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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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