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The Problem with Orphanage Tourism


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Orphanage tourism has taken off, and as sad as it is, I’m really not surprised. The popularity generated by the Western World for volunteering at these establishments has been so significant that in order to meet such demand, fake orphanages have been set up. There have been reports that these fake orphanages house non-orphans who have either been placed there willingly – used loosely - or even children that have been forcibly taken away from their families.

So whose fault is it? Is it all down to the horrific, greedy and selfish people who have seen this niche market and decided to capitalise on it? I disagree to an extent, although there is obviously an element of this. Instead, I believe this condition is a perfect example of how we’ve become a 2D society. Marketing, advertising and publicity have made us too dumb to make our own decisions, and have glued our eyes, ears and brains shut. I like to call it... The Modern-day Middle Class Condition.

Basically, we’re selfish. We want our cake, and we want to eat it too. In fact, we want to eat the whole bakery. We live in an age where even seemingly selfless acts can be capitalised upon, marketed and sold to us. The fact that orphanage tourism exists is testimony to how this society has developed. The growing middle class can be characterised by “bucket-list” “check-list” “experience list” “achievement list” “CV list” virtues, as opposed to altruism and generosity. Otherwise, if the latter were true, surely there would be a positive correlation between foreign orphanage volunteering and domestic volunteering. I for one have not seen reports of fake homeless people being recruited to meet the demand of soup-kitchen volunteers.

So how have we developed into an “experience list” society I hear you ask? Well, basically we’re all desperate to impress, appear cultured, travelled, empathetic and have a story for every situation.  To top it off, getting a job is getting harder and harder. At university we’re consistently told that getting international experience will set us apart from our competition. As the jobs market gets increasingly tougher, in order to fight off the other 50 people applying for the same part-time call centre role, you must be well armed to answer those interview questions. To an extent, confidently reciting the time you volunteered abroad will make you memorable and may even swing the vote in your favour.

The appeal of “holiday” volunteering abroad for some though, has the elements, and tragic glamour, of a perfect Hollywood story: paradise setting; adventure; something seemingly out of the ordinary, the list goes on. To me, it seems like yet another dimension used to project an exterior image of ourselves: that we are caring, compassionate and an active member of the solution. But that’s exactly it; the majority of us do nothing and say nothing, bar from the occasional FB status, retweet or instagram. Sharing, hitting the like button and retweeting does not count as being an active member of society, unless you’re prepared to actually do something in real time. Donating to a Big Issue seller, sympathising with causes and showing your support does of course hugely help, and I cannot emphasise that enough, but it shouldn’t qualify as really having done something.

In this “living in the fast-lane” world, we want to do good, but quickly. There’s no surprise then, that whistle-stop orphanage tours are squeezed in between beach hopping. The majority want to feel that their time spent on this earth and their contribution was somehow positive. Conversely, I do not deny that many all of those who volunteer abroad leave with the best intentions and due to the greed of some despicable people are taken to fake “tourism” orphanages. However, I would like to know, out of those who went on these volunteer projects, how many partook in some sort of project or fundraiser once they were back home, or even how many were moved enough to do something within their own community or local children’s charity. I’d be surprised if it was over 10%.

I wonder if we’re aware that child poverty in the UK is currently comparable to that of a significantly less developed country? Do we realise that inequality in the UK is the fastest growing in the world? That we have over 100,000 households dependent on food banks to feed their families? And yet, I wonder how many of those who went to those orphanages, who wept for those orphans, continue to donate money to them, continue to be in contact with them. I wonder, if once back home, they opened their eyes to see the poverty around them. And still, orphanage tourism grows. The irony kills me.

Thankfully, there are many exceptions to the rule. To the people and friends who have decided to dedicate their lives to improving their society, I congratulate you. I am not so naïve so as to presume that everyone has to do this, but I felt the need to make a point to all of those who have done some sort of “international volunteer project”. Life isn’t an “experience check-list”; making a difference in the world and being a caring human being cannot be combined and limited to a holiday, gap year, sabbatical. Caring and wanting to make a difference takes consistency; it’s long and hard and starts at home, it starts with opening our eyes and realising people aren’t “stories” or “experiences”. Doing something extraordinary doesn’t need to have a big price tag. What matters is being conscious of our surroundings, conscientious in our decisions and assessing what’s wrong in our environment and to try to find a way to make it better.

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