Shannette Budhai, Volunteering Quality Project Officer at Comhlámh recently returned from a trip in London organised by Save the Children.
It was an honour and a privilege to be invited as a panellist and also as a participant to the ‘Better Volunteering, Better Care’ workshop.
The workshop itself aimed to tackle the growing problem of ‘orphanage volunteering’. There have been a series of media publications on this growing phenomenon and the recent video posted by The Guardian and by Al Jazeera highlights the issues well. The workshop brought people from various academic, child rights, volunteer and other institutions together to talk about what solutions can emerge to combat this worrying trend.
In essence, the sending of volunteers overseas to work in ‘orphanages’ or ‘residential care centres’ is fuelling the proliferation of institutional care which acts against the best interest of the child. It is estimated that 80% of children in orphanages worldwide are in fact not orphans, but actually have at least one living parent. Usually parents are duped by local business people into sending their children to live in these institutions (where they are told the child will receive education and food—which are two main provisions the parents themselves feel they cannot provide for their children). These profit-making businesses then rely on volunteers largely from the Global North to provide donations to the orphanages and give them the opportunity to send a few days or few weeks with the children. Often the money is pocketed as profit, and the children are deliberately kept in poor conditions to entice the volunteer to make a more substantial financial contribution at the end of their visit.
Unfortunately, well-meaning volunteers do not see the long term impact that volunteering for a short period of time can have on a child in residential care. Also, because there is profit being generated by orphanage owners, it has become a growing business trend that is not focused on the well-being of the child. Consequently, there has been a significant proliferation of such orphanages being established in many countries, especially those with vibrant tourism industry (Cambodia, Nepal, India, Kenya, etc.).
There is plenty research evidence available which shows that having a child reside at an orphanage often leads to institutionalisation which is marked by: a delay in the intellectual, physical and emotional development of the child and the development of withdrawal issues, low self-esteem, and attachment disorder. This can result in the child: displaying antisocial behaviour, becoming overly dependent on the State and other people, and ultimately being unable to develop life skills. Some studies have shown institutionalised children have a higher chance of becoming involved in criminal behaviour and being affected by higher rates of suicide.
The Better Volunteering, Better Care workshop attendees recognise that volunteers will still travel to these countries but are encouraging volunteer sending organisations to cease offering placements in orphanages. Rather, they feel that any work that is undertaken with vulnerable children (such as orphans) should be left up to experts. Agencies are being asked to refocus their energy and efforts in a) reunifying ‘orphans’ with their parents, b) directly supporting poorer families so that they do not feel they have to give up their children in the first instance and c) where residential centres are warranted, to focus on establishing small group homes (housing about 6 – 8 children each).
If you are interested in volunteering overseas, please think very critically about the impact your actions will have. If you are thinking of volunteering in an ‘orphanage’ please consider what skills you have to bring to the project and the impact a short stay might have on the children. For more information on making a decision in this area, please see this list of do’s and don’ts.