Tara’s Thoughts on ‘Voluntourism’ and the Problems with Orphanages

Today all of the children in CCT’s programs are living in a family. Tara, CCT’s Co-founder and Managing Director, now speaks out about the problems of orphanages, voluntourism and orphanage tourism.

Here are her thoughts based on her own experiences…

Many things that I once believed about charity and aid turned out to be wrong.

I believed that supporting orphanages was a good thing to do. I believed that the children in these orphanages had no parents. I believed volunteering in orphanages was an honorable pursuit, even without any specific skills or training. I hadn’t before considered the effects of forming bonds with orphaned children and then leaving them shortly after. And I believed that the people who looked after the orphans must all kind, caring, good-hearted people.

On the basis of these mistaken beliefs, I took a trip to Cambodia in 2005 and pledged my support to the poorest orphanage I found.

 This part of my story is not unique. Orphanages in developing countries are largely funded by well-meaning foreigners who believe they are helping.

 After my first trip to Cambodia, I went home, raised funds and returned the following year to volunteer. I had become a voluntourist.

 As UNICEF reported in 2011, the effects of voluntourism are not benign.

 Voluntourism is a term used for tourists and travellers who include volunteering for a charitable cause as part of their travel itinerary. It is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, and it is causing serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia – problems that most people are not aware of…

 Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. 

 It may surprise you to learn that the number or orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that there are far less orphans.

 It also might surprise you to hear that the majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope they will find a path out of poverty to a better life.

 Cambodia is not alone here. In other developing countries the statistics are the same. A Save the Children Alliance report cited that over 80 percent of children living in orphanages have parents (Csaky, 2009).  

 At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

 The dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily is caused predominantly by voluntourism.

 It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and we, well-meaning foreigners, are the customers.

 How do I know all this? Well, it’s a long story, which has been told in two ABC Australian Story documentaries. Suffice to say, after seven years living in Cambodia I’ve seen it all. I’ve been a donor, and then a voluntourist. I’ve rescued children from an abusive orphanage. I’ve started my own orphanage, only to realise that no matter how good an orphanage is, the best place for a child to grow up is in a family. I still live in Cambodia and am the director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, an NGO working to keep children out of orphanages, with their families and then enable them to break free from the cycle of poverty for good. This makes me witness to the increasingly alarming problem of misguided help coming from the West.

 Ending extreme global poverty is something we can achieve in our lifetime, but to have any hope in achieving this, I firmly believe we need to rethink how we do charity.

 Think before visiting an orphanage – children are not tourist attractions. Visiting an orphanage is invading a child’s private space. You wouldn’t visit the home of a vulnerable Australian child as part of your holiday – why do it in Cambodia? Instead, when traveling in developing countries you can support social enterprises run by NGOs that give employment, training and income to local people. There are lots of great souvenir shops, clothes shops, tour businesses, cafes and restaurants set up for this exact purpose!

 Think before volunteering overseas. When traveling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train, upskill and empower local people. Then, instead of taking their jobs, you’ll be helping them to become more employable. You can also look into educational tourism experiences, which promote the concept of ‘learn before you help’ – PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.

 Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Instead support organisations that promote family-based care and empower the people they are working to help.

 Think before sending donations of goods from Australia to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

 Australia is a compassionate, educated and wealthy nation. If we engaged our hearts, minds and means we could all play a significant role in creating an abundant and meaningful life for everyone.

 The responsibility lies with each and every one of us, but it is also our responsibility to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the way we are helping is not inadvertently causing more harm than good.