There’s nothing more fulfilling than volunteering in an orphanage in a developing country, right? Wrong!
Perhaps fulfilling for the gap-year volunteer, fleshing out a CV resume or university application, maybe but there’s a mounting evidence which suggests that an influx of affluent but unskilled visitors can stunt long-term economic development. In some cases, this means wealthy parents going so far as to fund or even buy orphanages and AIDS clinics in developing countries, in order to give their child a “cause” for their summer holiday. Which feeds into a bigger problem; orphanages are being run like businesses, and voluntourism from first world do-gooders is actually creating a demand for these institutions, leading to the emergence of the so-called “orphanage industry.”
Save The Children UK published a report earlier this year explaining exactly why the charity doesn’t support orphanage volunteering. Research shows that the institutionalisation of children aged three or under can have a severe impact on their brain development, not to mention that orphanages rarely have the resources to provide optimal care and security that children need, both physically and emotionally. On average, 80 per cent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, often along with extended family. “They’re incredible care networks,” the report says, “but instead of getting support, they’re being pulled apart and disempowered by the establishment and over-reliance on orphanages — often funded by visitors who just want to help.”
Naïve and well-meaning volunteers often share a single bad habit; they view the communities they are visiting as primitive and in need of civilising — misconceptions that are perpetuated, perhaps accidentally, by the companies which sell “volunteering experiences” to teens seeking to help the less fortunate while traveling the world.
“The idea that you, as an unskilled worker, have got anything really useful that you can add is slightly arrogant and sort of imperialistic in some ways — white people going out to Africa to help the Africans,” says Mark Watson, director of the charity Tourism Concern. “What Africa has quite a lot of is unskilled labour; there are a lot of people out there who can dig wells.”
It would be nice if all of the world’s problems could be solved in the space of a single summer abroad. As things are, it will take a little longer. It'll require a socialist revolution.