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Voluntourism: When charity does more harm than good

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Some of the world’s poorest children are taken from their families and used as bait for the booming business of feel-good “voluntourism”.

It will have come as a shock to all those well-intentioned school and university students who’ve taken pride in doing volunteer work in orphanages abroad to learn that they’ve been doing more harm than good.

Few will have an inkling of it, but it transpires that kind-hearted Kiwis – retired people among them – have been part of an insidious system whereby the world’s poorest children are used as bait for the booming business of feel-good “voluntourism”.

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The world’s biggest organiser of charity-aid tourism, World Challenge, has just stopped sending students to work in orphanages in Asia, accepting the mounting scientific and academic evidence that it is a very damaging practice.

Global agency Rethink Orphanages underlines this with renewed pleas to stop young students, including New Zealanders, embarking on this superficially charitable practice. The trips have been marketed to students as a learning and compassion-building experience. But although the volunteers are rewarded with hugs and selfies, the harsh truth is that the children are left with instability and loss and inevitably suffer when the volunteers leave. Every farewell to a kind worker with whom they have bonded exacerbates the little ones’ emotionally crippling attachment disorders.

Worse, volunteers may unknowingly aid bogus child-farming operations that are designed as magnets for tourist dollars without any sincere focus on the children’s welfare and often rife with cruelty and sexual abuse. Children desperate for love and affection are vulnerable to those who seek to exploit them.

JK Rowling. Photo/Getty Images

Even were all these orphanages bona fide charities, there’s now overwhelming evidence of their harm. One academic monograph drawn from multiple studies of orphanages in many countries confirms “children exposed to institutional care do not receive the type of nurturing and stimulating environment needed for healthy psychological development”. And yet they abound. The Cambodian Government reports the number of orphanages within its borders has increased by an extraordinary 75% since 2005, when the influx of Western tourists began.

There simply are no good orphanages, according to author and philanthropist JK Rowling, who has researched the options through her child-development charity Lumos. Rowling found study after study detailing the harm even well-run institutions do to children, and was further appalled at the scams where children are treated as commodities by unscrupulous operators. Commenting last year, she said she was often asked to use her hefty Twitter influence to encourage volunteerism. “I will never retweet appeals that use poor children as an opportunity to enhance Westerners’ CVs.”

Agencies such as Unicef and Save the Children have long warned of the perverse effects of Western charity in creating a cruel money chain for the lucrative warehousing of children. They estimate as few as one in five institutionalised “orphan” children worldwide are in fact without a parent. Most are “bought” from impoverished parents for cash, or promises of better education, and used as bait for cash from tourists and charities.

Developmentally, the children would be better off with family members, however poor. Attachment is crucial for brain and social development. The West has long realised this, leading to the decline of anything resembling orphanages. This, on reflection, makes “voluntourism” in poor countries’ orphanages the more perverse; akin to visiting child zoos. Orphaned children or state wards in nations such as ours are rarely kept in group “homes”, and then only for minimal periods, precisely because the lack of personal care and affection is disastrous for them. Foster care and whanau placement are what help children thrive.

The challenge now is to redirect the money flow. Well-meaning tourists and donors, universities and schools must reassess their generosity and volunteering choices, backing programmes that strengthen access to healthcare, education and work in poor communities, and which incentivise loving and consistent family bonds.

Arguments that orphanages are still necessary in poor countries are challenged by Lumos’s success in assisting Moldova, Europe’s poorest state, reduce its incidence of institutionalising children by 70% in 10 years. It has helped achieve similarly dramatic falls in parts of the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

As Rowling says, the solution is not comfier, jollier orphanages. “It is my dream that, within my lifetime, the very concept of taking a child away from its family and locking it away will seem to belong to a cruel, fictional world.”

This editorial was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.