residential caring facility hoping that the children will have access to better nutrition, education, and healthcare. But I want to raise the question: Are orphanages actually as virtuous as we believe them to be? Are there other ways of supporting children other than institutionalizing them? By donating to or volunteering in orphanages, are we really helping the children? Do we like the feel good factor in supporting orphanages, or do we really want to make a difference?

The Orphan Industry

Kristen Cheney from ISS was invited as a speaker at The Hague Talks on November 20, 2018. She voiced her concerns on orphanage tourism, a phenomenon that is taking over across sub-Saharan Africa.  She pointed out that in the 1990s, when sub-Saharan Africa was severely affected by AIDS, there were about 3,000 orphans in institutional care in Uganda. By 2017, the number of children in institutional care shot up to 40,000. The massive increase in the number of orphans is linked to interests of Westerners, especially youngsters, who want to do something meaningful, so they opt to volunteer in developing countries.

This rather benevolent sentiment soon became commodified and there was a proliferation of companies that promised to give Western youngsters ‘vacation with a difference’ for a fee. On the other hand, children belonging to poor families are being pulled away from their parents by orphanages in order to raise funds, making running an orphanage a lucrative business. This phenomenon is not just limited to sub-Saharan Africa. In Kerala, India, orphanages have mushroomed that purchase children belonging to poor families for meager sums of 1000 or 3000 Rupees and collect donations from Gulf countries.

Volunteering: Are we really making a difference?

As for the volunteers who want to help communities, they unwittingly become a part of the problem that keeps children in orphanages. When I volunteered in an orphanage in India for about two years, I witnessed the various issues that arise in context of interaction of youngsters with children. Children would often get attached to volunteers without realising that their presence is only temporal. And I believe that although each volunteer cared for the children to the best of their abilities, we fell short of providing the children with the kind of emotional support that they need following abandonment, family tragedies, or poverty. There were also instances of sexual abuse by older children on younger ones. Give that it was an all-boys shelter, the children were not exposed to the female gender on a daily basis, as a result of which they were unsure of how to behave around women and girls their age. There have been occasions where the children had remarked inappropriately on my appearance and other women such as the cook, as we were the only females that the children were exposed to on a regular basis.  In a family or community environment, children are sensitised about interacting with the opposite sex and develop socialising skills. Their behaviour receives individualised attention, something that an institution does not provide; therefore their actions go uncorrected.

Abuse endured by children in orphanages

Besides, children in orphanages are easy prey for sexual predators within as well as outside the institution. The case of Bihar, where 34 out of 42 girls aged between 7 and 17 in a shelter were raped by the custodian of the shelter as well as outsiders, shed light on the unspeakable abuse the children suffered. The accused in the case also included the child protection officer appointed by the local governing body. After the shelter in Bihar was exposed, a spate of similar crimes in other states surfaced in the media. Plainly, orphanages are not as virtuous as we believe them to be.

 What now?

Orphanages have an intuitive and emotional appeal. They after all shelter the most vulnerable sections of society. But we all know that the orphanage is not the best place to raise a child. A familial environment is required to meet a child’s emotional, psychological, and developmental needs. The Netherlands is considering banning foreign adoption, given that it leads to institutionalisation of children and can also hamper the development of robust child protection systems in the children’s native countries.

The International Institute of Social Studies has given due recognizance this problem. It is the first educational institution in The Netherlands to sign the pledge against orphanage volunteering. The pledge is an initiative undertaken by the Better Care Network and London School of Economics Volunteer Centre that can be adopted by institutions for higher education. The Better Care Network has also produced a movie ‘The Love You Give’ that shows how volunteers unwittingly are breaking up families and harming the very children that they want to help.

 Clearly, it’s high time we rethink the role played by volunteers, donations and childcare institutions in the lives of children and think of more holistic solutions. Before signing off, I only hope I have given you enough food for thought and enough reasons to stop and think before you make a donation to an orphanage or volunteer.

[1] The Love you Give Partner Toolkit (2018), Better Care Network.

Nanjappa, V. (2014). Kerala’s orphan industry sell’s kids in the Gulf’. rediffNEWS (online) Accessed on 8 December 2018.
Cheney, K. (2018) ‘Combatting the Orphan Industrial Complex’ Hague Talks (online)
Cheney, K. (2016). ‘The Netherlands’ proposed ban on foreign adoption and the (ab)uses of ‘scientific expertise’. Open Democracy (online). As accessed on 19th December 2018.
Biswas, S. (2018). The horror story inside an Indian children’s home. BBC News (online). Accessed on 8 December 2018.
McCann, C. (2017). #StopOrphanTrips. ISS is first in the Netherlands to join the global campaign to stop orphanage volunteering. Stahili Foundation. (online) As accessed on 19 December 2018.


About the author:

Manasi Nikam is a student of MA in Social Policy for Development at ISS.  She has co-authored ‘Children of India’ a chapter on the status of well-being of children, for Public Affairs Index 2018.



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  • Claire Bennett
    9 February 2019

    Here is a serialized life story of a young person who grew up in such an orphanage in Nepal: http://learningservice.info/i-was-the-child-you-played-with-a-life-on-the-streets-and-in-an-orphanage-part-one/

    • Manasi Nikam
      9 February 2019

      Thank you for sharing the article. It was heartening to know that Sushil could carve out a future for themselves inspite of his circumstances. But looking at the larger picture, we see how children are exploited in the name of doing good. It is even more disheartening to know that the perpetrators can get away with it due to their connections and can continue exploiting children.

  • Eliza
    6 February 2019

    This is a reflexive piece Nikam that provides a space for us to be reflexive on how we work with children. I also worked in a children’s home as a local volunteer and a social worker. The notion of a volunteer then was a person who gets to work for no money irrespective of the length of time and this also on its own had its own implications for the kind of care provided to the children. I remember one of my colleagues asking if his children will also become street children because he was not able to pay their school fees even as he was busy working with former street children. The problem therefore also becomes very complicated when read from this perspective and I agree volunteers are just one of the nodes.
    And I always say we should not forget the role of the big brother, the state as the arbiter of the rights of these children. The organization I worked for ran a school on the side and this was what attracted many children who could not afford schooling in more regular schools. This was despite the fact that education was still “free” then but with lots of hidden costs. Risa from Japan explored these perspectives last year in her research on de-institutionalization policy for the Kenyan context.
    And this brings me to the other issue; representing children. I remember a colleague who decided to give sweets to children during her farewell party. She instead decided to throw the sweets in the air and children stumbled on each other as they collected the sweets, something that left a stale feeling in the mouth of everybody even as she took her flight home. And this brings me to this image used here by the peace corps volunteer that somebody has commented about in another forum. In my practice with children I do not use any photo of children that I have found in the internet whether I credit the owner or not because it also strips these children of their context. It is very clear that the volunteer who took this photo with the ring worms and all thought she was doing a service to the children, and I am supposing “of Africa” as they call them in this industry. It not only strips these children of their dignity, but this gaze is very problematic. Perhaps we can become more reflexive on the photos we use or allow (Bliss over to you too). Despite our good intentions, if we allow these photos, then we also collude in this iconography of ‘African Children’ or “Other” children even as we display them to be consumed by you and me

    • Admin
      7 February 2019

      Dear Eliza,

      Thank you for your comment and the valuable insights. Although the photo was meant to critically display the position of the volunteer, we understand your concerns, especially regarding the question of consent of the children to being photographed. We changed the picture accordingly.

    • Manasi Nikam
      9 February 2019

      Thank you for your comment Eliza. Bliss as you can see has changed the picture in the blog, so thank you for pointing that out. I agree with you about the nature of volunteering, the lack of compensation and therefore the implications it has on the commitment and accountability of volunteers. Not to say that this applies to all volunteers but nonetheless its an issue we cannot ignore.

      The shelter home where I worked at sent children to a government school, but the children could not cope up with the syllabus as many did not even know how to write. I volunteered as a teacher to these children, and I observed that some of them were very intelligent but due to their unfortunate circumstances they were unable to realize their abilities. So as you pointed out, this has larger connotations for the education system and the role of the state.

  • Simon Collery
    6 February 2019

    Thank you for this welcome article, Manasi, it is remarkably difficult to shift the perception of orphanages as being inherently good! I ran one in Tanzania for over three years, gradually reuniting every child with their family, or in an environment where their special needs could be addressed. Sadly, closing one orphanage meant that a few of them were enticed into another, despite being reunited with their family. In addition, there are many other problems aside from poverty, which was not the real reason for some children being institutionalized; some families were not poor at all. Finally, although the issues of volunteers and voluntourism also need to be addressed, orphanages that don’t employ volunteers have many of the same problems of those that do. Volunteers and voluntourism became additional problems affecting some orphanages. But the very concepts of orphanhood, institutionalization and others need to be addressed because these have been around for a long time, and they have always been problems, they didn’t just become problems after the 90s, or after volunteering became a big industry. Your conclusion highlights one of the most fruitful solutions: stop funding orphanages and institutions, volunteer for NGOs that don’t institutionalize children, don’t support people and NGOs that are not clearly doing something necessary, and good.

    • Manasi Nikam
      9 February 2019

      Thank you for sharing your experience Simon. You made an interesting observation that some children were institutionalized inspite of not being poor. Can you explain the reason for this?