Something I’ve learned about recently has made me very upset and concerned. Many well-intentioned people travel to developing countries to volunteer their time and donate their money to orphanages. I completely understand this desire to help those less fortunate, especially children. I am a pediatrician and seeing pictures of poor orphans make me sad. I have joined short-term medical missions to Mexico and Nepal in the past and have found these experiences to be profoundly rewarding. But I am now discovering that these experiences have rewarded me much more than they have rewarded those I was serving.
Traveling to far-away places to help another community has become increasingly popular and a very lucrative business. However, I have learned that this business has also become another way to dupe tourists. Fake orphanages have been fueled by the rise in voluntourism. In Cambodia, a country that suffered tremendously 30 years ago by the Khmer Rouge, UNICEF discovered that the number of orphanages increased by 75% from 2005-2010. What was shocking was that 77% of these orphans were not actually true orphans! Most of them had a living parent. Many of these children are from poor families who give up their children in return for money or promise for a better future for their children. Many poor Cambodian parents falsely believe that if they send their children to orphanages, they will have a better education, better access to medical care, and better nutrition. These children are often asked to dance and sing for tourists. They are asked to show a sad face and wear dirty clothes to seek more donations from tourists. In Cambodia, this has become a multi-million dollar business. Most of the money are not going to the children, but to the orphanage directors. And more and more children are being abandoned by their families and exploited as a result. Some children are even being sold to adoptive parents from rich countries. Cambodia is not the only country where this is happening. Nepal has seen a surge in fake orphanages, especially in the aftermath of the recent earthquake. Indonesian orphanages are deliberately kept in poor condition to get more money from tourists.
Children, who are true orphans, are much better off in a foster care system and not in a residential care facility. We all know this is true. Why then do we continue to give money or volunteer at orphanages in other countries? Many people who volunteer also have no experience and no background check. This makes more children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation as well. Is it VOLUNtourism or volunTOURISM? There are some legitimate orphanages out there but it is difficult for the tourist to figure that out. Asking a local NGO would be a first step. Organizations that require a background criminal check and have strong supporting staff is also a plus. Tourists love spending time with children. But then leaving after a few days will continue the cycle of abandonment for orphans. I favor organizations that require a minimum time commitments of several weeks in order to truly make a positive impact on orphans. I would also look for organizations that actively promote family reunification. Help poor families take care of their children, not take the children away from them.