‘Why no one should desire to volunteer in orphanages’

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This blog is part of the blogging blitz of Better Volunteering Better Care. They asked Volunteer Correct co-founder Reinier Vriend about his opinion on volunteering trips to children’s homes. Reinier doesn’t shy away from stern words: ‘this type of tourism should belong to the past’. 

‘Each year, 10 million people worldwide travel to another country to volunteer. A large part of this group works with children in family replacing situations, like orphanages. Their well meant help can cause harm to the children in several ways. That’s why I recommend anyone to spend their money, time and effort elsewhere: you’re helping the kids from bad to worse.

You may not know, but your volunteer trip to a project with kids entails risks that are structural and transcend your individual stay. The following opinions are completely my own, but they’re based on solid scientific research. These are four reasons why I categorically discourage all volunteering at ‘orphanages’.

1. The volunteer normalizes unwanted contact with children

In the Netherlands, you can’t simply walk into a day care facility. We’ve decided that, to stop people with bad intentions from taking advantage of the vulnerable position of children. In other countries, access to children is easier. Volunteering in orphanages also helps to normalize this access for people who want to take advantage of the children. Consider your own trip and multiply it with a hundred thousand. Imagine how easy it is to hide in a group of that size. This is exactly the reason why child care in the Netherlands is surrounded with so much paranoia. Volunteer work in orphanages enables abuse.

2. The volunteer disrupts attachment

Children are naturally inclined to form attachments. A safe attachment is a prerequisite for happiness and mental health. Children in orphanages often already struggle with unsafe attachment within their families, the last thing they need is another unsafe attachment. You may think: what are those three weeks going to change in the life of these kids? But volunteering is a well-oiled machine and volunteers follow each other rapidly. With so many changing faces, you might ask: who is entertaining who? Volunteering is meant to serve interests of the kids. If your presence actually makes the child you’re supposed to help go from bad to worse, I’d suggest you rather drop it.

3. Insufficient knowledge and skills

Most volunteers don’t have the necessary knowledge of the area they’re helping in. This is less bad when it comes to painting a wall than when it concerns child care. In the Netherlands, we only allow people with several years of specialized education to work with children. That’s because they’re more complicated than a paint brush, and bad conduct has a much more severe and lasting effect on them. It’s understandable that you like to experiment a little to find out what you like doing, but a world in which orphanages function as places for volunteer experimentation – instead of care centres for children – is very uncool.

4. The volunteer supports a lacking care system

Because ‘orphanages’ are such popular destinations and bring in so much help and finances, alternatives are slow to be developed. But why don’t we have orphanages in the Netherlands? A long time ago, we figured out that foster care and family support are much better for the child. In countries that have much less to spend, a system that brings in the tourist buck will not quickly be discarded or changed. Since we know that this system doesn’t work, it gives you the responsibility not to support it. With a volunteer trip to an orphanage, you support this type of care both directly and indirectly. You obstruct the development of a better care system. 

These days, many volunteers have abandoned the false conviction that they will save the world. This is a wonderful development. However, on top of that you need to be sure that your presence is not inflicting harm. Because volunteering in orphanages makes that almost impossible, I recommend everyone not to do it.

Volunteer Correct promotes transparent and accountable international volunteering. Better Volunteering Better Care has launched a petition against orphanage tourism. Read and sign the petitition here.

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