If you love kids and are looking to make a positive difference in the world while traveling, you may think that volunteering abroad with an orphanage is an appropriate way of giving back. However, volunteering with an orphanage could be problematic, as it's rarely a beneficial industry for the kids involved.
Some orphanages offering orphanage volunteer programs are downright shady, while others are well-intentioned but still highly problematic. In this article I'll outline the red flags you should look out for if you want to work with kids overseas, both so you can avoid being scammed and so you don’t accidentally bring more trauma to the lives you’re trying to help.
Ultimately, I encourage all interested volunteers to look for childcare opportunities through other programs. In addition, if you're interested in learning more about the dangers of orphanage trafficking and tourism, you can explore resources from Freedom United.
Read on to find out why volunteering with orphanages can potentially be harmful to children and communities.
It might seem like a straightforward arrangement: kids without parents (the definition of “orphan”) live in an orphanage, and volunteers, usually from wealthier Western nations, donate their time, and often money, to work with these kids, with the aim of improving their lives.
The reality is not so straightforward.
Who are the orphans?
Conditions vary enormously across the world, but numerous studies have found that a significant number of children in orphanages in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Haiti, Cambodia, and elsewhere, are not actually orphans at all. Many children have at least one living parent, or, if their parents are deceased, they have extended families who could be taking care of them.
Why would a parent, or family, give their child to an orphanage? There are many answers to this question. Perhaps the family genuinely lacks the resources to take care of their child, and thinks they would be better off in institutionalized care. Perhaps the child has some kind of disability that the parents aren’t able to cope with. And perhaps they have been offered money or another incentive for putting their child in an orphanage, and have been assured that their child will receive good education and care in return.
Why do these orphanages exist?
Child development experts know that even genuine orphans do much better within a family setting than in an institution. That’s one of the reasons why “orphanages” are few and far between in most Western nations. Where possible, kids without parents are placed in family care settings. Although the foster care system is not without its problems, few people would argue for bringing orphanages back.
But, in countries with less government welfare support, orphanages continue to thrive. That’s not necessarily because under-resourced governments opt for this type of care for orphaned children, though. The majority of “orphanages” are privately run, and funded by (volun)tourists.
Where does all of this money go?
Without volunteers, you might ask, wouldn’t such kids be even more deprived? Not necessarily. Orphanages are an industry in many places. They need children in order to operate. So, the people running orphanages may provide incentives for impoverished families to give up their children. You can be certain that whatever incentives they’re given are less than the profits the orphanage owners are making, or aim to make.
Volunteers from Western countries are usually required to pay an administration fee and to cover other costs, including accommodation, food, and activities. While such fees are often a legitimate part of a volunteering experience (after all, under-resourced host communities shouldn’t be expected to sponsor your stay), when these costs are disproportionate to the experience offered to volunteers, and to the benefits to kids in orphanages, then you’re likely being sold a scam.
Red flags to look out for in an orphanage volunteering scam:
- Volunteers are all tourists from Western countries, rather than well-qualified locals.
- Orphanages don’t ask to see your resume, references, or police reports (because they don’t really care).
- They ask volunteers to work directly with children, rather than have them support trained local staff.
- They don’t or won’t provide a transparent breakdown of how your fees will be used.
- They offer short-term programs rather than longer ones that allow you to really add value to the community.
- They ask for bulk donations of food or other goods. (You might think this is preferable to giving money, but the chances are they will re-sell the donated items at a profit).
- They don’t have an active family reunification program.
If the orphanage isn’t a scam, should I volunteer there?
The line between deliberate scam and a poorly managed orphanage and volunteer program can be fuzzy. You may come across an orphanage that is simply not managing their funds well, or that doesn’t have adequate resources to provide a better experience for volunteers and kids, rather than one that is deliberately siphoning off money to the managers. But, it’s not ethical to fund either type of institution with your time and money.
It would be naive to think that if shady orphanages were all closed down tomorrow, local governments would provide better care for children in need and their poorer citizens. But, there is certainly no incentive for governments, communities, or families to develop more appropriate systems while this underground orphanage industry, and orphanage tourism, thrives.
The only way to ethically work with children abroad, and to avoid orphanage scams, is to not work with orphanages.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Working with Children Abroad
There are beneficial ways of working with kids abroad, but it’s important to examine your motivations and ask yourself some important questions first.
- Are you actually qualified to work with kids? Do you have a teaching degree, or experience working with kids in your home country? If the answer is no, there are other voluntourism programs out there that might be a better fit for you: programs that don’t involve kids.
- Would this type of activity be allowed in your home country? Would a foreign stranger on a tourist visa in your country be allowed to “teach”, spend time with, or look after kids, especially orphans or those without parental figures? The answer is probably no, and for many good reasons. Child protection laws vary around the world, but just because something might be technically legal in Cambodia or Nepal, doesn’t mean it’s ethically sound. If a program involving kids wouldn’t be allowed where you come from, you shouldn’t get involved abroad.
- Who is benefiting from this experience: the kids or you? As well-intentioned as you are, do you really think kids in a developing country will benefit that much from spending a few hours playing with you, or repeating English phrases with you? Do you plan to put your orphanage voluntourism experience on your resume as an example of what a well-rounded and kind person you are? Vulnerable children shouldn’t be used as a step in your career, especially if they’re not benefiting from your presence in any real way.
Recommended Alternative Programs to Volunteer Abroad with Kids
If you have a genuine interest in working with children abroad and have tangible skills and experience to bring to the table, such as teaching qualifications or childcare training, then these programs offer ethical alternatives to orphanage tourism:
- Volunteering Solutions facilitates English-language teaching in low-income schools across Bangkok, Thailand.
- Projects Abroad offers various child-centric volunteering experiences in Ghana, including English teaching and football coaching.
- IVHQ offers teaching and childcare programs in South Africa. Their teaching volunteers work with low-income and under-resourced local schools in Cape Town.
- GVI allows volunteers to work alongside local Nepali teachers at schools in the city of Pokhara, Nepal.
Hopefully, I’ve given you plenty of food for thought about orphanage tourism. There are legitimate, ethically sound ways of volunteering with kids abroad, but volunteering at orphanages is not one. If you’re committed to ending child exploitation through shady orphanage tourism, please also consider signing Freedom United’s petition against child trafficking and orphanage tourism.
This article was originally published in September 2013, and it was updated in January 2021.