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Children as products: the reality of orphanage voluntourism

Children as products: the reality of orphanage voluntourism

By Lamorna Byford

Every marketer knows that competitions and prizes are a great way to pull in potential new customers. Playing on our desires for better clothing, better houses or better bodies, plus our love of getting something for nothing, is a clever way to promote products. Selling new and different experiences is even more profitable. Jumping out of a plane or off a bridge appeals to those with an adventurous side, while volunteering in exotic places attracts people who want to do something good while experiencing something novel. Using volunteer placements as competition prizes would arguably be a great way to draw in these potential customers.

There are several voluntourism companies who are doing just that, by running competitions in which the prizes on offer are placements in orphanages in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe. As a research fellow for the Better Volunteering, Better Care initiative, I am certainly not against volunteering. I am, however, very familiar with the arguments against volunteer tourism in orphanages and my reaction to learning about these competitions was one of dismay. When I researched the competitions further and found that most didn’t require volunteers to have any previous experience with children, or even any background checks, dismay turned to concern.

However, my discomfort didn’t seem to be shared. A quick canvas amongst my friends elicited quite a different response – “well someone needs to look after those poor kids”. After several attempts to argue that voluntourism isn’t the best way to support these children and their communities, I gave up. I won’t rehash the arguments for or against voluntourism here. What I want to explore instead, is why my intelligent, culturally aware friends are so willing to accept that allowing un-vetted individuals into institutions with vulnerable children is a good idea.

commodification children
Slide used in a presentation about orphanage volunteering to demonstrate the marketing used. Image courtesy of Anna McKeon.

As a global community, we have embraced consumerism to the extent that there is very little that can’t be bought or sold, including sensitive and personal information. Whilst we may think that our private emotions are immune from this commodification, the fact that money is made from our vanity, our guilt and our desire to please others suggests otherwise. Indeed, our emotions are regularly and very effectively played upon for profit. This is how voluntourism succeeds as an industry, not through targeting stupidity or naiveté, but by commodifying a powerful emotion – our good intentions.

If this sounds a little Orwellian, I am not suggesting that this is a conscious decision made by immoral marketing executives. No one is rubbing their hands together with glee and exclaiming that they’re going to take advantage of consumers’ goodwill. In fact, it is far more likely that they too have good intentions.

Voluntourism thrives on the culturally embedded side effects of global markets and the power relation that this creates between those in the wealthy West and the developing world. In the shadow of colonial guilt and with the growing distance between the wealthy and the poor, both between and within countries, the desire to help those with less than our selves is strong. When companies offer voluntourism placements they are selling a way to satisfy those good intentions. This becomes morally problematic when we consider the means by which those good intentions are met. What is really being commodified, and sold as a fulfilling experience, is a child.

children are not tourist attractions
“Children are not tourist attractions” – ChildSafe Movement. Photo from Friends International.

Not a familiar child. It’s unlikely my friends would agree that selling experiences with children in the UK care system is a good idea. The commodification of a child in the voluntourism industry relies heavily on the idea of the other. Images carefully chosen to invoke Western pre-conceptions – denounced as ‘poverty porn’ by some – reinforce the idea that these poor children are from the ‘other’ side of the ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. The language used by some voluntourism organisations further exaggerates this disconnect and fuels the idea that one solution is right for ‘us’ and another is right for ‘them’. For ‘us’ – better welfare systems and solutions such as community based fostering. For ‘them’? Western voluntourism.

So what can we do? We know that where there is a demand, supply will always rise to meet it. The global economy creates inequality and power relations that endlessly fuel demand for what the voluntourism industry offers. The only way to quell that demand would be to change beliefs across the Western world. How can such embedded and internalised societal values be changed? How can the beliefs held so ardently by my friends be legitimately challenged?

It is very hard to answer those questions. If there’s anything most people with an interest in development can agree on, however, it’s that real cultural change tends to be a very slow and difficult process. The cultural change that would challenge the negative aspects of voluntourism is no exception. Developing a more in-depth, nuanced understanding of why voluntourism is so successful is, at least, a good place to start.

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This post is part of a month-long spread of articles aimed at raising awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering – #StopOrphanTrips. This daily blogging blitz in May features a range of writers from different backgrounds who have come in touch with orphanage tourism in different ways and from different perspectives. The campaign ends on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a call to volunteer travel organisations to remove orphanage trips from their product offerings.

What can you do to help?

  • Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016.
  • Remember to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too! Better Volunteering, Better Care is on twitter @BetterCareNet.
  • It would be awesome if everyone who reads this can share at least one blog in the month (if not more!) – if something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling – then just one share to your networks (which takes seconds!) can raise awareness across sectors across the world and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips.

Lamorna Byford is a social researcher based in London. She has undertaken research for think tanks, brands and charities and is now a research fellow for the Better Volunteering, Better Care initiative. She holds an MSc in the Social Anthropology of Cognition from the London School of Economics, during which she focused on how children form attachments to the state in Russian orphanages. Lamorna also recently spoke at OxFID 2016.

Featured image reads “voluntourism does not equal volunteering”. Photo from Flickr.

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11 thoughts on “Children as products: the reality of orphanage voluntourism

  1. […] This new documentary gives another insight in to the dangers of orphanage volunteering, focusing on Cambodia. The number of orphans in the country has reduced in recent years but the numbers of orphanages, particularly in tourist areas, has shot up. These are often funded by well-meaning international volunteers and have created a commodity of spending time with children. […]

  2. Valeria

    This post brought back old memories and raised new questions for me. While training as an education volunteer for Peace Corps Madagascar, our group visited a children’s center. Many of the residents had complicated familial or legal issues and needed a “safe harbor” and were not necessarily orphaned. It was a well-run institution that operated as a very large family unit that made sure every child was clean, fed, schooled, and had some form of vocational training that they could use as they transition out of the institution. After training, I was sent to teach in a village 300km away but came back to the center during the summer and spring holidays as an “NGO Development” volunteer. The center relied heavily on a steady flow of international volunteers and though all of the volunteers I worked with were safe, sane and had interesting skills to engage the kids, I had moments of inexplicable discomfort. Such as when some of the kids are gathered to sing and dance for visitors.
    The directors of the center realised that they needed to formulate guidelines for their volunteer program and asked me for assistance. Together we developed protocols on vetting potential volunteers and attracting candidates with specialised skills to contribute to the center rather than anyone with a pulse. Also, this was an age before social media really took shape so volunteers were more focused on doing good instead of trying to record themselves looking good.
    I would like to think that I made a worthy contribution to the Malagasy center I volunteered with 12 years ago. Many of the girls I have mentored have gone on to lead happy, productive and healthy lives as adults. However, I am grateful that questions are raised about the ethics of voluntourism. It is problematic and laden with risks for all parties.

  3. […] of pounds, for such opportunities. By taking part in such activities we’ve managed to make a commodity of spending time with children. Does that sound like […]

  4. […] of pounds, for such opportunities. By taking part in such activities we’ve managed to make a commodity of spending time with children. Does that sound like […]

  5. […] 본 글은 WhyDev에 실린 Lamorna Byford의 “Children as products: the reality of orphanage voluntourism”를 번역하였습니다. 원문보기 […]

  6. […] Blogging BlitzThis post is part of a month long #stoporphantrips Blogging Blitz. It was originally published on the WhyDev website. You can see all the posts and learn more about the campaign on our Orphanage Volunteering special […]

  7. This is spot on. My husband and I live in Haiti where we run a development organization, and we see this issue play out on a regular basis. Often the intentions are good, which is why it’s such a hot button topic to discuss with people. They get offended because you’re trying to present the other side of things. What they don’t realize is that good intentions can do a lot of harm, and if we truly want to help people we should be more concerned about the potential harm that we can create than any good we might be able to do.

    In the case of what we see here, organizations or orphanage directors (local/foreign) will often present a sad picture of the state of things because they know that leads to more financial support. We’ve seen situations where foreigners bought mattresses for the same orphanage 4 times over, and each new group that came in saw the kids sleeping on no mattresses. The orphanage directors sold them to put money in their own pockets. Haiti is know for poverty orphans because parents think the kids will get better care than what they can offer at home. Many of the kids in institutions here have at least one living parent or family member that could be caring for them. What’s needed is family support in the forms you mentioned – employment, directing funding into the country rather than paying for airfare and accommodation for a week or two for our own benefit.

    So how do we really help in a way that creates development? We need to be willing to get out of the way and ask what the best way to help is, because it’s often very different from our Western ideas. And, as you’ve stated, it means long term commitment, and that can only really be accomplished by vetting a solid, on the ground organization that’s committed to doing things well. Do the research, find an org that you feel is worth your support, then support them. Their staff are there, they’ve taken the time to learn the culture, the language, the challenges, the issues, and best practices. They’re going to be able to make a larger impact that a one week visit ever will.

    All that said, I think it’s also valuable to travel and see the way the rest of the world lives. It challenges us and changes us. In that, like one of the comments mentioned – be logical about it and call it what it is, a chance to go and travel and learn. If you really feel a need to go and change the world then gain a skill that can make a difference, and commit to doing it for the long term.

    Thanks for focusing on such an important issue.

  8. Great article. Thank you so much for raising this.

    It always amazes me the backlash you can get when you raise this debate amongst well educated professional people. I recently had a friend go to india to work in a school for two weeks. She isn’t a teacher, wasn’t police checked and had no experience of young children. Air fare was £850. When you mention simple things such as
    1. What is the air fare?
    2. What is the unemployment in the country?
    3. What exp do you have of kids?
    4. What is the cost of the salary of someone local was employed to do it?

    You see the penny drop..: I was met with ‘but we are taking books and crayons’ to which I was
    1. So there are no books and crayon in all of India?
    2. Where are these books and crayon made? Oh China? Isn’t that just round the corner from India? Perhaps they might be cheaper locally bought?

    This doesn’t win you friends I have found. Now if someone approached me with Claire.. I really want to go and see the world..: I want to get out of my comfort zone and develop personally… Then I think amazing good on you. This is a very different mindset to oh I must go and help the poor.

    My 3 main issues are.

    First it doesn’t pass the basic common sense test if you pause long enough to do the maths. Put an untrained person on a plane at £750 to take a position that could have paid a local person for 3 or 4 months to orphan cuddle very day.

    Secondly in countries of high unemployment wouldn’t it be better to transfer that £750 to help reduce unemployment?

    Thirdly it re-enforces ignorant colonial beliefs that western folk are the only people that can help and there is no one available locally. What do people think everyone else does with their time in these countries?

    This isn’t the worst volunteering I have come across. The worst was an architect charity that needed U.K. Folk to jet into Ghana to help teach people about the beauty of mud houses!!!

  9. […] you to WhyDev for allowing us to share this blog. You can see the original post on their […]

  10. Louisa

    This article and larger initiative to stop orphanage tourism is great! I’ve actually just finished my master’s thesis where I’ve been conducting fieldwork in Uganda resulting in: A Postcolonial Critique of NGO-run Orphanages in Jinja, Uganda.

    Would there be an interest in publishing some of my findings or reading my thesis by anyone at WhyDev?

    Keep up the great work and THANKS for covering such an important topic!

    1. Hi Louisa,

      If you’re interested in writing for WhyDev, please contact our Editor in Chief, Amanda, at amanda@whydev.org

      Just bringing your attention to Alan Kiff’s comment that he would also be interested in reading your thesis. You can email him at alan.kiff@internationalchild.org

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