Volunteering abroad – avoiding the pitfalls and negative consequences (Part 1).

I have been reading many articles and forums recently that highlight the possible negative impacts of volunteering (or that are outright anti-volunteering). Much has been said in these international forums condemning voluntourism as new age colonialism and exploitation and, in many cases, what is being said is true, in one way or another. Personally, I have seen both positive and negative sides to volunteering and think that somewhere in between starry-eyed naivety and steadfast cynicism there is a healthier approach to volunteering and so I thought Id highlight some of the issues I’ve been reading and thinking about.

First, and in my opinion, most definitely foremost, is the issue of volunteering at an orphanage and as this is a pretty contentious and complicated issue I will dedicate this entry to that subject alone.

Possible negative impacts of volunteering at an orphanage:
In general, people sign up to volunteer with the best of intentions, hoping to be of benefit to their host community and project during their stay. However, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell was paved with good intentions” and there is a very real risk that an unconsidered undertaking of volunteer work may well end up having a negative effect on the very people the volunteer was hoping to assist. Good intentions are not always enough and for those researching different projects, it is important to bear a few things in mind.
By its nature, volunteering with vulnerable children at an orphanage may very well be the one area where the volunteer is most likely to run the risk of having a negative impact. Voluntourism has taken off in recent years, becoming hugely popular in choice destinations throughout the developing world in countries such as Cambodia, Kenya and India. As I have discussed at length before (more accurately; the very premise for this website…), voluntourism is a hugely profitable industry with agencies generating millions of euros in profit every year from fees charged to the volunteer. Agencies that are profit orientated are more concerned with addressing the needs of their client, the volunteer, than those of the host community they claim to be helping. In essence, the agency will respond to the interests of their clients and a significant proportion of those that contact these agencies, fed by media images of young white girls filling the emotional needs of love-deprived orphaned children, request a placement in a children’s home. For the agency, eager to book as many volunteers as possible, it is important to have many orphanages on their books to respond to this need. Indeed, the notion of working with needy children is so appealing that most of these agencies actively promote it, plastering pictures of grateful children and inspired volunteers all over their sites.

Where there is demand, supply is always near at hand, and where money is involved, the unscrupulous will follow…. The city of Siem Reap in Cambodia is one of the original, quintessential volunteer destinations: exotic, vibrant, beautiful and, in parts, desperately poor. Volunteers have been flocking into the city for more than a decade and many projects have benefitted financially from the donations from well-meaning but often-times naïve tourists and volunteers. One of the major consequences of this inflow of foreign donations has been that during the three year period from 2007 – 2010 the number of children’s homes in the Siem Reap province increased 65 per cent. A national study in the area, however, revealed that only one quarter of the children housed at these children’s homes had lost both parents. In many cases the children should not have been living at these homes, they should have been with their families. Attracting volunteers, however, means big business and in areas where people are desperately poor, “lending out” children to orphanage homes, with the promise of free food and access to education, can be very tempting for a struggling single or double parent family. And so more of these orphanages pop up, underfunded and struggling to provide for the many children in their care: the perfect project for the unsuspecting volunteer who wants to make a “big difference” while having a “life-changing experience”, and exactly what the agencies are looking for.

During their two week stint at an orphanage, the volunteer makes the all-important emotional connection with the children and sees just how far a few hundred Euros could go in to supporting these vulnerable and needy orphans. A few e-mails home and the money appears, handed over to the big-hearted project co-ordinator. This financial contribution, however, may be the very reason why the centre exists in the first place and the reason why the children are living there, rather than at home with their families. Maybe the volunteer sees their money being spent, maybe they are satisfied with the promise that it will be spent on supplies for the children, but very often once the volunteer goes, so do the supplies. After all, not only can the supplies be sold for hard cash, but keeping them may reduce the future capacity to fundraise, after-all its much easier to fundraise for a centre that’s desperately in need then one that’s relatively well stocked. This may sound cynical, but not only have I read many accounts from Cambodia, I have seen this happen myself in Tanzania. I have spoken to volunteers who have handed over money for beds at an impoverished centre. I knew, however, that the centre was run by an opportunist who was persuading parents to allow their children to stay at a centre for a few weeks in order to attract donations. I know of another headmistress who had three separate groups fundraising for the construction of the same classroom. Each group came to visit on separate occasions to see the results of their work, unaware that there were two other groups being shown the same classroom. At least the headmistress was just involved in straight out fraud, the “centre” however, was directly exploiting children to extract funds from foreigners.

There is another, potentially more dangerous, consequence of working with vulnerable children. Many agencies actively promote the development of short-term emotionally charged relationships between transient volunteers and vulnerable children, using sales pitches such as: “Make a big difference in the lives of some of Kenya’s poorest children in as little as two weeks! All you need is a big heart and a lot of love”. The idea that an unskilled inexperienced gap year student can somehow provide something that a disadvantaged and vulnerable child desperately needs is common in the pay-to-volunteer world. But think about it, would you feel comfortable with foreign travellers coming into your country and having free access to vulnerable children living in children’s centres? Of course not, the very idea is ludicrous, even to the utterly unqualified like myself it seems quite obvious that it wouldn’t be right to allow someone free access to at-risk children simply because they feel their presence there would help. Vulnerable children need stability, not brief encounters with foreigners where the child is showered with attention only to have it ripped away when the volunteer leaves and begin again with the appearance of the newest volunteer.

This topic could be discussed at length, but I think anyone who gives it due consideration will inherently understand that forming transient relationships with children who have been bereaved or abandoned in the past is not in the best interest of the child.

For many volunteers the idea of travelling abroad to work, live and play with some of the worlds most underprivileged children is a romantic one, but by participating in orphanage voluntourism the volunteer may inadvertently promote the development orphanages as businesses that exploit children and as a consequence have a negative impact on the very people they set out to help in the first place.

So, what to do to avoid having a detrimental effect on the lives of vulnerable children?
The answer is simple: Don’t volunteer with vulnerable children. Instead, chose projects that promote the safe development of children such as schools that benefit the poor, after school programs, youth clubs, soccer clubs etc. Or volunteer with adults with projects such as women’s groups, adult literacy programs, health care outreach educational programs – any program that does not run the risk of exploiting children. Choose programs that promote social development; programs which assist parents in becoming educated, employed or self sufficent and so be better able to provide for their children.

If you still intend, despite this, to volunteer with a children’s centre, then take steps to ensure you reduce the potential of impacting negatively on the lives of the children affected by the centre.
- Do not accept a role as a care giver nor form inappropriately intimate attachments with the children
- Try to assist the local staff in their roles and if possible impart any skills you may have to them so that the children can benefit in the long run from your volunteer work while not being damaged by your presence.
- Avoid donating cash or buying goods that can be easily resold. Instead pay for tangible assets that cannot be removed, such as sanitation facilities or cooking facilities.
- Do not pay for day to day running costs such as food, if the centre cannot cover its basics it probably shouldn’t be running in the first place and you should question its motives if it is not in a position to meet the basic needs of its children.




3 comments on “Volunteering abroad – avoiding the pitfalls and negative consequences (Part 1).

  1. Where is the facebook like link ?

  2. Chris Read on said:

    Sending inexperienced and under-skilled volunteers from the privileged west to do work that could be done by a local seems ludicrous. Train the locals to pass on their knowledge and skills. There is also the issue of climate emissions of flight to Africa fro 3 week period. I do not get it.

    • admin on said:

      Thanks for your comment!
      Yes, I would agree, if people were being sent, it would be ludicrous. But they are not being sent, there is no agency paying the travel and other costs on behalf of the volunteer. They pay themselves.
      So why bother, what use are they if they are unskilled? Well, generally, lets be honest, that’s not the point. People are not volunteering because developing nations are in desperate need of volunteers and don’t have enough skilled local people that can do the jobs. They are volunteering, primarily, because they WANT to. They want to immerse themselves in a different culture, they want the whole experience that goes along with volunteering.
      So is that selfish? Well, yes. In the same way travelling for pleasure is selfish. It’s certainly not altruistic, but Id argue altruism doesn’t exist anyway. People are volunteering partly because it is a form of travel. In general they are not taking away jobs from local people, they are just joining in the activities of a local organisation (playing football, assisting a teacher, preparing a women’s health seminar or lending an extra hand in an orphanages ) and assisting in any way they can. If they are taking a real job opportunity out of the local jobs pool, then I agree, that’s bad. But in the vast majority of cases that is not happening. The work of the volunteer generally only makes a small impact. But that’s ok, to expect more would be unrealistic and as long as volunteers are respectful of local customs and culture, interested in sharing their knowledge and experience while, in turn, learning from their hosts, then it’s not a bad thing.
      And the argument about carbon footprint, while valid, is applicable to any travel, anywhere, its not specific to volunteering.
      But thats just my opinion, let me know if you dont agree!!!

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