Volunteering in orphanages deeply misguided, harms children in the process, advocates charge

Children at an orphanage in Liberia who had been put under a 21-day quarantine. AP Dec. 2014

It seems like a straightforward problem. Even the Bible says so. Orphans are children who have no support and need of love and support, a need heightened when those children live in poverty.

The reality, on the other hand, is not so simple. A new campaign, with the backing of some major humanitarian organizations, wants to stop all volunteering in and visiting orphanages in developing countries. The problem is that the money and attention that flows to orphanages set up perverse incentives that break up families and perpetuate a lie that orphaned children are a bigger problem than it is.

Better Volunteering Better Care (BVBC), a global working group composed of individuals and organizations, is campaigning against international volunteering in orphanages. With the leadership of the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK, the group is working with travel bloggers and volunteer companies to encourage alternatives to orphanage volunteering. Children around the world are in need of support, but volunteering in an orphanage can do more harm than good.

“It is really difficult to get people to realize that something they did with a good intention might have caused harm – especially if it involved children,” Anna McKeon, a communications consultant with BVBC, told Humanosphere.

When AIDS spread across sub-Saharan African and through other developing regions in the mid-1990s, UNICEF widened its definition of an orphan as “a child who has lost one or both parents.” With a reported 132 million children classified as orphans in 2005, it appeared that there was a global emergency at hand. But people did not realize that the number included tens of millions of children living with one parent or other family members. The number of children with no parents was 13 million.

At the same time, orphans were a growing concern among Christian groups. Sections of the Bible call for the care of the least among us, including orphans. Churches and various community groups heeded that call by providing financial support for orphans and by traveling to volunteer at orphanages. Money and resources poured into these orphanages, providing more for orphaned children and creating incentives for parents to send their children to the facilities.

Soon it came to light that children were living in orphanages and being adopted by foreigners despite having living family members, including parents. Adoptive parents were unknowingly taking children from their parents. And volunteers at the orphanages were aiding the expansion of the whole enterprise.

“Volunteering and short-term trips sustain and grow residential care that leads to the separation of children from their families,” said McKeon. “It is providing a barrier to governments moving forward to developing their social services.”

A sort of bargain was struck between orphanages and tourists. Tourists could come to help out and play with kids, for a small fee that helped to sustain and grow the orphanages. The transactional nature and constant stream of volunteers creates the incentive to get children in the orphanages, regardless of their familial situation.

It also allowed unskilled and unverified people to gain access to vulnerable children. Time and again children were exposed to new people who showed a lot of interest and suddenly left. This practice harms the ability of the children to make attachments to people later in life, according to BVBC. Additionally, there were instances of child abuse at the hand of foreigners visiting orphanages in developing countries. While rare, the abuse exposed the lack of oversight.

“When you scale it up, you make it totally normal for unskilled people to have regular access to vulnerable kids,” said McKeon.

The crux of the problem with orphanages is that they do not deal with core issues contributing to poverty, according to the campaign. UNICEF said the standard should be to provide support so that children can stay with their parents. In cases where it is not possible, extended family members and close friends are much better alternatives to strangers and orphanages. There are exceptions, but the overriding ideal is to do what it takes to maintain families.

The very fact that families are willing to send away their children speaks to the problem. Resources should be devoted to alleviating poverty, not passing the buck. The campaign argues that orphanage volunteering perpetuates a deeply misguided solution.

“By telling people it is OK, we are giving them a distorted view of what it is like to try and solve some of these large issues like global poverty,” said McKeon.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Good story… and thank you for bringing a balanced perspective. But I just want to interject that just because a child has a family member or a parent doesn’t mean that the child is without need. In the United States we have (at any one time) approximately 110,000 children in foster care available for adoption. I’d estimate that at least 90% of them have one or both parents alive plus family members.

    I run a small nonprofit, Orphan World Relief, that works with well-run programs around the globe (that work hard, where possible, to keep children connected with family). But if we look at our own children awaiting adoption in the United States, that’s not always possible. And my compassion for a child doesn’t stop if there are living family members. While staying with family is ideal, it’s not always possible or practical.

    In the end, orphanages should not be a solution but a stop gap in the continuum of orphan care. But in some situations, an orphanage is the only solution available. Help at every step in the continuum of care is essential. If we can stop the cycles of poverty, drug abuse, disease (and all of the other causes) that create orphans, we can offer true help long term.

    Thanks!
    Doug Riggle, President
    Orphan World Relief