Leigh Mathews is a consultant with experience in child rights and child protection, non-profit management, project design and management, social enterprise, and philanthropy, as well as an expert in the issues of institutionalization, residential care of children, and voluntourism. She is the co-founder of the ReThink Orphanages Network.
As a child protection specialist and co-founder of the ReThink Orphanages Network, I’ve spent years researching, lobbying, and advocating against orphanage tourism and voluntourism. While we have had significant success in shifting the policy environment (e.g. in Australia through the Modern Slavery Act) and increasing awareness of the harms of orphanage tourism, it still occurs at scale. Ending the era of orphanage tourism is urgent, and it requires the input of everyone: from the individual at home dreaming about setting up or volunteering in an orphanage, through to religious leaders, NGOs, philanthropists, right up to the highest levels of government.
One of the challenges we have in trying to shift attitudes towards orphanage tourism is the widespread but misguided belief that volunteering in an orphanage is helpful to children, and that as long as the volunteer's intentions are pure, harm couldn't possibly occur. We now know this to be untrue. Research shows that children are often trafficked into orphanages to meet demand for these "orphan experiences," and children are harmed not only by the simple fact that they live in an orphanage, but by exposure to a constant rotation of short-term, unskilled visitors and volunteers.
Shifting attitudes is also challenging when we see a legitimization of orphanage tourism through hero stories in the media. When celebrities, or even everyday people in our communities, are praised for their orphanage voluntourism, we think it must be a good thing. As we see the number of social media likes increasing, we are more likely to contribute to the cause through donations or even volunteer ourselves. Furthermore, when we see these types of stories in the media, there is usually very little evaluation of the actual impact of the activities, and the adulation is based largely on the perceived selflessness of the act itself. Put succinctly by Daniela Papi-Thornton: “With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock.”
So how do we engage people in ending the era of orphanage tourism? The simple answer is education: when we know better, we do better (most of the time). However, shifting a practice that is inherently viewed as good is extremely complex and challenging, and requires addressing the entire ecosystem in a multi-pronged approach.
Targeting the systems that enable orphanage tourism to take place enables the reduction of options available to engage in the practice. This means working with governments to implement policies that criminalize orphanage trafficking, and that require charities and businesses to report on modern slavery in their supply chains. It means working closely with the tourism sector to ensure that they remove orphanage tourism from their product lines. It means educating institutions like schools and universities to implement internal ethical frameworks and conduct due diligence on third-party travel providers. It means educating philanthropists and mom-and-pop donors to do their research on where they spend their donations. It means engaging religious leaders from all faiths in conversations around shifting the dialogue on what it means to support orphans and vulnerable children, and providing practical tools for them to do so.
The harms of volunteering in orphanages are well documented, and naturally lead to ethical questions around all forms of voluntourism—specifically whether voluntourism is helpful or harmful. Voluntourism as a practice is essentially motivated by an individual’s desire to do good, or to help. While the desire to give back while travelling is to be commended, the ways in which travellers are encouraged to give back has to change. We are privileged to have the means to travel to many incredible places around the world that have significant and complex social challenges, and we all need to be part of the solution. However, these solutions need to be evidence-based, measurable, impact-focused, and above all, not cause further harm to communities.
Voluntourism is not going away any time soon, and so the focus must be on how we can make it more ethical and effective, and how we equip consumers to think critically about their ability to truly help while travelling. Some tourism companies are striving to improve their transparency, impact measurement, and practice—and this is to be commended.
Philanthropy has evolved from the time-worn model of traditional giving to now include supporting social enterprise, impact investment, and direct giving, resulting in better outcomes for communities. The concept of individuals giving back while travelling must also evolve. Individuals must be equipped with the knowledge and critical thinking skills they need to make informed decisions about their capacity, ability, and best means to help. Volunteer placement organizations and companies must ensure their partnerships are independently assessed and evaluated, and that impact is measured and reported. Increased transparency around partnerships, financial reports, and impact reporting is also required.
There are many ways to give back—and we need to recognize that volunteering when travelling is not always the best way. Sometimes it is simply better to travel, pay for carbon offsets, stay in eco-friendly accommodation, support ethical local businesses, and make a contribution to an organization that is working to address development issues in an ethical and sustainable way. Unless you have specific, relevant, specialist skills, in most cases development work should be left to the professionals.