Why You Should Never (Pay) To Volunteer In An Orphanage

Volunteering with orphans abroad is an ever growing business in developing countries. Every year an estimated 1,5 million mainly Western volunteers get on a plane to ‘teach orphans’ or ‘facilitate daycare for orphans’ in countries like Ghana, South-Africa, Cambodia, Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Bali, Indonesia. The phenomenon of the combination of volunteering and traveling even got its own name in the 1990s: “Voluntourism”, Oxford Dictionary states:


For these work/ travel trips volunteers pay anywhere from $500,- to $2700,- for 2 weeks of volunteering.

What do these fees include? They usually include: a pick-up from the airport, shared dorm sleeping facilities, breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner), contribution to the program, and the most expensive -for the volunteers and children alike- “an experience of a life time”.

Photo: Flickr/ Dylan Walters

Photo: Flickr/ Dylan Walters

Sustaining Poverty

Sometimes providers compete with each other by dropping their prices, making it seem like a ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ non-for-profit organization, when in fact big profits are being made at the expense of children and their families. In this (Dutch) video a former “orphan” speaks out on how when he was living in his orphanage in Africa, poverty was artificially being sustained by the owners of the orphanage as to attract more money. The children were not allowed to wear their shoes and needed to upkeep their ‘poor look’. Basically, these organizations profit and thrive of poverty, natural disasters and other reasons people lose their livelihoods and come to a point of utter desperation in order to be willing to give their child away “for a better life” in an institution.

Creating an emotion with the donors/ potential volunteers is what they are aiming at... (photo: flicker/ Steve Evans)

Creating an emotion with the donors/ potential volunteers is what they are aiming at… (photo: flicker/ Steve Evans)

What is really going on?

Although the pictures around social media make it seem like volunteers are having the time of their lives. Quite a number of past volunteers who have worked in orphanages will admit it wasn’t what they expected, and are not sure if they ‘made the difference’ they were told they would make. And it will definitely not be a great experience if you realize what the true costs are.

If you really ask yourself some questions like: who are the children in the orphanage? Why are they there? Are they really orphans? Where is their family and why can’t they take care of them?

Unfortunately what happens- especially in areas that are very poor or have gotten into serious problems due to disasters like earthquakes (Nepal and Haiti) or other natural disasters- is that children are being institutionalized. Taken away from their families and often willingly being given away by their  parents just because they can’t see themselves being able to feed their own children. That is the real problem. And orphanages are not the solution.

Why institutionalization of children is a bad idea in general

UNICEFS report confirms what a lot of Western countries like the United States  and many countries in Europe already know – and have therefore closed down orphanages-:

Institutionalizing children has enormous negative effect on their development.

Growing up without the love and care from a parent or a primary care-taker has been proven over and over again to cause problems later in life (criminality, abuse, prostitution, addiction and suicide). Now combine these problems with the fact that in orphanages where there are different volunteers every 2 weeks hugging and loving the children and voila: the ultimate recipe for bonding and abandonment issues for life.

Famous writer J.K. Rowling has been getting media attention with her organization Lumos  in which she stands up for the (probably low-estimated) 8 million orphans around the world, of which 80% has in fact still at least 1 parent and/or relative that could care for them given the right kind of help.

Last Summer Rowling took a public stand against “voluntourism” when she proclaimed to her almost 9 million followers on Twitter:

“The charity I have just been asked to support offers (doubtless well-intentioned) Westerners ‘volunteer experiences’ in child institutions.”

She continued:

“#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses,”

In the video below she explains why these institutions are such a problem:

“One of the advantages listed for your orphanage volunteer experience is that it will give you a CV ‘distinguisher’. #voluntourism”.

Rowling states, and we whole heartedly agree that working on your CV should not be the reason to involve yourself in these kinds of practises. Rather, the goal of any organization wanting to truly help children in desperate situations should be to ensure children have stable, life-long caretaker’s ― as opposed to being exposed to constant turnaround of short-term staff and volunteers at orphanages.

So what can you do?

We plead: caring about the welfare of other people/ children is a good thing. Wanting to spend your free time to volunteer is a good thing, kind and a generous, but make sure you don’t add to an existing problem by supporting institutions (financially and/or by devoting your time and energy) that don’t support families to stay together. We all want to be loved by our parents and families. So do these children. Support organizations that work towards helping families stay together in conflict areas, poverty and natural disasters, by helping them take care of their own livelihoods (again).

Where can you find those?

There are a number of organizations that can help you find sustainable and ethical volunteer positions. Organizations like WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is a way to volunteer on organic farms in exchange of food and accommodation. If you want to volunteer at a charity, make sure to ask yourself and the organizations lots of questions. Our E-book can get you started (sign up below to receive a copy). Should you be looking to volunteer in Bali, you will find over 20 grassroots organizations that run sustainable projects in Bali and could use some extra hands (no need to pay them fees!) here on this website.

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