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. 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.
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.
 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.