I would like to ask for opinions and experiences of what is now called ‘orphanage tourism’ – which can range from an hour long visit while on holiday to short-term ‘working’ visits. Usually done by well-intentioned ‘western’ tourists visiting residential facilities in Africa, Asia or Latin America. These visitors/tourists include many youth in their ‘gap year’ between high school and university. Many voices are now being raised against these practices, seeing them as not genuinely helpful, and indeed harmful. What do you think?
Here is the voice of one Kenyan who grew up in a so-called
“We knew that the only way to ensure they came back again to help the institution was by how much they smiled at our entertainment, and by the tears, sadness or sympathy that came when they were told that we were ‘orphans’”. (Stephen Ucembe –www.rethinkorphanages.org)
Dr. Ian Milligan
Thank you for your CYC comment on orphanage tourism – you ask for comments, here they are:
The dilemma of orphanage tourism is between people with good will, private enterprises charging fortunes for a few months, and orphanages forced to abuse the kids as smilers – I’ve seen the results in many countries where we work, and it’s not nice to look at.
One component is healthy: young people wishing to help. The four month online training programs for caregiver groups that we offer non-profit for trainer’s trainers are so far 17 languages, and our online instructor education channels this good will into empowering local care systems building.
One example: Ingeborg is an academic in her 20ies with a degree from
Aarhus University in social work. She volunteered to take our instructor
education along with six other participants from various countries. In
partnership with the NGO ReActIndonesia, she trained caregivers and
helped three local SOSChildren’s Villages staff take the instructor
education. Each trained a group of caregivers, using the Bahasa language
version of our program in attachment based care. She found it so
rewarding that she went on to Flores and trained more groups of
caregivers. You can see instructors give feedback in these videos:
This is a much more productive way of utilising the good will of young people: they support the building of local care systems and competence building, instead of starting to bond with children then left behind, as well as derailing a fragile local care system.
My experience - and that of the researcher’s network behind our free programs - is that the UN call to close all institutions has created a general government response, closing all institutions without having built monitoring, training and support systems for foster and kinship families. Because this went too fast, I’ve met foster family NGOs in Estonia, Russia, Cambodia and other countries who are overwhelmed by the burden of supporting family alternative care. Foster families in these and other countries often have 8-16 children and no support. Much research indicates that the type of placement is much less important than the quality of care (long term caregiver-child relations, educated caregivers, etc.), so i find this global development towards alternative care to be missing the real problem: how to help parents keep their children, and how to help countries build systems on their own terms.
That’s why I co-founded the Fairstart Foundation, with the purpose of developing free research based caregiver training packages, and the mission of helping countries build care systems on their own terms. For example, we are now designing kinship and foster care programs in Swahili and Kinyarwanda for use in four African countries. 20 instructors from Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania and Rwanda will start in an online class in August 2014.
Thank you for a most relevant question, hope these reflections may be of use.
Niels Peter Rygaard
Ian, the following link would be a useful starting point for consideration
Ian, I think the question you raise about the 'cost and value' of what you have called 'orphanage tourism', is certainly worth discussion. While I have at times wondered about the 'value' of such visits, or work experiences, until I read the quote I must confess I had not really thought much about the possible 'personal cost' to the young people who live in these visited spaces.
I think this may be a sensitive / provocative, and I appreciate you raising it – it has already got me wondering :)
I am so happy that this is something that is talked about. I have always been extremely uncomfortable taking visitors and sponsors to visit the children. There is just so much about that whole situation that did not “feel right”. One of the worst parts for me was when sponsors give gifts for the children. Now you may wonder, how can that be bad? It was given with good intent. And well received by the children. But every time a sponsor gave a gift I was thinking that it must be a reminder to the child of how unnatural this whole situation is. We have spoken about this among ourselves as staff, this orphanage tourism. One colleague said that it reminds him of how people go to view animals in a zoo… Now, no-one needs to tell me about the positive side of this, how necessary it is to secure funding, etc. etc. I know all of that, I have experienced that pressure. But I am happy that we are talking about this. And we should keep talking about it.
Ian and all,
While I'm still learning about this topic, I did watch this CBC Documentary that highlighted this concern:
I do remember that some of the discussion points from this film were that children were being removed from their homes/taken from their families in order to be housed in orphanages so that white/privileged tourists would continue signing up to work in these locations. There are certainly many equity and safety concerns to think of when it comes to orphanage tourism.
Interested in reading this discussion as it progresses!
Thank you for bringing this important topic up for discussion. I traveled and stayed in Cambodia for a few weeks in 2004 and remember envying the many foreign tourists I met volunteering with Cambodian children – usually teaching them English or taking them on fun activities for the day. I remember thinking it looked like such rewarding work. One popular place for these jobs was along one of the beautiful beaches on the West Coast.
Yet, as I observed these young volunteers drink and relax in the beach bars each evening, I couldn't help but think who was really benefiting from this work? The young sun-tanned volunteers who now had 'volunteer experience' in an exotic, impoverished location to put on their resumes? Or the children who would be left behind to meet a string of volunteers in their lifetime they would grow attached to then be forced to say goodbye?
Now I learn that many of these children are plucked from their homes, or given up by their parents so that they can lure tourists into volunteering with them in order to make money for the orphanages or their families.
This practice really needs to stop. And it is also a good reminder for all of us who dream of visiting the global south intending to 'make a difference'. We need to do our research – who really benefits from this 'help' and what happens to those children once we leave? Are we interested in this work to make the children feel better or make ourselves feel better? These are important questions to self reflect on.
Huffington Post has an article from a few years back called "The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism" which I think is eye opening
As some members of this discussion group I'm sure are aware, this is a common discussion in missionary sending communities as well. I grew up in the Baptist community on the east coast of Canada and I participated in a few short term missions projects during that time including a week in Prague and a month in Albania.
Does it help or does it hurt? Looking back I can say that my motivations as an idealistic "save the world" 19 year old were largely selfish. I wanted to go to strange places and... save the world.
I think Westerners (and more notably... white westerners), as we do in most things, tend to over-exaggerate our positive global impact. So yes, hanging out with Roma kids I couldn't communicate with in the slum they called home really didn't do much to change their reality. It's delusional to think I (or anyone) would be anything other than a curiosity that showed up one day and was gone the next. We underestimate their resiliency when we say that our leaving them behind causes much upset.
We like to FEEL like we're actually doing something. That's why we do things like pack shoeboxes with dollar store toys at Christmas time to send to warm climates. Sending our cheap junk to the developing world does little to change anything for the better (in fact our sending of stuff is often a huge burden on local communities) but it certainly FEELS great for us!
So what works? There are tons and tons of local, on the ground grassroots organizations doing great things all around the world. Organizations staffed by locals and designed to meet the specific needs of the local community. It doesn't feel as awesome, but these places could use our money more than our presence. In many places they already know what they're doing and have a better understanding of what's going on than we do from a far.
I don't think voluntourism is all bad. Privileged people like me benefit greatly from seeing how people live in the rest of the world. How it's possible to build a beautiful life even though the power is only on for an hour a day and there's no wifi. And sometimes it is helpful for a group of people to come in and tackle a to do list, or occupy kids for a couple days so they can get work done.
Just be aware of what's actually happening. You're not saving the world, you're just participating in a different part of it.
Here’s a link that will put some perspective too:
7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips” and Voluntourism
This is a very sensitive topic. I work at an industrial school in South Africa, it happens many times that children are asked to perform for tourists/visitors. They will laugh and take photos from any activity done by the children. They will then promise resources and privately promise children that, they will come back to check on them.
Thomani Adolf Makhuthe
This conversation caught my attention today and I am very impressed by the nuanced deconstruction of orphanage tourism taking place here. I'd like to add a few thoughts, starting with one that occurred to me while reading the original post.
I am a Romni (Roma woman) CYC worker and have worked here in Calgary/on Treaty 7 Territories in a few contexts, the longest being as a peer support worker with "youth-at-risk". I myself was catalogued as a "youth-at-risk" for many years prior to beginning peer support work. As a youth growing up experiencing various social services contexts I learned quickly how to gauge the genuineness of a worker and that of an organizations' mandate. In my opinion, many 'western' social services within our neoliberal, colonialist, patriarchal, etc contexts are based upon charity conceptualizations of care rather than collaborative, justice-focused conceptualizations.
As a result, many young people experience multiple programs that are part of their daily lives as mainly reflective of the systemic forces and oppressions that have created 'charity'-based care: the 'charity' we enact here is very similar to the 'care' orphanage tourism enacts abroad.
As a Romni I am connected with some Roma organizations as well as some 'well-meaning' NGOs abroad that engage in bringing the western gaze and interference to Roma communities globally. I say interference because I have noticed a comment or two in this thread that seem to highlight bringing "our" care-giving skills to children and youth and/or program operators to non-western contexts. I am critical of this idea/effort not only because of my own experiences as a Romni navigating a starkly different mainstream, individualistic culture where I live, but additionally due to what I have seen enacted by those extending western mainstream, individualistic "life skills/parenting/care-giving" education to Roma communities globally. It is important to note here that many Roma communities in, for example, Eastern and Western Europe are located by systemic, oppressive force on the literal and figurative margins of societies. I have read many anthropological studies and books concerning many authors' charity-based care in Roma communities, and most can be summed up as follows:
1) researcher decides that Roma people are
'fascinating' and that Roma communities are in 'need' of westernized
supports in order to alter their life circumstances as marginalized and
2) researcher enters a community, often without any prior relational engagement with Roma peoples (we are a very culturally and linguistically diverse group)
3) researcher claims their role as an objective scientist or as a participant observer and gathers data
4) researcher leaves, publishes book, and nothing in the Roma community changes because the relationship was non-reciprocal.
I want to draw a parallel here to my experiences as a Roma youth, which can be extended to the experiences of my Roma relations abroad when it comes to orphanage tourism. The manners in which I privileged my Romanipen (Roma-ness) and collectivism in my life got me in trouble as a “youth-at-risk”. I favored cultural teachings over life skills education that some workers and authority figures attempted to force upon me. I was "ungrateful" to social workers, and sometimes overheard comments that I was "unfriendly" or "stoic". From this I have learned that it can be oppressive when we as CYC workers or other care workers interfere in brief or lengthy charity model-based excursions into the lives of 'others'. Many authors who are critical of colonialist interference outline the fact that workers and organizations who skim over the self-determined needs of those they desire to help and instead focus on centering not just themselves, but western socio-political strategies including a sort of "savior" care, are doing great harm. I read somewhere in this thread that the best way to help in these scenarios is not to physically show up but to direct money and resources to communities so that they can carry out self-determined, justice and care based solutions. I completely concur.
Thank you all for this discussion and for reading my thoughts. (Hello Jin-Sun! I miss you).
Baxtali (may you be fortunate),
Great discussion here and it's been some years since I felt compelled to comment but really appreciate you opening this up Ian.
I simply want to acknowledge the post and the important perspectives outlined by Stef Bolianatz this morning – thank you so very much. I will use your post in my teaching of undergraduates and doc students this fall here at Brock University where trips such as these have been ongoing for many many years.
We here in Canada working, researching and teaching in the field of child and youth studies (I was employed in British Columbia for 20 years before my PhD and tenured post) are often blind to the racism, colonialism and pious neo-liberal relations embedded within our services to young people in foster-care, youth justice, schools and particularly mental health. The current atmosphere within and around the murdered First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the exponential rates of child and youth suicide, the 'Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls' as though they were abducted by aliens are only a few examples. The massive online furor over a lawsuit pay-out to former child soldier Omar Khadr is another, I could go on.
Simply put, your analysis Stef was brilliant and nuanced due to having worked here and having also been the recipient of services from this 'child charity' point of view rather that a radical perspective of anti-colonial, social, political, environmental and economic justice that is necessary if the next generations are to survive. I am inspired by your witness – keep up your good work and thanks again for bringing this whole area to light.
Thanks Ian for this very interesting and thought provoking subject.
I've just returned from 16 days in Malawi helping to build a nursery, medical room, classroom and play park as well as supporting the installation of solar panels for the three class roomed school. My motivation for the trip was to try to give something to a community where poverty prevails.
During my trip we visited an orphanage; only ten percent of the children and young people were actually orphans. The place housed 65 kids although I saw less than a dozen while there as I was looking to meet the director to ascertain referrals and processes in place to see how different/similar it was to my everyday job. The children I met appeared happy and content despite limited resources making me reflect on what makes us happy in the western world. I had the opportunity for a return visit which I declined as I'm very aware of the gold fish bowl young residents can feel they live in with strangers coming into their home with little if any consultation resulting in an unstated expectation that during such visits behaviour is modified – this is current within our own local resources. The organisers of our trip delivered two suitcases of clothes and toys which were greatly received by the director, there were also promises of ongoing support.
What struck me about my time in Malawi was that I got a lot more out of the trip than I gave, despite the physical labour, first aid and other input I provided. Turning up as a group with suitcases filled with what I now see as junk given the additional insight gained from the trip into what was actually needed such as basic clothes. Gifts of tutus and Spider-Man outfits while noble are impractical when a child has nothing else to wear in their day to day life.
The joy from being greeted a mile from our site each morning from smiling waving children will be a lasting memory. As has previously been said, we need to get alongside local people and allow them to dictate how we can support. We also need to challenge governments who perpetuate this dependent relationship.
Dear colleagues and friends,
Thank you so much for these thoughtful and interesting reflections on my question about the problems of ‘orphanage tourism’. Thanks to those who have posted links to papers or documentaries on this topic. It shows me that there is some level of awareness about it in our CYC community. I also really appreciate the links that Evelyn and Stef made to the shared features of this issue in the context of faith mission work (Evelyn) and the experience of being a Roma woman (Stef).
I also want to express my appreciation to those who have shared their own direct experiences, including growing discomforts – whether as practitioner or visitor. I really do appreciate your honesty, openness and the degree ‘self-criticism’ if I can put it that way. Thanks to Werner to sharing with us how this issue is being discussed by the staff within a residential facility in South Africa.
You have all expressed appreciation in your comments about this topic being raised and that encourages me. Thanks to James Freeman for suggesting I post it. I am hoping to write something for submission to CYC-Online and may come back to you for permission to quote.
Can’t promise when it will get done but maybe going public will act as an incentive to myself to get it done!
Warm regards all,