One absolute rule volunteers should never break

I write this blog to my 18-year-old-self. She wanted to make a difference and see more of the world, but she was also pretty clueless and she knew she’d probably mess up somehow. There are so many horror stories about ignorant voluntourists, whether they’re building sub-standard schools that get torn down, or just being unwittingly culturally insensitive, it can seem like the best thing to do is stay at home. That’s what I did for years.

If I could talk to 18-year-old me now, I’d reassure her that it only takes a bit of research to do more good than harm as a volunteer. You can find responsible organisations to travel with whether you want to build a school in Africa, teach English, help animals, or work in just about any field you feel passionate about.

There is one exception. One popular field of volunteering has a profound negative impact on the people it is supposed to help. Its effects can last a lifetime, but go unseen by the well-meaning volunteers who contribute to this massive industry. So, what’s the one rule I would tell my younger self?

Don’t volunteer in an orphanage

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Happy, smiling orphans with a volunteer… so what’s the problem? Photo: Projects Abroad

I’ll repeat that: don’t volunteer in an orphanage!

Why is this the one rule I’d set for volunteers? Orphanages are a massively popular avenue for volunteering. A quick Google turns up dozens of options. Each website is plastered with photos like the one above: smiling, grateful orphans who seem to bond incredibly quickly with volunteers, running up to them as soon as they arrive, posing for photos, competing to give the most hugs and kisses.

For many of us, this is the big appeal of volunteering with orphans. In the life of these children, a hug means so much; a week of care means a world a difference. A little effort seems to bring so much joy to the life of a child who has precious little.

Eric Montfort
Nepali children playing. Photo: Eric Montfort

How would it feel if a child in your hometown behaved this way around strangers? Children learn at a young age to be cautious of people they don’t know, and overfamiliarity is something we’d normally find unsettling. There’s good reason for this.

The kind of outgoing, touchy-feely, attention-grabbing behaviour in children is actually a symptom of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Children without a constant nurturing figure in their lives are prone to RAD and other developmental problems. The big concern is that having a mental health issue like RAD at a young age doesn’t just affect a child as they grow up; it completely derails normal development, leaving grown adults with behavioural, mental, educational and physical disorders that stay with them all their lives.

Here in the UK, orphanages have been all but phased out in favour of foster care. However, in other countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Kenya, orphanages are the norm.

So why is the onus on volunteers to stay away from orphanages, and not on, say, the government of Cambodia to change the country’s system for looking after children in need?

There are two main reasons: the impact on the children, and the long-term impact on the system itself.

A vicious cycle driven by volunteers

Here’s a fact: if there are fewer volunteers, there will be fewer orphanages.

Doesn’t the number of orphanages depend on the number of orphans? Not in practice: many of the “orphaned” children found in orphanages have at least one living parent. The presence of international volunteers makes orphanages appealing to stretched parents and guardians, as well as to business owners who stand to profit from the volunteering fees.

Over the past decade, the demand for orphanages to volunteer in has been so high, it has led to more orphanages open than are necessary. In Cambodia, the most popular destination for orphanage tourism, the number of orphanages has increased by 65% since 2005. Of the children living in them, an estimated 72% have living parents.

By volunteering in an orphanage, volunteers are also becoming part of the stream of carers that constitute an orphan’s upbringing. Not only does this contribute to developmental problems like RAD, it creates a confusing multi-cultural environment where children struggle to latch on to their own culture’s values.

If people stop volunteering in orphanages, the number of children unnecessarily removed from their parents will decrease, and so will the rates of children suffering developmental disorders. It’s that simple.

Cambodian children near their home. Photo: Jesse Kirkwood

#StopOrphanTrips

This post only scratches the surface of research into the dangers of orphanage volunteering. Better Care Network has an entire library of information and evidence as to why orphanage volunteering must be stopped. It’s also the topic of the documentary The Voluntourist, which you can watch here.

Much of this information was presented last month during their #StopOrphanTrips campaign. Search through this hashtag on Twitter and Facebook, and spread the word yourself. Even if you weren’t planning on an orphanage trip, you might stop someone you know going.

There are still plenty of options for volunteering with kids, but stick to opportunities where the children have a constant caregiver in their lives. You could teach English, help a family with childcare through WorkAway, or work with children with disabilities.

Personally, teaching 300 students in Chile put me off volunteering with kids for life. I’m sticking to adults and non-human lifeforms from now on.

Featured image by Greg Walters