This is the first in a series of blog posts by Kishan Devkota, Managing Director of the Everest Children’s Welfare Zone (ECWZ). Kishan has been sending us updates of this organisation’s response to the Nepal earthquakes, providing an unfiltered view from inside one community’s response to these disasters. We first met Kishan in Melbourne, when he appeared at an event we hosted on donating ethically. We were so impressed by his honesty and approach, we decided to donate the funds raised that night (AU$420) to his organisation. His community is in Rasuwa District, on the border of Tibet and the Langtan National Park.
For those us who knew Dwayne Johnson before he starred in The Tooth Fairy, he will always be fondly remembered for his wrestling alter ego, The Rock. He referred to himself in the third person and had some of the best catch phrases in the business.
We imagine he would also have some amazing advice about photographing children in overseas contexts. The Rock says, “Don’t photograph children and post them to Facebook, you candy ass!”
Posting children’s photos is not only irresponsible and disrespectful, it’s also potentially dangerous.
In many countries, laws on taking photos of children have tightened up. For example, in many parts of Australia, you can’t even take photos of your own children at sporting events, for fear of photographing someone else’s child. In addition, if a child’s identity can be ascertained from a photograph, then “the collection, use and disclosure of that image is covered by the Privacy Act“.
These laws might seem over-the-top in some circumstances, but they exist for a reason. To protect the child. If you can’t and wouldn’t dare walk around your neighbourhood back home and take photographs of children, why would you do it overseas?
One of the most important, yet complex, aspects of photographing children is consent. Taking and posting photos of children in poor countries is irresponsible because it assumes a number of complex ethical issues have been fully wrestled with (no pun intended) and addressed.
A quick “Yes” or a nod of the head doesn’t necessarily mean, “I give you permission to post my image or likeness on social media or use it in any public forum”. Furthermore, if that consent was only gained from a person under the age of 18, it is incomplete. Consent also needs to be obtained from the parent/guardian. But, the biggest issue here is understanding. Do the children understand what they are consenting to? Do they understand how you’re going to use the image? Are they in a position to say “no”?
One of us (Brendan) is conducting visual research for a PhD, asking out-of-school children to document their literacy practices using cameras. The ethics application – design of research protocol, consent forms, plain language statements, image waivers, confidentiality, roles, ownership, minimising harm – took months to put together and had to be approved by two university committees. Ethics is no light matter when it comes to photography and children.
Posting photos of children in poor countries is disrespectful because it assumes our own set of standards used in rich countries doesn’t apply elsewhere. “But hang on, people in Mongolia don’t have privacy laws, they’d be fine with me photographing their kids!” you might think. However, you might want to do your research on national laws regarding privacy and children protection.
We would argue that in the absence of informed consent and a deeper understanding of national laws and culture, it’s better to err on the side of caution. That is, take a photo if you must, but don’t go posting it everywhere on the Internet.
Posting photos of children in poor countries is dangerous because it strips them of their anonymity and privacy. There are inherent dangers in that. As an extreme example, a child who is an asylum seeker may be fleeing persecution. By putting his or her image up on the Internet, you’re revealing the whereabouts of this child and putting him or her at risk.
Sure, you might see this example as a one off, but would you want the location of your child, little brother or sister, nephew or niece publicly broadcasted? Probably not.
If you ever, and The Rock means ever, want to photograph a child, this is what you should do:
There are simple guidelines you can follow. If you’re a tourist, avoid taking photos of children, no matter how cute they are. If you absolutely must take them, don’t spread them elsewhere.
If you’re an aid worker or volunteer with an NGO, for goodness’ sake, you should know better. The NGO you work with should have a child protection policy and a photo permission form. If your organisation doesn’t have a policy in place, encourage them to develop one.
It should stipulate clearly what images are to be used for – promotional materials, the NGO’s website and their social media. Not for your personal Facebook account and not as a mechanism for you to get likes. For an example of a photo permission form we like, check out this one.
So, next time you’re about to hit “post” on that cute photo of a child, think about whether you’d do the same if you were in your local supermarket, in front of your neighbour’s house or down at your local school.
And, as The Rock would say, if you ever post a photograph of a child without their and their parent’s/guardian’s consent again, “The Rock will take you down Know Your Role Boulevard, which is on the corner of Jabroni Drive, and check you directly into the Smackdown Hotel!”
Featured image shows students lined up outside a school in Savelugu, Ghana. Photo from Brendan Rigby.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a deluge of criticism of international volunteering (see here, here, here and here), particularly when involving unskilled young people. As the debate has raged on, exploring the positives and negatives of volunteering abroad, the number of unskilled volunteers has been ever-increasing, and the sector has seen new placement providers – for better and worse – popping up all over the world.
With an uneasiness around voluntourism having infiltrated our public consciousness, the question remains of why we continue to see a flood of unskilled volunteering overseas… Do people selfishly not care that they may be causing more harm than good? Do they not fully understand the negative consequences that could – and often do – result from their actions.
This post aims to debunk four common arguments made to justify unethical volunteer placements:
1. It can’t be that bad…
This is the most common argument for justifying voluntourism placements (and helping ease a worried conscience!). For people who don’t spend their studies or professional lives thinking about humanitarianism, the notion that spending two weeks cuddling Cambodian orphans could result in anything other than smiles and happiness might seem far-fetched. Even when possible negative outcomes are explained (child safety concerns, attachment issues, separation of children from family, etc.), it’s hard for individuals to see their own relatively insignificant involvement as leading to these horrific outcomes.
However, volunteers should recognise that they’re one drop in a far bigger, far more damaging ocean, and that their short placement should not be held in isolation. Volunteers may not be around to see the negative effects of their activity, or may be so ethnocentrically blinkered they cannot recognise what’s happening right in front them. But this doesn’t mean these effects aren’t absolutely real and long-lasting. International volunteering – when done badly – can and does result in serious harm.
2. Something is better than nothing!
Another common argument in favour of voluntourism is that something is always better than nothing. My previous post on the double standards of volunteering with children abroad was met with criticism from people arguing that, while having trained professionals to work with children would be preferable, sending untrained students is better than nothing. This attitude I find very concerning, as it’s part of a damaging rhetoric regarding the behaviour and standards required in Western countries, compared to the lesser standards accepted in developing nations.
Why is a child in Australia or the U.K. any more deserving of having trained professionals teach and look after them than a child in Botswana, Nepal or Peru? We need to stop settling for second-best when it comes to our involvement in the lives of other people, be they in another country or in our own. There may be a claim that something is better than nothing, but the “something” in question here could be much improved.
3. But the poor people need me!
Growing up in the aftermath of Band Aid and witnessing the rise of celebrity humanitarianism, I can understand why people have a genuine conviction that developing countries (especially in “Africa”) desperately need the help of ordinary, everyday, rich Westerners. You only have to watch TV or ride the London Underground to be bombarded with messages about how your $0.39 a day could save a poor child in X country. It is a relatively easy step from thinking, “All I have to do is give a few dollars,” to “Heck, I’ll just fly over there and help the poor people myself!”
However, this is a fundamentally flawed and unrealistic understanding of global inequality. Throwing money at poverty will not change the systemic imbalance of power that keeps the poor poor (and in some places, getting poorer). Likewise, unskilled “help” does not actually help anyone – except potentially the helper. Unskilled volunteers and second-hand clothes are not what people need. Instead, concerned citizens should be considering how to push for a dramatic shift in terms of global priorities, away from national interest and profiteering to true equality.
4. But it’s such a great opportunity for me.
Thousands of graduates each year try to land jobs in the development sector, but face setback after setback if they don’t have enough “field experience”. They are encouraged get experience by volunteering abroad before looking for a paid position. So, what do they do? They type “volunteer in Africa” or “volunteer in Thailand” into Google, book the opportunity with the best reviews, pack their bags, and off they go. Obviously the lack of critical thinking this displays is not a good quality for future development workers But unfortunately, big aid agencies and recruiters do little to explain to aspiring humanitarians the difference between good and bad volunteering.
Many young people feel they have to volunteer abroad to have a shot of getting the job they want, and they do so under the premise that, if the Oxfam’s and Save the Children’s of the world are suggesting this, it must be good. Even if, upon returning to their own country, volunteers think their project wasn’t as effective as it could have been, they can dispel any worries by concentrating on the fact that this experience will enable them to start a career in development and dedicate their whole lives to doing good. Voluntourism may not be good, but is it bad enough to potentially give up your aid career for?
Many argue that, through bad overseas volunteer experiences, young people come face to face with global inequality, returning home with their eyes opened. However, if this awakening is at the expense of real people with real lives, who may suffer real negative consequences, then you shouldn’t be interested. If you want a cultural experience, go travelling, build global friendships, and put money into local economies. You don’t have to feed into an industry making billions from exploitation to achieve this. And next time you find yourself in a voluntourism debate with someone making these arguments, remember that they’re easily debunked.
Featured image shows a volunteer teaching at a summer camp in Malawi. Photo from Waaw Foundation.
When considering the sometimes disastrous consequences of overseas volunteering with regards the emotional and physical well-being of children, it is all too easy to conclude that all projects involving children should be stopped altogether, preventing the problems from ever even being a possibility. Although a firm critic of many projects abroad involving children, I adamantly believe that, if done correctly, in conjunction with local stakeholders and with the benefit of the child firmly situated at the heart of any decision, projects that bring together Western volunteers and local children can be hugely effective for both parties.
Over the five years I’ve been involved with KickStart Ghana, our attitude and practices regarding volunteering with children have developed dramatically. I find it really encouraging looking back and seeing how, as an organisation, we have become more impactful through our work, due to the decisions we’ve made, especially when considering our child-facing programmes. Child protection and safety, as well as beneficiary impact, are things we regard as being of the highest importance.
The three summer programmes currently running in Ho consist heavily of working with young people. The summer school, reading club and football coaching sessions, delivered alongside our local partners and supported by our dedicated team of UK volunteers, all focus on increasing the educational and sporting abilities and achievements of young people.
So, how do we ensure we are not making the same mistakes as so many other international volunteering organisations with regards to our work with children?
Firstly, we work closely with community stakeholders, determining where we can have the most positive impact, building on and supporting initiatives already taking place in the town. In the same way we would not appreciate foreigners coming into our communities and telling us what our children do or do not need in order to develop, organisations must thoroughly understand the necessity and rightfulness of local stakeholder engagement and involvement. By working alongside local teachers, child care professionals and parents, organisations go some way to ensure their actions are embedded into the context of the local community, leading to more impactful and more sustainable programmes which are supported by local people.
Secondly, all our volunteers pass through a structured recruitment and training programme, ensuring they are well equipped for their designated roles whilst in-country. Our Summer School volunteers provide extra-curricular activities for Year 6 pupils, but as they are not qualified teachers, the national curriculum content is left to Ghanaian teachers to deliver. When questioned on this, our response is simple: would we ever allow a volunteer teacher from Ghana to come to the U.K. and teach a Year 6 maths class, despite the fact they were not actually qualified? Obviously not!
It is important that all international development organisations that work with volunteers know the boundaries they are setting for their programmes by doing so – volunteers, by their very nature, cannot do everything a paid, fully-trained member of staff can. It is the responsibility of each individual organisation to ensure measures are put in place to enable volunteers to work to the best of their ability.
Thirdly, we follow a strict policy when it comes to child protection, ensuring all volunteers are made fully aware of the policy before and during their placement. No cameras are allowed on project, as we wish to encourage our volunteers to focus their attentions on ensuring the programmes are the best they can be, not with their eye continuously objectifying a child through a lens.
Our volunteers are also reminded about their position as mentors, not friends. Although they 100% should develop friendly, trusting relationships with the children, they are not in Ghana to hand out hugs, nor are the children attending the projects to be fussed over, but rather to benefit from the activities provided. By doing this, we hopefully curb any negative side effects for the children when it comes to attachment.
Much research has been done regarding the detrimental effects that short-term volunteering placements can have on children and when properly thought through, the conclusions seem obvious.
Having a constant stream of volunteers arrive in your community, show you love and affection and then, without a backwards glance, get back on a plane can prove very difficult for children, especially if coming from vulnerable backgrounds.
If we think about this from a UK perspective, it’s like volunteers from other parts of the world, coming over and working in our young people’s refuges for 2 weeks at a time, completely unqualified to do so, getting to know the residents, gaining their affection and trust, before travelling around the country for a bit and then hoping back on a plane, never to be seen or heard from again. And then the next group arrive and so on. Although maybe not fulfilling the Western volunteer desire for the much needed profile pic with a cute Ghanaian child, or supplying a never-ending opportunity for cuddles, KickStart Ghana believe these decisions make our programmes more impactful and consequentially, the experience a better one for volunteers and beneficiaries a like.
I am not here to claim that KickStart Ghana are by any means perfect as an organisation when it comes to these issues, but I am pleased to work for a charity that takes this stuff seriously, doesn’t cut corners and instils a respect in our volunteers about these important issues. I’d like to finish this blog with a quick word of advice for anyone currently considering volunteering abroad with children. The below 5 points, I believe, should be understood, appreciated and taken to heart by anyone looking for a placement. Do not consider your actions inconsequential, and make sure you are spending your time and money wisely, so as to be bringing about good instead of harm.
- Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference. If they were, we’d have no problems left in the world. You must consider what skills or strengths you as an individual have to bring to a project. The last thing any developing country needs is more big-hearted but utterly clueless Westerners flying over thinking they can help by simply being there.
- Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else? Are they more focused on the volunteers’ happiness than the child’s? This should be easily determinable through the way they present themselves online and through their recruitment process. If you can secure your place in 90 seconds, like I mentioned above, move on to someone else.
- Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be. Don’t choose a project solely for its location, duration, proximity to the pub, etc. Although you will inevitably get a lot out of your volunteering experience (arguably more than you will actually give), you should not in any way see your trip as a holiday. If you do, reconsider what you’re doing, and go to Spain for a week instead.
- Always consider what best practice is in the UK. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in. If we really believe children are equal and are all deserving of the same high level of care, then are actions and attitudes should mirror this, no matter where in the world we are.
- Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it. Go to the people in charge and raise your concerns. The only way to move forward with these issues is to first highlight that they exist and then speak out against them. Only then will we be in a position to move towards a reality where volunteering your time with children across the world is something to truly boast about, not as some shallow badge of honour, but as a constructive way to aid global child development.
Featured image is students taking a computer class in Ho, Ghana. Photo from EIFL.
This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the first in a two-part series on volunteering with children, so check back next week for part two!
Let me ask you. How many times have you logged onto Facebook and been greeted with a newly-updated profile picture of one of your friends, volunteer-smile intact, affectionately cuddling a small, rather grubby-looking child, from an unknown African nation? Once? Twice? Too many times to recall?
If you haven’t experienced it personally, you’ll probably be aware of the growing phenomenon sweeping schools, colleges and universities across the Western world. In search of adventure and a desire to break normalcy, our young people, during their gap years or summer holidays, are jetting off to volunteer (more often than not, with children) in countries across the Global South… It’s become a craze. Like over-reliance on Apple products and an addiction to Starbucks, voluntourism is becoming something by which this generation is being defined. It’s almost come to be seen as a rite of passage (albeit for the relatively well-off) – something you do before, during or after university. Something that will “set you apart” and help you land your £40k-starting-salary graduate job.
Let me ask you another question. How would you react if the craze was reversed? Would you allow your children, your younger brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to appear as the photo fodder within a Kenyan’s profile picture? An Ethiopian’s? A Cambodian’s? Would you be okay with letting the young people close to you feature in the strange online societal competition of foreigners, where you wear your profile picture with a small child of a different skin colour as a badge of honour, boasting about the fact that you – you noble and benevolent being – have volunteered abroad?
I have a feeling we might be slightly less agreeable than others across the world and so starts my second blog for the summer – the complexity of volunteering with children and the complicated way we, in the West, appear to have different ideas and ideals about what’s acceptable with regards to working with young people, depending on where in the world they live.
As I mentioned in my previous post for KickStart, the world of international volunteering is a murky one, although all too often, volunteers and potential volunteers view it through rose-tinted glasses. When we consider volunteering abroad specifically with children, the situation becomes murkier still, what with child protection and welfare, the complexity of cross-cultural teaching and learning and a whole host of other ethical issues regarding the suitability of (usually) unqualified volunteers working with (largely) vulnerable young people. It is a topic that is receiving far too little attention.
The image of the happy, white Westerner surrounded by the beaming faces of black children has become the snapshot associated with what it means to volunteer abroad (put it into Google and tell me I’m wrong!). Accompanied by the emotive language of voluntourism websites, it is not a surprise that volunteering your time on child-specific projects is the most popular form of volunteering abroad today.
I’m as fond of children as the next person, and if given the opportunity to play with kids from any nation for a couple of weeks, I’d have a hard time turning it down. But arguably as the most vulnerable individuals within any society, surely these children deserve a little bit more structured thinking? How exactly is the best way to support their development and learning? Who exactly is the right person to do this for the upmost benefit of the child? What potential damage could be being done to these kids if the project was to go wrong or just be plain neglectful?
By sending out our well-intentioned but unqualified and inexperienced 18 year olds, are we actually actively harming the very children we are so carelessly flaunting on our profile pages?
A recent experiment saw me take to the Internet and the websites of five of the biggest voluntourism companies to see how long it would take for me, a 23 year old white female graduate, with a smidgen of teaching experience, to sign up and volunteer with children abroad. The average was under 90 seconds. 90 seconds, with not a single question about who I am and why I’d be a good person to work with kids. I could be anyone, anyone, with any sort of horrific motivation for wanting to spend unsupervised time with children.
Obviously, in the vast majority of cases, volunteers wishing to work with children are simply young people with a desire to improve the situations of other young people living lives very different to their own. However, there are incidences of people with far darker intentions having the opportunity to volunteer with children abroad, where they are unlikely to undergo any criminal records checks, be supervised whilst on project or ultimately be traced if an indecency is suspected. Would this iewer even be a possibility in the U.K.? The answer is a resounding no! To volunteer with children at home, you first have to wade through thousands of proverbial miles of red tape – why do we think children in other countries should have anything but the same level of security?
Through my research, I also found that the majority of voluntourism organisations do not require volunteers to have any level of experience, let alone qualifications to volunteer with children, whether in a school or a residential care institution. Can you ever imagine this being the norm in the U.K.? How many times have you seen a plane full of well-intentioned but unqualified, 18-year-old Nepalese young people flood U.K. schools or residential care homes to “teach” our children? My guess would be not that often!
This begs the question of why we feel people have to be trained and educated to a fairly high standard to work with English children, but the same does not apply when considering children growing up across the Global South. What kinds of assumptions, whether conscious or subconscious, are we making and thus basing our actions upon? Do we really believe, as our actions seem to depict, that as Westerners, even if uneducated, we are somehow more innately qualified to care for children and know what is best for them, than their own teachers, nursery nurses, even parents? Or, worse still, do we think that the children of Africa, Asia and South America are somehow deserving of a lesser standard of care? If, like most people, you balk at both of these ideas, then maybe it is about time our actions changed to mirror what we claim to believe.
In part two, Ruth details best practices for volunteer organisations and gives some tips on choosing a volunteer position.
Featured image is a classroom in Kenya. Photo by Deepa Srikantaiah.
Dr. Arun Gupta is co-founder and central coordinator of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, an affiliate of the International Baby Food Action Network for Asia. A member of the prime minister’s Council for India’s Nutrition Challenges, Gupta gave up his private practice to promote breastfeeding and bring this issue to the forefront of social and political discussions in India and abroad.
Breastfeeding stands out as the single most effective intervention to save children’s lives, improve nutrition, by reducing diarrhea, pneumonia and newborn infections. Among the growing benefits are enhanced IQ, reduction in obesity and non-communicable diseases, which include diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Yet the rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children younger than six months is a dismal 37 percent globally, which means 92 million out of 136 million babies are not able to practice WHO-recommended exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. And these indicators have been almost stagnant for two decades, despite World Health Organization plans to increase exclusive breastfeeding by 50 percent by 2025.
According to data from a new study carried out in 51 countries by the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, exclusive breastfeeding rate averages about 46 percent in 15 countries and initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth is about 51 percent. East Asia and the Pacific has shown a decline in breastfeeding mothers from 45 percent in 2006 to 29 percent in 2012, while the baby food market is set to grow by 31 percent over the next three years.
What most people perceive about breastfeeding is that women do it anyway. However, women need to be supported with several strategies, including protection from baby food companies, support at the workplace, support at the time of delivery and accurate information about optimal feeding practices. In spite of proven benefits and repeated emphasis, there has been very slow progress in developing specific programs. Governments, donors and international aid organizations have been focused on “promotion of breastfeeding,” which means nothing or different things to different people. When it comes to funding, it is hardly there for any of the three strategies mentioned above. International funding, for example has been largely driven by food aid for therapeutic food or micronutrient supplements. This is because of market-driven policies and programs.
So where should the donor money go?
First, to protecting breastfeeding from pernicious commercial influences, which is critical. WHO’s recent report on implementation of the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes shows that only 37 out of 199 countries have enacted a law that fully adheres to it. Does that send any message to our aid agencies or governments? Ending all inappropriate promotion of food for infants and young children needs more attention. If you invest in this strategy and promise to deliver on this standard by 2015 in all 199 countries, the world would be much kinder to women and children. Ambitious, yes, but it can be done, and requires both courage and cash.
Next is promotion. The most common reason for women to adopt artificial feeding is perceived insufficiency of their breastmilk for the baby. Breastfeeding is not like “food in” and “food out” — it’s all controlled by two hormones. These hormones depend on sucking by the baby and the state of mind of the mother. It’s all about building her confidence to increase her milk supply. Evidence shows that increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates is possible through individual or group counseling by an adequately trained worker. This again requires technical assistance and human resources. Only seven countries out of 51 have such a provision, and the gap is too large.
Third is support. Breastfeeding can’t succeed if mother and baby are away from each other. Improving maternity benefits and encouraging breastfeeding at work must be encouraged. Yet none of the 51 countries where we studied policies could score a perfect ten in this area. Asia is no exception, as very few countries provide a six-month maternity leave. To equally support women, innovative thinking is required. Wage compensation for women in the informal sector should be a top priority — at least $2 a day. The ILO convention could be revised to include a mandatory six-month leave for all women, working at home or not.
According to a recent study, the United States could save up to $13 billion in health care costs if 90 percent of women were able to breastfeed. You get your money back along with a range of public health benefits.
Finally, it should be viewed as women’s right. Breastfeeding is a public health priority requiring social, political, legal and financial interventions. Somehow, breastfeeding, though admittedly of great benefit, is always left out when it comes to resource allocations.
All countries, donors and development agencies should allocate at least ten percent of the child budget to strategies for increasing breastfeeding. Otherwise, the global community and the world at large will fail in supporting women. To spend this fund, countries could design a minimum essential programme of services within a legal framework according to the guidelines set by WHO’s Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, and coordinated by a high level body within the government, like in Brazil, where this policy dramatically increased the country’s breastfeeding rates.
You have the power to invest in children. The choice is yours.
This post originally appeared on Devex.
In the almost three years WhyDev has existed, the 1500 comments and nearly 100 contributors to the blog demonstrates we’ve been successful in promoting discussion around topics related to aid and development.
And the accolades keep pouring in! By which we mean that last year we were runners up for an ABBA from A View From The Cave.
But that has not been our only nomination for a random blogging award. Oh yes, there’s more.
Last month we were nominated in the Best Australian Blogs 2013 Competition. We’ve been nominated for an award in the Commentary category, and we’re also up for a People’s Choice Award.
Take thirty seconds of your time to go to page five of this site and vote for us.
A vote for us is a vote of acknowledgement that our contributors are awesome. It’s a vote for sunshine and puppies. It’s a vote for Madonna to get back to the music she was making in the ’80s and away from development.
Not convinced we’re worth your vote? Let us convince you by highlighting some of our favourite posts since the last time we boasted about the quality of our posts.
“How services, not “innovation,” can change lives” by Weh Yeoh
This is a challenging post that has broad implications in an environment that is increasingly searching for The Answer to End Poverty. Where does this leave service provision and the needs of people, particularly people with disabilities? Who is deciding what those needs are? Are we listening? Weh challenges us to not get distracted by shiny things and bring it back to the people.
“Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana” by Hanna Voekl
Finally, some evidence-based research about the efficacy and effects of orphanage voluntourism! There is a lot of chatter and general misgivings about: a) orphanages in general; b) how voluntourism is a negative practice particularly in orphanages. But, these misgivings are anecdotal. Hanna’s research is not.
I’m generally not a fan of opinion pieces that border on rants, but there is something about the way that J. writes and thinks that is so compelling. This piece is a great example and taps into something really important about the distinction between what aid/development workers do, and how we are more broadly as human beings.
“9 development phrases we hate (and suggestions for a new lexicon)” by WhyDev Team
“MT @Vanalli: In Laos “gender mainstreaming” translated as “man & woman together in the middle of the river”. Shows how silly NGO-speak is.” WhyDev Twitter account, 10th April, 2013. As tongue in cheek as this post is (creating an entire litany of useless buzzwords simply because you don’t like the previous lot), it does highlight the importance of saying what you mean. All the time.
“Stop branding aid” by Josie Stewart
I come from a communications background where a central assumption is that branding is good. Josie strongly challenges this assumption, and argues that branding aid undermines aid effectiveness.
“Teaching children journalism to strengthen democracy” by Jessica Carter
Children are so much brighter and more critical than we often realise. This piece powerfully demonstrates how kids in Bangladesh involved in a youth-centred development project are reporting on and critically assessing news in their country.
Did we convince you? Then vote for us. Voting closes Tuesday, April 30.
Given the nature of today’s anonymous post, WhyDev is unable to verify the details of the story below, but we believe it is valuable to publish given the ethical questions it raises. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
What does ’saving‘ a child really mean? Ask 10 people and you’re liable to get 20 different answers.
Here’s a situation where this question was implicitly asked but I’ll let you decide whether or not anyone was ’saved.’ As extremely discomfiting as this situation is for me, I’m putting it out to the wider development community with hopes of starting a conversation about how we can stop similar occurrences in the future.
I am currently affiliated with an NGO that works on health systems strengthening in East Africa. Pretty standard stuff – malnutrition, maternal mortality, village outreach, and the like. Recently, the founder turned the formerly-secular NGO into an explicitly-evangelical one, and with the shift came missionaries dedicated to ‘soul harvesting’ and ‘crusading.’
But ultimately, this is a story about an 11-year-old boy, Micah (not his real name). He was found by the side of the road one evening and was brought to the nearby health centre, where one of the missionaries happened to be working. We don’t know exactly how he ended up there, though the working hypothesis was that his mother tried to poison him and left him for dead. We’d later learn that this is almost certainly not true.
Whatever string of events led Micah to the side of the road, he was in rough shape and alone at the hospital. The missionary wanted to help, made phone calls to community members, and became involved in his case.
Micah required a higher level of care, so the missionary insisted that he go to a better-run private hospital, all expenses paid by the NGO. The missionary then had the police hastily write up a note giving our organisation the right to take the child, so he went into surgery and came out with one less appendix and one additional eight-inch incision on his abdomen.
As he recuperated, the conversation shifted to what was going to happen to him after he was discharged; a group of at least six members of the organisation, along with one community member, tasked themselves with deciding Micah’s next home – with no single person responsible for the decision or for his care. Relatives were unreachable and the paucity of available information meant that no good option seemed to exist; orphanages were discussed, but shot down for not being ‘right’ and for taking too long to accept him.
And so the missionaries decided that, while they attempted to sort out proper placement, he would stay with us. They wanted to save a child. Please do not misunderstand me – all of them are extremely kind, caring people who only had the absolute best of intentions.
But, that’s exactly the point – as we all know, and as this story will show, extraordinarily good intentions can be extraordinarily dangerous.
Before continuing, it’s instructive to note a few things. First, a police report was never filed in a case of what was assumed to be attempted filicide; while we now know that it wasn’t, at the time that was the working assumption. In some areas, it would be commonplace to forego police action; here it is not. The missionaries did receive a handwritten letter giving them the authority to take the child to the private hospital, but that was the extent of police involvement. A suitable post-discharge plan was discussed but not seriously considered by the group of seven; many orphanages were available, but never truly considered as an option.
So, Micah was taken from his community into an NGO home that is teeming with foreigners and bereft of other children. He was placed in the care of people who neither share his language nor his culture. While it’s a little facetious to say that he was ’kidnapped‘ (technically, the police did give consent; whether it was theirs to give is a separate, but important, question to ask), it is fair to ask whether this was truly in his best interest or if it was appropriate to do.
If this was the end of the story, it could probably serve as the start of a good discussion on the promise and the peril of good intentions and whether these actions are ethical or advisable.
But it’s not the end of the story.
Micah arrived in the late afternoon and walked into a room full of foreigners. For the next hour or so, a member of a nearby church translated as the missionaries explained what was going on and asked a number of questions about what had happened to him. It was clear that he was extremely uncomfortable, and understandably so.
Micah became the ’house boy,’ and as no one was specifically accountable for his health and wellbeing, no one was responsible for him. None of us are able to speak more than a few words of his language, so we got by with a few hand signals. He warmed up to us, watched television, and ate.
But not in that order. By the time someone noticed how much food he was eating – including things he probably had never digested before, like burgers and chips – it was clear something was wrong with him. Micah’s a skinny kid, but he looked six months pregnant; he was eating too much and it was all staying in his now-distended stomach. With no one accountable for his care, this was allowed to slip by for far too long.
A day later, Micah was in extreme pain, so the missionaries took him to the hospital – the same one he had been discharged from days earlier. The doctor put an emergency nasogastric tube through his nose to reduce the distension; after the tube was in, the doctor said that his stomach ’deflated like a balloon.’
He later said that Micah’s stomach was dangerously near rupture, and that he was, unequivocally and without exaggeration, ’near death’ and ‘nearly killed;’ his stomach could have perforated or his abdominal distension could have put too much pressure on his lungs.
Micah spent the week writhing in discomfort, as the nasogastric tube kept him from distending. After myriad tests and consultations, the surgeon said that the valve between the stomach and intestines was not opening; this could require surgery to fix. But ’could‘ does a lot of work there – the condition could also work itself out in time.
In other words, a decision had to be made, but the medical officer of the NGO was out of the country, and we could not get a hold of him. He’s from the country but not the region, and had not been involved in Micah’s case in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the surgeon had to leave for the airport, so Micah didn’t have surgery that day.
This was a remarkable stroke of good luck, as the doctors were able to take the nasogastric tube out, and Micah began to eat. Bit by bit, his strength – and his smile – returned, and he was discharged days later, no surgery necessary.
He is back in our home once more, but this time one person is responsible for his health. I’ve had more than a few conversations with that person about the need to find him a suitable home as soon as possible, and it seems to have had an effect. I’m hoping he gets better, and finds a new home, soon.
So, uncharitably, it could be said that a NGO – with the best of intentions – took a child from a hospital and was the proximate cause of his immediate readmission and ’near death‘ experience. But even the charitable version leaves much to be desired: an outside group took ownership of a local child, failed to understand the risks of doing so, failed to take care of him, and – most importantly – failed to keep him safe.
There’s no question that his life was in a precarious situation before the missionaries intervened; he was a sick child who desperately needed help. But did he need help from his own community, or from outsiders who felt they were doing the right thing by removing him from it?
It’s possible that Micah’s community would have allowed him to overeat, or would otherwise failed to provide him the appropriate atmosphere conducive to convalescing. With a pyloric valve issue, it’s possible that, eventually, he would have returned to the hospital.
But would he have nearly died? Would major decisions about his health have been made by outsiders?
Are such situations simply unlucky or avoidable? Is this a one-time, isolated case of hubris, or is it proof positive for the broader claim that outsiders – even with the absolute best of intentions – are fated to cause more harm than good?
What if the child would have recovered as normal – how does that change conceptions of right and wrong? What if my organisation would have done a better job of taking care of Micah – then would it have been OK?
I don’t have answers to those questions, and am grappling with them myself. I only know a few things: this situation leaves me deeply uncomfortable, deeply furious, and deeply ambivalent about my tangential relationship to it, and it seems to me that no child was saved.
In this case, good intentions were enough – to nearly kill a local kid.
By Hanna Tabea Voelkl
As part of her Masters research on “Children, Youth, and International Development” at Brunel University, Hanna Tabea Voelkl conducted a qualitative case study in Ghana that focused specifically on the experiences of orphanage children with international volunteer tourists. Post-studies, she consciously decided not to work in development, but rather to work hands-on where she could “make a difference” without causing potential harm — back in her own country, Germany. She currently works as a social worker in a temporary institutional home for vulnerable and traumatised children. Contact her via e-mail: email@example.com.
Many development workers and blogs, including this one here and here, have discussed volunteer tourism and its possible negative implications, especially on host communities. In these debates, there seems to be a consensus that good intentions are not sufficient to “do good.”
While voluntourists who visit the children in orphanages genuinely want to make a difference to the children they engage with and more broadly the local communities they visit, where are the children’s voices in these often highly emotional discussions? When I sought the answer to this question I quickly realized that the perspective of the most affected group of the local community, children, has not been considered.
Considering children’s perspectives
So, let’s consider their perspective. The words “youth participation” and “empowerment,” are based on Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and bring to mind the concept of children as active social agents.
This treaty implies that children are the hope of the future as they build up the new generations that aspire to develop themselves, and their own country. If we agree with the norms and values embodied in the UNCRC, shouldn’t children be considered the primary stakeholders of volunteer projects in orphanages, child day care centres or on the street?
Following this logic, I decided to find out whether these values operated in practice. I went to Ghana and asked children living in an orphanage used as a volunteer tourism site about their experiences. What I learned intensified my concern about the unsustainable nature of voluntourism and confirmed fears about the harm volunteers can have on children’s emotional development.
You would probably think that no matter what, children enjoy the presence of volunteers – they are after all poor orphans. Indeed, they become very excited when new volunteers arrive. Who would not be excited when knowing that sweets, stationery items for school, shoes, clothing, colouring pens, fruit, photographs and temporary playmates are on their way? Being besieged with presents and having constant entertainment through the continuous flow of volunteers sure sounds like fun… or does it?
The negative impact of voluntourism on children
The act of giving and receiving is what children associate the most with volunteers. Significantly, the children develop certain expectations and strategies to convince volunteers to give them something or take them on a trip. Sadly, this relationship reflects the widening gap between wealthy “help-givers” and “needy” beneficiaries and reduces support to individual acts of charity.
From the children’s point of view, volunteers are white, mostly young, female students who enter their lives in order to distribute things and spend time with them. From the volunteers’ perspective the children are poor, but happy due to “lotto-logic” — in life some people get lucky, some simply don’t, and their engagement with children does not contribute to them gaining an understanding of the structural causes of poverty.
In theory, the children learn about other countries through engaging with volunteers, which ultimately widens their horizons. The children develop an extremely positive image of the volunteers and the “oh-so-wonderful ‘Western world’.” Children in the orphanage frequently drew flags of the volunteers’ countries portraying nice places with good-hearted people, cars and airplanes.
Further, they developed aspirations to travel to Europe in order to learn a “proper” profession. It was great to see them dreaming big, but raised the issue of “brain drain” when I realized that their dreams involved leaving their own country. With a country’s future resting on its future generations, wouldn’t it be better if children aspired to develop their own community and country and were proud to be beautiful and intelligent Africans with the potential to do great things?
Many advocates for voluntourism argue that intercultural exchange is promoted by volunteer tourism, but is it really? My research found that it predominantly produced stereotypical, overly positive images of the Western world in the children’s minds, which ultimately expanded the gap between the home communities of the host and of the volunteer.
What remains after volunteers leave?
For the volunteers, it was an experience between school and university, a way to explore another country and to develop themselves. For them, the experience was successful and has come to an end. But what about the children they leave behind?
The comings and goings of different cohorts of voluntourists results in the children experiencing constant instability and inconsistency in their emotional care. They are also left with empty promises, as many volunteers promise to return, but the majority do not keep in contact and are soon replaced by the next cohort of volunteers.
Volunteer tourism might create opportunities for temporary social interaction, but it does not broaden the social networks of the children or make information more accessible for them. Further, it does not appear to create sustainable bridges between the two communities. And finally, it does not provide the children with the emotional care and support they need in order to develop into healthy individuals with a bright future.
As a result of the usage of their orphanage as a volunteer tourism site, the children I spoke with are spoiled but poor. Is this the best outcome for the children and is it the best way to use the energy, motivation and good intentions of volunteers?
If you want to make a difference, think again before volunteering with children abroad. An extra hand of a motivated volunteer can make all the difference right on your own doorstep at home. There are soup kitchens, vulnerable and traumatised children, homeless shelters, summer camps and much more in our “oh-so-wonderful” Western world as well.
And if you want to “head out there” without causing harm and emotional damage, you can always go backpacking.
Do you think the negative effects of voluntourism on children in orphanages outweigh the benefits?
“A boy named Rana lived in a slum with his mother. When he was two years old his father had passed away and his mother earned very little working in a wealthy man’s estate. It was just enough to keep them alive. When Rana saw that his other friends went to school he wondered if he could do the same. He asked his mother but he knew that she could not afford to send him.”
These are the words of Bithi and Lelin, two Bangladeshi children from the same district – Rayer Bazar in Dhaka – as their friend Rana. This story was published in Angikaar, a school newspaper that finds its way into the hands of hundreds of Bangladeshis every two months.
Angikaar (read online here), which means ‘commitment’ in Bengali, is the product of hard work and small voices. Founded in September last year by a group of entrepreneurial young Bangladeshis, it features stories written by the children of the JAAGO Foundation’s school in Rayer Bazar.
In Bangladesh, where education is barely a right and more of a privilege, a school in the middle of a slum is a rare sight. But in Dhaka’s sprawling Rayer Bazar, where life leaks onto the muddy alleyways in techni-coloured patterns, the JAAGO school provides free education for nearly 200 students, helping children to break the cycle of poverty through learning.
Bithi, Lelin and Rana are three of the students who attend the JAAGO school. They are also budding journalists who are able to write their stories for Angikaar to share with a society that often ignores them.
On my first day helping out with Angikaar, I was greeted by the news that a fire had swept through a large portion of homes in Rayer Bazar. Surrounded by a bunch of over-excited children, I was struck by the significance of their story and the fact that this was the first I’d heard of it, despite living in a neighbouring suburb. The next day, a hundred words in Bangladesh’s English newspaper, The Daily Star, announced the fire with unsettling objectivity and little detail. For me, this moment captured the reason behind Angikaar and the potential behind sharing those children’s stories. It was an idea that resonated with the newspaper’s tagline that we would later go on to create: “Rising voices, building a better Bangladesh.”
Strengthening democracy and development
The fourth-estate role of the media is taken for granted in much of the world. Resting on the notions of free speech and democracy, it expects journalists to hold the government to account through their reporting. Although Bangladesh is a democracy, its media are hardly free or able to play a genuine watchdog role – the Bangladeshi media are ranked at 136th out of 178 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, with first being most free.
To add to the political limitations on media freedom, only slightly more than half (56%, according to UNICEF) of Bangladeshis are literate, and those who are non-literate are unlikely to have access to the electricity needed to watch a television or listen to a radio.
The result is local media that lack the resources, skills and platforms to report effectively on the many challenges faced by the nation and the people of Bangladesh – corruption, poverty, poor governance, and degrading or non-existent infrastructure, to name but a few. And when these issues do successfully make the headlines, they lack the voices and stories of everyday people.
From this starting point, the benefits of giving more people the skills to tell their own stories seem obvious – more stories are told, people become better informed, voters make better decisions, accountable politicians do a better job. Of course, the reality is much messier, but this is the ideal driving a growing number of media development projects across the developing world, Angikaar included.
From my own observations over ten months of working with Angikaar, the greatest benefit was not simply that more people heard the children’s stories. Certainly, their words were read and appreciated. But, in a country of 150 million, a team of 15 student writers and 15 volunteer youth editors will need a lot more time to make their voices heard. Instead, the greatest achievement was what the children learnt about the complexity of news and the art of telling a story. In other words, it has increased their media literacy.
By increasing their exposure to different types of news sources and stories, the Angikaar team gradually became more confident in their ability to judge news and understand it. In a country where the quality of media is poor, being able to explain why and at least acknowledge that it could be better is invaluable.
In practice, this meant that the students could look at a news story and immediately ask how and why it was considered “newsworthy.” When Angikaar student journalist Siam read a story about underage marriage statistics, he decided to tell the story of a woman he knew who had been married at 15 and whose family had sold their land to pay for her dowry.
Importantly, Siam didn’t just tell her story, he finished by asking why it happened: “Why didn’t Amena receive any justice? Is it because she was poor, her family was poor, and there is no profit in helping other people?” To 12-year-old Siam, including this question for his readers was important, because he felt it was something rarely asked elsewhere – and there’s no doubt that the answer alludes to an even bigger story of injustice.
Consistency and stability
One of the key lessons I learnt was that consistency and stability are fundamental to the success of youth-centred media development projects. Whenever there was more than a week between our workshops, re-connecting with the students was difficult. Furthermore, the newspaper was bilingual – in Bangla and English – a feature which demanded that we work very frequently with students so that language issues wouldn’t become a barrier to their story.
Around the six-month mark, the Angikaar project started floundering a little. The team’s grand hope, that they would revolutionise views in Dhaka towards people from the Rayer Bazar slum, seemed impossible to attain. They’d dreamed that within a few busy months, the newspaper would create tangible change. Convincing them (and the school) that they could and should commit to a long-term vision for Angikaar was the biggest challenge faced, but ultimately it is what will make the difference between Angikaar being a short-term activity and a meaningful project.
I believe there is huge potential for the media and development fields to work hand-in-hand to strengthen civil society and communicate messages that bring about positive social change. For youth-centred media development projects to move from being introductions to media literacy, to projects with the genuine potential to produce young citizens with skills in producing media and accessing audiences, time is crucial.
It’s certainly not what anybody wants to hear as it would be much easier if a few capacity-building sessions could deliver the expertise and leave communities to create successful media projects immediately. The fruits of media development projects need patience as people acquire skills and audiences. Just like the traditional media brands needed time to forge a reputation, so do small-scale community media projects.