How Can We End Orphan Tourism?

June 3, 2019

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In May 2016, a network of Australian stakeholders called ReThink Orphanages published a report calling for orphan tourism to be considered modern-day slavery. Orphan tourism has emerged as part of voluntourism, in which travelers participate in volunteer work for a charity, often linked to or simply characterized as tourism. The industry has exploded, its total estimated at $173 billion internationally. The report highlighted that in many developing countries, orphanage directors tell impoverished parents that their children will receive better healthcare or education at the orphanage. Once separated, the children often do not have contact with their biological parents and are kept in slavery-like conditions, all designed to elicit more donations and gifts. This problem is widespread: surveys have found that 92 percent of children in orphanages in Sri Lanka had a living parent and that 98 percent of children in orphanages in Liberia were not orphans.

Research has shown that children are more likely to experience abuse or neglect in an institution than any other setting. Therefore, most wealthy countries are abandoning institutionalization in favor of trying to keep children with their parents or placing them in a foster care or adoption system. In poorer countries, however, orphanages are still prevalent; UNICEF estimates that there are about 2.7 million children in orphanages worldwide. In many cases, faith organizations play a large role in such institutions. The Christian Alliance for Orphans, for example, includes over 190 organizations working to meet the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. In addition, donors from wealthy countries—often connected to religious groups—establish orphanages in response to a crisis, but when the crisis is over, donations keep arriving so the institution stays open even when the need for the orphanage is no longer there. Some faith organizations are working to change the conversation, to prioritize preserving, reuniting, and expanding families. Evangelicals for Social Action has written on the dangers of voluntourism, recognizing that while the orphanage model may sometimes be necessary—for example, following a natural disaster—it should be considered a last resort.

This week, the Berkley Forum asks: How can stakeholders link deeply held faith commitments to care for vulnerable children and encourage active contributions to children’s welfare that align with contemporary understandings of what is best for them? What can religious leaders, individuals, and institutions do to combat orphan tourism? Are there forms of voluntourism that can be helpful, rather than harmful? If so, what do those best practices look like? How can faith and secular development actors improve their cooperation to care for orphans and vulnerable children?

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