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Why your plans to spend a summer working in an orphanage are most likely hindering and not helping


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It is not uncommon for students or young people to want to spend their gap year or summer holiday volunteering on a project abroad.

Volunteer programmes abroad, also called "voluntourism", are advertised with benefits such as enriching the student's CV and providing an opportunity to travel while making a meaningful impact.

Today, volunteer experiences are available to students at the click of a button. The increasing demand for voluntourism experiences is capitalised on and it is easy to see why, with many people willing to pay up to $1000 for a single week of volunteering - excluding travel costs. However, many volunteer-tourism experiences are designed to benefit the volunteer first and foremost.

Image credit: Alexandr Podvalny on Unsplash

Very few people who travel to poorly developed countries realise the true impact of their visit. The reality is that as well-intentioned as the volunteer is, undertaking a volunteer-tourism program often causes more harm than good to disadvantaged communities by perpetuating a range of socio-economic issues.

Firstly, the majority of volunteers are unskilled young people, who, although they may be in the process of training and studying, have little to offer to the communities for the short period of time they are there. When it comes to building a school or health centre, counselling children, or rehabilitating endangered wildlife, students are largely unqualified.

Samantha Nutt, the founder of War Child Canada, who has worked for many years with the United Nation in war zones, believes that the money spent by students travelling to far-flung locations would be far better spent on training the local population and providing resources to encourage a self-sustaining society. Nutt argues that the most common mistake is presuming that we need to do the work ourselves to help these communities when the best model for international development, in her opinion, is when members of disadvantaged communities are given the tools and the opportunities to do the work themselves.

Secondly, although voluntourism is an industry injected with many pounds and dollars from young international students, this does not reflect its societal benefit in development statistics, which often highlight little or no improvement. The UN found that the number of orphanages in Cambodia has continually risen since the Khmer Rouge, a clear indicator that there is no genuine effort from these projects to reduce the number of children living in poverty. Additionally, since international organisations profit from volunteer tourism, there is little motivation in these companies to reduce poverty, reinforcing capitalistic structures in society.

A popular model of voluntourism is volunteer packages where volunteers spend a summer working in orphanages in South East Asia. The orphanage is a societal model commonly deemed by western countries as detrimentally damaging to children, with no orphanages existing in the U.K and the U.S. However, voluntourism experiences promote and encourage orphanages. In Cambodia, there are approximately 17,000 children reported to be living in orphanages, with 80% suggested to still have at least one living parent.

In Cambodia, children are used as puppets to bring in international dollars, with many of these orphanages existing only for touristic purposes, not because the children need to be there. The focus of international aid on orphanages removes funding and attention away from tackling the most important social issues such as education and healthcare.

Finally, voluntourism is on the whole not conducive to improving the development indicators of a country since it is damaging, especially to children. Many volunteers post pictures on social media where they are swarmed by young children hugging and clinging to them. Although seemingly harmless, the short period of time people spend volunteering in orphanages or at schools create an unnatural environment where children are encouraged to treat strangers with undue affection. You would not want your own five-year-old to bound up to strangers with hugs. Rather, this behaviour is indicative of psychological issues that commonly arise in children who regularly experience the instability of building bonds with volunteers who always leave or, in the worse cases, where children are mistreated, abused, and separated from their families to be used as poverty pawns to increase donations.

This is not to say all voluntourism is bad; there are many organisations that work hard to provide sustainable support in third-world countries. However, the cruel commercialised market that has risen in tow with the popular wave of eco-tourism has directly created superficial and harmful voluntourism experiences. Money goes further in poorer countries than anywhere else, so before you spend thousands of pounds on a volunteer-tourism experience, consider whether you will be causing more harm than good. Spending money as a tourist in a place that could really benefit from the cash could be more sustainable way of supporting people in disadvantaged countries.

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