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Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana

Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana

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:

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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38 thoughts on “Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana

  1. miss justina

    hello, my name is miss Justina i was having problem with my husband
    and also having challenge in my business.i did not know what to do to put an end to day i was making some research online,when i came across a testimony on how some one
    sow a seed of faith to favor orphanage baby home and her life change for i contact the
    email address,[] it was own by a pastor.i told the him what i am passing true.the pastor told me that
    there is nothing his god cannot do. i should have faith and believe that every things will been fine.
    the pastor told me to sow a seed of faith to his new orphanage baby home he just build to help
    the less privilege baby and god will reward me. i did as he said.he pray with me and told me that
    very soon every things will been fine.after one week, the problem i was having with my husband that almost
    break up my marriage and my business that was facing some challenge, every things stop. my husband came to
    beg me and ask me to forgive him, my business was moving well.thanks been to the god of pastor favor.
    i am using this opportunity to let you know that,if you are passing some difficult in any area of
    your life, please do not give up in life, just sow a seed of faith to pastor favor orphanage
    baby home, and have faith and believe that the god of pastor favor will
    solve it for you.thanks, this is the email contact. [] you can also contribute to up keeping of
    this orphanage baby home,god will also bless you.

    Children are our future. But for many, that future is uncertain. poverty, hunger, exploitation, abuse, natural disasters and lack of opportunity at a young age are indescribably distressing. Include the loss of love, support and comfort of family life and an orphaned child is the most tragic and poignant symbol of heartbreak imaginable.

    Our Orphanage Home is specially called for the upkeep of orphans, abandoned babies, motherless, abused and less privileged children. All over the street, and society, we find these groups of helpless people who need care, support a sense of belonging and a home they can call theirs. Touched and moved by the plight and feelings of these our fellow human beings hence our vision is to provide them their peculiar needs in the area of shelter, health care, education, food and clothing. Our clear objective /goal is set at erasing completely street, psychological complex, low esteem, negative moral vices homeless children from our society. Beloved, sincerely speaking we cannot succeed in this divine course without your financial and material support. Please help us to put a smile on the faces of these Orphans, less privilege children. Every act of love, care and compassion to these orphans will be greatly rewarded, remember God loves a cheerful giver, nothing is to small join us this quest and help to build a life today.

  2. […] WhyDev / Orphanage Voluntourism in Ghana […]

  3. […] 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, […]

  4. […] Facebook friends with a few–but she never did anything for the orphanage besides have fun. Anecdotes abound about why volunteering at an orphanage can be harmful, including exploitation of young children and psychological impacts of several short-term visitors. […]

  5. […] Facebook friends with a few–but she never did anything for the orphanage besides have fun. Anecdotes abound about why volunteering at an orphanage can be harmful, including exploitation of young children and psychological impacts of several short-term visitors. […]

  6. […] Facebook friends with a few–but she never did anything for the orphanage besides have fun. Anecdotes abound about why volunteering at an orphanage can be harmful, including exploitation of young children and psychological impacts of several short-term visitors. […]

  7. […] issues. Our understanding of them changes every day. So, what was once acceptable (volunteering in an orphanage) now is not. Soon, social business will become the bad development practice (some have raised […]

  8. Philip

    Wonderful… your blog is life reaching. Am a Ghanaian and all that you and others said are all true. Am also an orphan but I straggle alone to get end meat to support my brothers at the age of 16 but now 21 years old. Am happy of all the point you made. God bless you.

  9. […] consequences of any kind and can be damaging to the those they were meant to supposedly help. Especially with volunteers who work in orphanages, they create a set of expectations for the childr…The profuse, negative psychological impact from this repeated instability and inconsistency of […]

  10. […] consequences of any kind and can be damaging to the those they were meant to supposedly help. Especially with volunteers who work in orphanages, they create a set of expectations for the childr…The profuse, negative psychological impact from this repeated instability and inconsistency of […]

  11. […] such as in orphanages that attract volunteers whose brief relationships with the children have negative impacts of their ability to connect with […]

  12. […] many are posts from researchers, including Hanna Tabea Voelkl who outlined her research on Orphanage Tourism in Ghana, Brendan Rigby who posted a number of links on what voluntourists need to know before they […]

  13. I know I wrote this blog a few months ago, but just wanted to let you all know there is a petition currently going on to force governments and organisations to entirely stop orphanage tourism in order to protect the children involved. Please do sign and spread the word.

  14. […] among other things, “constant instability and inconsistency in their emotional care”. I encourage everyone who is interested in this topic to read her dissertation. […]

  15. joni

    Dear Hanna, would it be possible to read your research paper? I`m doing a research project on how to inform tourists/volunteers about orphanage tourism. Thanks

    1. Hi Joni,
      of course it is possible. Feel free to read and quote it. Here is the title and link:

      If you have questions or comments, just send me an email.

  16. […] Tabea Voelkl, de la Universidad Brunel (Reino Unido), realiza un interesante análisis sobre el impacto del «volunturismo» en los orfanatos del continente […]

  17. This is interesting research Hanna. Last year I was in Timor-Leste (ironically, volunteering, but on a long term AVID placement in the Dili office, not voluntourism in schools or orphanages at all) with an international NGO that runs child rights programs, including empowering communities to start their own preschools and playgroups, facilitated by Timorese volunteers from within the community. The community can provide children with improved education and care when they are empowered and provided with training and support – they have the capacity to provide much better quality of ongoing care than a rotating carnival of inexperienced visitors from the west. And volunteering within communities in developing countries can blossom when it is properly nurtured. In these schools, children were learning the alphabet and counting in their own language, preparing them for success at primary school – not going over and over the same entry level English lessons with foreign volunteers. How do the educational outcomes at these orphanages stack up, do they even prepare children for success in their own countries and communities or in the national school system?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ashlee! I don’t think volunteering cannot be valuable in itself, quite the opposite actually, but like you pointed out- it needs to be empowering to the locals and be done in a sustainable way, based on their needs, wants and based on mutual trust and collaboration.
      The educational outcomes of volunteers teaching are,of course, not great and no, they are not enough to be successful or even be able to go further in their national school system. The bigger problem concerning education though is that the local teachers are not properly trained as well- many are not motivated, do not use any participatory teaching methods and the children simply copy and memorize what is on the black board. The entire education system needs to be reformed and the teachers properly trained and paid, coached and supported. That’s a whole different story though…

  18. Amber

    You give all of the reasons why NOT to volunteer, but give no alternative other than to not go and volunteer “in our own backyard.” We are ones who do help in our community. We’re honored to do so. With that being said, I can’t imagine NOT going to love on these beautiful children would be helpful either. I truly believe that if you’re prayerfully being led to another country to be the hands and feet of Jesus, God is going to use it for His good. My husband and I have wonderful friends who will be going to Haiti for a third time this summer. Their first trip, they were able to take 3 extremely sick children to the hospital, who otherwise, probably would’ve missed the urgent care they needed. Their second trip, same orphanage, they had the honor of comforting children who were running fevers by simply holding them. These children fell asleep in their arms for a couple of hours. To me, this is what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And if it’s only one child that feels and remembers that love and is led to do more, to make a difference in their community, then it’s worth it.

    1. Amber,

      I respect your own motivations, religious or otherwise, for trying to help. But wanting to help, or being called to help if you like, are not enough. Looking at this rationally: if we took the sum of money that folk spent on their flights, accommodation and other expenses in going to places like Haiti, and gave them to Haitians to do what they did on these trips – how many children could be taken to hospital? How many children could be held and comforted?

      Your assumption that helping one child, at whatever cost, does not make sense. If we have the means to choose between helping one, but making ourselves feel better along the way, or helping thousands more, but having our feeling of helping being more detached from the cause itself, what do you think is the rational choice to make?

      1. Amber

        I respect your comments. I guess we have to look at every situation differently. In some unfortunate cases, resources and donations that have been sent to an orphanage never reach them for, sometimes, very corrupt reasons. And sometimes, ordinary people can partner with organizations to help fight for the children who are suffering because of those corrupt ways.

        There’s definitely a bigger picture that we’re not expected to always see. I will say that serving others for me is not done “to make myself feel better.” For some, maybe, but it’s not my place or intent to judge others for sure. My desire is to selflessly love in whichever way fits best when a need is brought to my attention, whether it’s to simply support through prayer, financially, allow someone better equipped for the “job,” or to actually be His hands and feet. So, yes, in some cases it is certainly more rational to help from afar. Been there, done that, doing it now and will continue. But, friend, sometimes it takes trips by ordinary people to accomplish great works for the ones who don’t have a voice and once the pieces of the puzzle fit together, amazing things start to happen through a Power much greater than us. Our Creator works in mysterious and wonderful ways to fulfill His purpose. His love and ways are beyond anything we could ever comprehend.

  19. Hanna, I would like to ask some questions:
    1 – How long did you visit Ghana for?
    2 – How many orphanages did you visit?
    3 – Did you go to Busua or Cape Coast?

    Thank you,


    1. Hi Ashley.
      I went to Ghana for a total of almost 2 months. I spent 5-6 weeks in Ho, the Volta Region and conducted my primary research there in an orphanage project. Afterwards I travelled around Ghana for almost 2 weeks, also visiting Cape Coast where I visited another orphanage project with german voluntourists. My findings are based on the research in Ho only. My perspective though is based on the entire 2 months including many informal conversations with volunteer tourists and locals around Ghana, as well as already existent literature and research on the topic.
      It is only a case study but I do believe most of the findings are transferable to other projects and countries as well. I would have loved to stay longer and make it a bigger study, but as my time frame and financial budget were limited, it was not possible. It would, of course, be wonderful, if others could continue my research in other projects in order to get more evidence and draw conclusions.

      1. Interesting. So your voluntourism article is written while you were voluntouring for two months?

        1. Ashley, if you are implying something, please just say it so Hanna can address it directly. What are you trying to say? Be direct. You obviously have some issues with Hanna’s study – its purpose, methodology, results, discussion, Hanna’s personal experiences, etc., which is fine and debate is encouraged. And, you appear to have knowledge of Ghana and are perhaps involved with the work of orphanages. We would like to hear more about your experiences and perspectives.

        2. I guess it didn’t come across clearly, but to clarify: I did not volunteer. I specifically went to do research and communicated that role to the sending organisation, the local NGO, the orphanage staff, the children and locals all around Ghana. Before I even went to Ghana, I got their permission to conduct my field work. I hope this clears things up.
          If you would like to look further at my research methods, purpose, results etc, feel free to read the entire dissertation. You can download it here:

  20. Linda dayton

    I was in Ghana volunteering at an orphanage and adopted a child I met there. The conditions are deplorable. The government corrupt , unable or unwilling to help their own children. The only positive interaction I saw was an occasional worker or volunteer. Perhaps because most people there have so little the children are overlooked? Folks are so busy getting by themselves? I saw no evidence of any country’s government giving aid, only private individuals. To comfort and hold a child if only for a time seemed significant to me. I believe it makes a difference in which few people are unable or unwilling too do.
    I have no data, facts, or research to support my opinion . My child is supposed to be my child and I thought that from the beginning .
    While returning to the U.S. my child was not allowed outside certain areas in German airport. I was disturbed by that. Wondered how far they’ve come since the 1940’s.
    Of course I’ve changed my life and the life of my son since we met in Ghana and I have no regrets.

    1. Thank you for your contribution and for sharing your experience, Linda. I agree with you on the conditions in Ghana- oftentimes the children are indeed overlooked, people are busy trying to make a living of some sort, there is a lack of government aid etc etc. BUT here’s my problem: many volunteers decide to adopt or donate money and sometimes computers, book,shoes etc. for the children. This might help temporarily and if adopted, one child is “saved” by a Western person with a big heart. But what about it siblings or cousins? What about the rest of the children of Ghana? What about entire generations of Ghanaians? What about their often huge biological families? One is “safe” in the Western world, has a bright future, but what about the rest?
      The problems Ghana and other developing countries are facing in terms of sustainable development, poverty, lack of education etc etc cannot be solved by adoption nor by voluntourism. The question is in what way the local people can be supported and empowered to take matters in their own hands and start facing these complex issues. What ways exist to empower them rather than to further postcolonial structures and dependency? Looking not only at my own research, but also that of other academics, it becomes quite clear that voluntourism only leads to financial dependency and postcolonial power relations rather than sustainable development. If money keeps coming in through “rich white volunteers” who keep giving, donating and coming for free, the government and Ghanaians are “raised to be lazy” and dependent on this financial aid rather than working on developing alternatives….

  21. Luc Lapointe


    God …I am always afraid to comment on these kind of short article because I would like to believe that your thesis would contain more information about your methodology. I would like to think that the world believes that … all children should be with their parents. After that…well life happens….conditions that forces parents (don’t ask my why) to give their children to the state, orphanage, friends, family members, etc.

    So you have decided to look at children in orphanages that receive voluntourist to support the operation of an organizations that …I will guess…can’t receive support from the parents of those children, raise funds locally …or even better funding from the local or national government.

    Please note that I respect the fact that you have more education than me on children psychology…etc. So I think you would agree with me on the above mentioned situation ….that could reflect the reality in Ghana. Now I would like to take this and think about alternatives….because wanting to study abroad after being exposed to a white do-gooder is a bad thing for Ghana…this is one of the bad impact that caught my attention in this very short summary of a most likely well researched thesis. I have participated on panel organized by the OECD about brain drain..but no time here to go in to this.

    Option #1 Parents decides to keep children
    We could imagine a few scenarios here of what could happen to the children and family since they are not receiving much help from their own government. I can imagine some pretty awful situation about economic survival, access to education, health, nutrition, etc.

    Option #2 Given for adoption
    I know little about the demand for adoption within Ghana but I would tend to believe that the demand is much stronger from abroad.

    Option #3 Given to an orphanage that has little financial resources
    I think we all have seen images of what conditions kids find themselves in. Again…in a country with little resources…access to nutrition, health, care, etc….is a big concern.

    I could think of a few more options but …this is a good start and somewhat a pretty good image of what orphanage in Ghana could be facing. I don’t really need to go into a big lengthy study to list the outcomes of the children in Option 1,2,3 VS that of the one you researched. I do not need to draw conclusions on what is better or worst….but personally…I think that if you need to point finger at someone in this story — I would look at the following before concluding

    1) Government of Ghana first (their responsibility)
    2) Pensions funds that you, your family, friends are invested in
    3) The products you buy in Germany
    4) How much taxes did you pay while in Ghana? where did you stay?

    You know (I know it’s my problem) but I am somewhat tired of studies that lack real critical views about a situation like this one. God help me…to think that of all the other Options…the one you listed was the worst outcome for those children!??

    Alejandro Toledo (former President of Peru) was one of those children from a extremely poor family in Peru who was once exposed to volunteers from the USA — which HE said was the spark that started to change his life…. where eventually…he stayed in contact with that volunteer — who helped him go to the USA to study. He then returned to Peru and served the people of Peru.

    Can orphanage programs be improved to minimize the impact on children?? YES — Does your research help inform the debate??

    If anyone really wants to do no HARM — I suggest that they stay home (not pollute) and pay the real prices for the goods that are exported from countries like Ghana….and yes look at your investment portfolio.. you are most likely doing more harm and killing more children.

    1. Hi Luc
      first of all thank you very much for your thoughtful and critical contribution to this discussion.
      I definitely understand where you are coming from- the problems Ghana and other developing nations are huge and voluntourism sure as hell is not the biggest one. You are right, the bigger structural issues of poverty, import of foreign products rather than export and usage of Ghanaian products, the economy and lack of employment, the health care system, educational system, corruption of the government etc etc. are indeed way bigger and more serious and play a huge role in this whole system of orphanages even existing.
      BUT: to me, it’s not enough to point fingers. And it wasn’t my intention to blame any one factor.
      The thing is though: The Western world isn’t exactly innocent, we all know that. And the volunteer tourism industry is HUGE and makes HUGE profit which in the end damages the sustainable development of Ghana and in turn its future generations, the children.
      Actually, there is another master thesis called: “the NGO’s are breaking down our system” which was also conducted in Ghana by a Dutch expert. She shows that due to volunteers the plans from government to close down institutions in Ghana and reintegrate them in communities are countered because the orphanages are needed to house volunteers and make profits because of their fundraising in their home country. I also found that there are huge financial dependencies and power relations- the Ghanaians I spoke with had the mentality that all money needed should come from the Western world. What they keep learning every day is that the “white man” has endless money and time to donate and play with children. Empowerment? Participation? A way out of dependency and into independent sustainable development?
      Not gonna happen unless locals, especially the government are able and forced to take matters into their own hands and tackle these issues…

  22. Sarah

    Thank you so much for your great article! I could not agree more – I believe orphanage voluntarism is more for the volunteer than the children or even the organisation that is hoping to gain some form of long-term support from the volunteer. Most volunteers will travel for said amount of weeks, take as many photos of themselves with the “poor and vulnerable” orphans, making ridiculous comments about how they want to adopt one. Leave the orphanage a few weeks later and pick up on their lives back home, weeks and months past and the children are long forgotten, except for some distant facebook profile picture.

    There is very little long-term return for organisations arranging for volunteers to come, in hope that they will be return donors to the organisation or even assist financially with the running of a program on the ground to ensure the children are given access to education, food, security etc.

  23. […] Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana […]

  24. Kay

    Hi Hanna,

    Your blog is brilliant and is an example of how more awareness should be raised on ethical voluntourism. I came across a lot of kids in my position at university- about graduate, looking for something to do and planning on helping out at orphanages. I myself even considered it but then slowly realised that my view on how this would be beneficial was largely a selfish one and didn’t go towards considering the impact on the very people I’d be trying to help.

    Now when I’m thinking of voluntourism, my initial reaction is to question the ethics of it. I would love to read more research in this area such as yours, it’s been an eye-opener (without learning the hard way).

    1. Hello Kay. Thank you so much for your positive comment. I am very glad it has been an eye-opener for you and I wish we could spread the word to those thinking about volunteering abroad so that they too can question the ethics and impact of it. I think it’s great that people want to volunteer globally, but it needs to be channeled in order to be most effective and helpful to those in need.
      If you want to read more research articles, I can send you my entire dissertation including its reference list. That way you can look up the articles I used as my background ,if you want. If not, I can send you a few via e-mail. Just send me an e-mail if you are interested.

  25. Hi Hanna,

    Thank you for presenting your research in plain English, and taking an approach that brings forward children’s voices and perspectives. I just want to highlight your emphasis on ‘brain drain’. You express dispair at the thought of these children wanting to leave Ghana. I find this contradictory to the overall theme of your post. It is not up to you nor I to decide whether the aspirations of children are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for their country. And, to single out their experiences in orphanages as the primary factor driving these aspirations is a bit of a stretch.

    I think those like Michael Clemens would challenge you on the notion of a negative effect of ‘brain drain’ ( Remittances (and migration) are both powerful drivers of development. In Ghana alone, in the first 2 months of 2012, totalled just shy of $3 billion.

    Otherwise, the findings of your research are very powerful and I think confirm what many of us think about voluntourism.

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