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The Ethical Pitfalls of Orphanage Tourism


What are the Ethical Pitfalls of Orphanage Tourism?



George Kimball
English 102
Karen Feils
1.10.2017

George Kimball
English 102
Karen Feils
01.10.2017

When there is pain and suffering in the world, we are moved to help. It is in humans' very nature to want to intervene on someone else's behalf, to help improve the lives of others. Yet as history can tell us time and time again, it is often under only the purest of motives and best of intentions in which tremendous pain and suffering can be caused. This paper will explore what are some of the ethical pitfalls which may arise when Westerners engage in Orphanage Tourism. Orphanage Tourism refers to the phenomenon of members of typically affluent, western, 'developed' nations seeking short term volunteer opportunities as a part of their vacation experience abroad in 'developing' nations. While on the surface, this may appear to be as cut and dry as volunteers seeking a need and addressing it, for even the most well-intentioned of individuals, their efforts to volunteer in institutionalized settings like orphanages may inadvertently have negative, unforeseen repercussions. This earnest desire to help may in fact often be not only misguided and unsustainable but even harmful. This paper will attempt to explore why this practice happens, how it can be counter-productive, and what could be done instead. Superficial solutions like Orphanage Tourism fail to address the very real challenges faced in communities around the globe such as providing people with access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunity. Therefore, orphanage tourism is a disservice to the very people volunteers purport to be helping. That is why it is worth examining this issue and the ones surrounding it.

It is important to begin by first examining why the practice of Orphanage Tourism is so prevalent and widespread. Motivating factors at play include the volunteers' world views, the self-interests of the orphanages that the volunteers support, and the socioeconomic conditions which exist within communities which cause orphanages to proliferate in the first place. For the volunteers' part, it is partially Westerners' demand of being able to have an "authentic" cultural experience which drives the practice of "Orphanage Tourism" or more broadly, "Volunteer Tourism." Wary of embodying the "tourist" trope, travelers often seek to indulge their own romanticized notions of genuine or authentic experiences in exotic settings (McCannell, 1999). It is this quintessentially modern desire to travel without being 'tourists' that ironically lead to 'authentic' cultural experiences becoming commodified and commercialized as convenient ways to enjoy one's next vacation. Many volunteer organizations' websites remind one of a travel broker, as in the case of one's "promise to beat the program fees of ANY of our competition" (IRFE). Volunteer opportunities in institutional edifices like orphanages offer prospective volunteers a low-commitment, simple (simplistic) opportunity to "help". The belief that by their presence alone, volunteers can arrive and 'change lives' is encouraged and reinforced in promotional literature available through websites promoting volunteer opportunities abroad. For example, in one piece of text advertising opportunities for volunteers to work in orphanages in Africa, expectations for volunteers are set optimistically low. "Where orphans who have nothing will share whatever they can with a complete stranger, and where you can change the lives of people and children just by being yourself." (Projects Abroad). Volunteerism as a tourism opportunity is not only rooted in the way in which Westerners view themselves; it is also rooted in the way in which Westerners view the 'developing' world and the west's colonial past. The notion that developing nations "need saving" can be traced back to a time when western nations rationalized their conquests as 'the spreading of civilization.' It was Rudyard Kipling who bade his western contemporaries to take up the mantle and serve the "Half devil and half child" in his ode to Imperialism "The White Man's Burden" (Kipling). What is often seen as westerners' patronizing 'altruism' abroad and seen as a modern-day permutation of Kipling's manifesto, which "reinscribes colonial narratives of Africa's diverse peoples as passive and helpless." (Bell, 2013). Volunteers' attitudes and behavior often unknowingly reinforce these same paternalistic attitudes and patterns of behavior. As volunteers' own attitudes and beliefs drive their demand to volunteer with orphans, the demand for Orphanage Tourism opportunities helps to support, encourage and reinforce the existence of orphanages as institutions. Troublingly, this can sometimes incentivize orphanages to engage in predatory practices in which families are split up and children are exploited. Orphanages may even go so far as to pay parents to allow the orphanages to take their children away and place them in residential care centers (Csaky, 2009) where they will be used as photo-ops, or trained to 'perform' for tourists and volunteers in the hopes of soliciting donations (Reas, 2013). By supporting orphanages through donations, volunteers help to contribute to a self-perpetuating system in which orphanages exploit children in the hopes of enticing donors. Upon asking oneself why orphanages would pay parents for their children, it is also worth asking what would cause parents to give up their child in the first place. The demand for residential care centers is driven by socioeconomic conditions under which millions of displaced children and desperate parents seek a better life for their offspring, thereby increasing the proliferation of residential care centers like orphanages. It's important to first acknowledge the sheer number of displaced children. A study conducted with the support of UNICEF estimated that as of 2003, there were 143 million children under the age of 18 who had lost one or both parents (Bol, 2006). Of these, most children would fall into the 'single orphan' category, having lost one, but not both parents. Yet, often children with one or more parents end up in orphanages because their families see 'orphanages' as the best opportunity available to provide their child with an education, dependable food and shelter. A study found that as many as 97.5% of Indonesian 'tsunami orphans' had one or more living parents (Martin, 2006). It is important to recognize that many of the children living in orphanages have one or more living parents whose economic concerns drive them to place their children institutionalized settings. For many parents, the decision to place their child in an institution comes down to a painful choice of either trying to raise a child without adequate resources or giving their child up. Parents with multiple children may end up having to choose which children they can keep and which they must give away due to financial concerns. (Brennan, 2012). Orphanages are more than a place for children to go when family members die; they have inadvertently become a socio-economic haven or social safety net for often desperate families who feel unable to provide the care their child needs due to socioeconomic conditions.

Having discussed the underlying factors which cause Orphanage Tourism to exist in the first place and to be so prevalent, it is important to then discuss how the detrimental effects it can have on children and communities. The harmful effects institutionalized settings have on children's development, and many volunteers are not well qualified to be working with the vulnerable groups of children found in residential care centers. By encouraging a revolving door policy of unskilled volunteers without sufficient background checks, volunteers and orphanages inadvertently expose children to the risk of sexual abuse. Children who are placed in residential care face significant disadvantages when compared with children with primary care-providers like their families. Children raised in institutionalized settings are more likely to experience significant developmental delays, adversely affecting their emotional and physical health as well as hindering their abilities to socialize later in life (Browne, 2009). "We never had any affection. We had all the material things - a bed, food, clothing. But we never had any love." (Child in residential care in El Salvador, Csaky, 2009). Children are also more likely to become the victims of physical and sexual abuse when raised in institutionalized settings (Doore, 2016). Children in institutional settings suffer from having a lack of a dedicated, primary-care giver who is accountable for their well-being. This lack of accountability permeates upwards to the orphanages themselves. Many orphanages in 'developing countries' exist with very little oversight or accountability and even those that are registered within their own countries often fail to meet requirements put forth, yet continue to remain operating (Brennan, 2012). The types of inappropriate care provided can stem from inadequate training (Browne, 2012), unsanitary conditions (Brennan, 2012) or malnutrition caused by inadequate access to food for the children. Given these reasons are why the United Nations have stated that Orphanages are to be used as a last resort in their guidelines for the alternative care of children (United Nations, 2010). Despite the evidence of how detrimental institutionalized settings like orphanages can be, volunteers continue to support and donate to them in lieu of other long-term solutions. Not only are the orphanages themselves an inadequate way to provide care for children however. Often the volunteers themselves are unqualified and unprepared to be working with the sorts of vulnerable populations likely to be found in residential care. As mentioned earlier, many orphanages are given very little oversight or accountability. This applies to the way orphanages fail to scrutinize their volunteers as well. Volunteers are often given 'free reign' to work with vulnerable populations in institutionalized settings while abroad. Yet, these volunteers wŹŹ-ouldn't be qualified, or even allowed to work in the same sorts of settings in a developed nation. Therefore, it is worth pondering-not if these individuals can volunteer but rather should they be volunteering? Many volunteers are encouraged to volunteer even with little or no experience, and most do not have a background in child development, or education. Volunteers are often told that "there is no requirement for a medical degree, specialized training, or any previous experiences in care work of any sort." (Projects Abroad). Volunteers are given the impression on many websites like this one that "the most important volunteer abroad skills and qualification [sic] is your passion and willingness to help others...generally no volunteer abroad skills and qualification are needed to work with children. All you need is love and passion!" (IRFE) Volunteer organizations are not only calling their own credibility into question by bringing on woefully unprepared volunteers, and then feeding them with naďve delusions about their lack of a need for qualifications. At the end of the day, the ones who are affected the most are the children in question. The children in orphanages are often emotionally starved for attention and affection in the absence of a family environment or dedicated caregiver. Unfortunately, a slew of visitors and volunteers is no substitute. 'Attachment Theory' tells us that children in institutional settings are often so starved for a sense of intimacy and affection that they resort to any number of different coping mechanisms, including indiscriminate friendliness (Juffer, 2008). Sadly, the affection exuded by such children serves to validate volunteers' sense of purpose in their mission. The volunteers leave with the image of happy, affectionate faces painted in their minds' eye. Thusly the cycle continues, with the orphanage welcoming the next set of volunteers, and the volunteers' sense of moral righteousness fulfilled. Of course, it is the children whose circumstances will remain fundamentally unchanged, while still residing in the institution. With each passing volunteers' inevitable departure, the child grows a little more accustomed to the all too familiar feeling of another adult figure in their life leaving. It is no surprise that so many volunteers walk away from the experience of working in an orphanage with a renewed sense of self-satisfaction. I am not exempting myself from this category. Aspiring to enter an orphanage in a 'developing' nation as an objective researcher in December 2016, I visited the orphanage at the invitation of a friend with the intention of playing some Christmas songs on guitar to the children there. Before long, I had already been invited back, the image of the children's bright voices, chirping merrily as the rays of the lingering evening sun shone above us still fresh in my mind. I even received a few unsolicited hugs from children whose names I was never able to learn, and likely never will. Having tried to enter the orphanage with an open mind, I had to take time to reflect on my experience afterwards to contextualize my thoughts and feelings afterwards. To be perfectly honest, the urge to volunteer again pervaded in my mind, my sentimentality pitted against my rationality. Arguably, when emotions are measured against reason, emotions can often be the more powerful of the two for shaping a person's viewpoint. Yet behind the overall sunny exterior of my visit, there were some troubling aspects worrisome enough to give pause for thought. I arrived unannounced, without anyone having asked for my name or identification, much less my background. The director even went so far as to boast of how there were "no security guards." I was granted virtually unilateral access to children with no supervision, training or credentials. I do not doubt that my appearance helped me to more easily glide into the orphanage unannounced. Yet, there is nothing that one can tell about me simply by judging my appearance. What if someone else who dressed and looked like me had ulterior motives behind visiting the orphanage? By normalizing the practice of providing any volunteers access to vulnerable populations, orphanages expose the children residing there to the risk of sexual predators seeking out vulnerable children (Doore, 2016). Orphanages often negligently fail to provide volunteers with unthorough background checks, or no background checks at all, as per my case.

Orphanages clearly aren't the answer, which begs the question, what are the alternatives? To answer this, it is important to first look at the alternative care solutions that are available besides orphanages, and to suggest concrete actions prospective volunteers undertake to help. Forms of Alternative Care can and should be treated as the first options in the case of the child, with institutionalized settings like orphanages being treated as the last resort in a few instances, not the other way around. Although donating money to or volunteering in orphanages appeal because to outsiders as an 'easy' 'one-stop shop' solution to childcare, residential care centers are grossly inefficient, having been found to cost as much as six times as much as other alternative forms of care, where the money could be better spent elsewhere (Kandiwa). Such as imposing "outside" solutions such as institutional care or international adoption fail to recognize the existence of alternative care solutions for children which can already exist within communities through both traditional and non-traditional methods. For instance, approximately 80% of the children living in residential care have at least one living parent. Whenever it is possible and prudent to do so, reuniting or families together should be explored as one option in providing for the care of the child (Csaky, 2009). Children often have relatives within or nearby their community that could act as primary care providers for children as one solution (Kandiwa). Even when pre-existing 'traditional' options aren't available, foster homes and foster families at least provide dedicated primary caregivers who are found to be qualified and accountable for the children's care, unlike in institutionalized care settings (Kandiwa). To better serve children's needs, tourists, volunteers and donors must hold themselves and organizations accountable. There is no simple easy solution for selecting organizations to volunteer with or donate to. Each individual organization must be scrutinized on a case by case basis. Although it is far easier for a volunteer to "buy" their conscience with donations and service, it requires a great deal of mindfulness to best serve groups from the limited vantage point most volunteers enjoy as an outsider. Although donors' charitable donations are misguided in some cases, it is important to also acknowledge the real positive impact that their dollars can have on communities, even as an outsider. Sometimes money is more welcome than volunteers' physical presence. When volunteers ambition is not matched by their skill sets, it is important to question if the money volunteers pay to volunteer organizations could be better spent elsewhere (Crook, 2011). When traveling, tourism dollars are welcome and have the potential to help improve living conditions within the community by generating income which can be spent on education, healthcare, and jobs. For instance, the tourism revenue Mt. Kilimanjaro generates comprises 13% of Tanzania's GDP. The area surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro enjoys the greatest high school enrollment rate (100%) and adult literacy rate (85%) in the country (World Bank, 2013). Throwing money at an issue without seeking to address the root cause of the problem can be like bailing out a boat with a hole in the bottom. Volunteers' support of orphanages not only bolsters harmful institutions while failing to recognize the existence of alternative forms of care which may already exist within communities. Both volunteers and communities themselves must be willing to adapt new behaviors together before progress can be made towards advancing the best possible outcomes for the children in question.

While seemingly well natured in intent, volunteering in orphanages while on vacation can often provide a disservice to the very groups it is intended to help. After all, it is sometimes hard to 'see the forest through the trees' and understandably, volunteers often fail to see how anything but good can come out of their altruistic urges. However, with critical thinking it is important to recognize one's own agency as a volunteer in an outside setting. Institutionalized settings like orphanages are demonstrably detrimental to a child's development. It is crucial that instead of repeating the 'sins of our colonial forefathers' that members of developed nations recognize their own agency in perpetuating problems through the practice of "Orphanage Tourism." Orphanages should be the last on a long list of solutions, not the first. Otherwise, by depriving a child of the chance to live in a family or family like setting, one is effectively helping to greatly diminish the quality of the child's development and quality of life. The priority should be placed on encouraging systems which reintegrate children with their families or communities instead of splitting up families and placing them into institutional care. The chance towards a better life for a child should not be regarded as something a volunteer can dispense as a charitable act; it should be regarded as a universal, inalienable right.

1.MacCannell, Dean. The tourist: a new theory of the leisure class. Berkeley: U of California Press

2."Best Price." Institute for Field Research Expeditions.

3."Volunteer Orphanage Work in Africa." Projects Abroad.

5.Bell, Katherine M. "Raising Africa?: Celebrity and the Rhetoric of the White Saviour." Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies.

6.Csaky, Corinna. "Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions." Save the Children.

7.Reas, Jane. 'Boy, have we got a vacation for you': Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia and the Commodification and Objectification of the Orphaned Child.' Thammasat Review

8.Kandiwa, Vongai. "Caring for African Orphans: A Comparative Review of Existing Institutional Arrangements."

9.Bold, Christian. "A matter of belonging: How faith-based organizations can strengthen families and communities to support orphans and vulnerable children." Christian Aid

10.Martin, Florence and Sudrajat, Tata. "A Rapid Assessment of Children's Homes in Post-Tsunami Aceh." Save the Children UK and the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs

11.Brennan, Emily. "Trying to Close Orphanages Where Many Aren't Orphans at All." New York Times

12.Browne, Kevin. "The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care." Save the Children

13.Doore, Kathryn M., and Martin, Florence and McKeon, Anna. "International Volunteering and Child Sex Abuse." Better Care Network.

14. "Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children." United Nations

15.Juffer, Femmie. "The effects of early social-emotional and relationship experience on the development of young orphanage children." Monographs of the Society of Research for Child Development.

16.Crook, Matt. "The Price of Volunteering in Thailand." CNN

17.McHolm, Mike. "Tourism in Africa: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania." World Bank

Jan 11, 2017   #2
George, your discussion regarding "Orphanage Tourism" is very one sided. It does not deliver a balanced discussion because you are solely focused on the effects of "orphan tourism" on the children when there are also other factors to consider. For example, ample research will provide you with information that "orphanage tourism" is growing mainly because the orphanages themselves promote it, even as a street attraction. These orphanages have children who are trained to spot and approach tourists who may be interested in spending some time at their orphanage in exchange for a performance from the children and a small donation to help support the orphanage. That is more detrimental to the children than the well-meaning intentions of the true "orphan tourist" who goes there to actually help. Then, there is the case of the parents who agree to lend their children to the orphanages in exchange for a share of the profits from the "donations" of the tourists. There is actually more than one side to the ethical discussion at this point. You have the social, government, and international ramifications of "orphanage tourism" to discuss in your paper in order to make it a balanced and credible look at the problems and pitfalls of this newly emerging tourism industry.


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