Volunteering to help alleviate poverty can be a great thing. It has a two-fold benefit, the recipients benefit and the volunteer is brought closer to the real issues faced by those in need. The benefit of volunteering is often questioned in the context of depriving someone in the local community of employment, but if care is taken over the choice of project and the kind of help provided, volunteering can make a real difference for good.
The transfer of skills is a key area of benefit. Instead of teaching children in a school, rather work with the teachers to develop their skills and standards. Similarly with other professions. Simply doing unskilled labour in areas that abound with affordable labour isn't helping much, if at all. Leaving the situation better for the long term should be the main measure of all volunteering initiatives.
Volunteering at orphanages
It is incredible that tourists are encouraged to take part in the short-term care of young, vulnerable children through volunteer programmes at orphanages. It is unthinkable that this would be allowed in the home towns of the volunteers who are usually from the USA, Australia or Europe.
Children in orphanages are immensely vulnerable. There is consistent evidence that children who are institutionalised at a young age develop a variety of emotional, social, behavioural and educational problems. Separations caused by hospitalisation, assignment into foster care or entry into an orphanage cause dramatic disruptions in attachment relationships. Once in institutional care, the routines, staff turnover and large child-caregiver ratios cause frequent disruptions in attachments.
Children out of parental care have a right to protection against experiences that are harmful for them. In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments as a result of rapid turnover of short-term volunteers.
Mission trips and donor visits
Mission Trips are similar in many ways to commercial volunteer trips, except they are specifically organised to include evangelical activities. The number of Mission Trips is growing and it is a sizable business for the organisers, plus the people joining the Mission Trips have the potential for making a significant economic impact (beneficial and harmful) in many of the areas that they visit.
Many participants on Mission Trips are encouraged to visit children's homes and to support them financially. This is one of the known factors motivating people to build and maintain orphanages. In Uganda, the official Alternative Care Framework focuses on supporting children in families and communities, not in orphanages.
It is the responsibility of all participants and organisers of Mission Trips to study the impact of their activities and ensure that they implement best-practice in ethical volunteering and child protection.
Exploitation of orphans by tour operators
Professionals in the field of social development advocate against the exploitation of vulnerable young children for commercial gain by tour operators in the current growth of 'orphan tourism' or volunteering at orphanages.
Campaigners propose instead that people who wish to volunteer their time and talents to assist children less fortunate than themselves be properly informed about children's development and attachments to others, as well of the vulnerabilities and rights of young children, especially those outside of family care.
More than 80% of 'orphans' have a surviving parent
Contrary to everyday understandings, more than 80% of children defined as orphans have a surviving parent or close family member that they could live with. Across sub-Saharan Africa, only very small numbers of truly orphaned children find themselves living without any resident adult caregiver.
Volunteers caring for vulnerable children
Programs that encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary caregiving roles for very young children are misguided for a number of reasons. The primary concern we have is with the emotional and psychological health of very young children. Young children who enter residential care, whether in large-scale orphanage settings or smaller scale children's homes, are likely to have already experienced very difficult circumstances.
Enter the voluntourist in response to advertising, such as this excerpt from a large company marketing online:
Working at a residential home for orphaned, neglected and abused children. This is a great chance to improve the lives of youngsters who haven't had the best start in life. You'll need to have a genuine love of children and a willingness to get involved in all aspects of their daily life, from playing games and organizing activities, to feeding and changing nappies.
Many advertisements make it plain that volunteers will work with very young vulnerable children:
"The home provides full residential care for children between the ages of 0-5. The home aims to provide a healthy and nurturing environment for orphaned, neglected and abused children. The children have often had to deal with the stress of loss, abuse or neglect and so need lots of love and attention."
Short-term volunteer tourists are encouraged to 'make intimate connections' with previously neglected, abused and abandoned young children. However, shortly after such 'connections' have been made, tourists leave; many undoubtedly feeling that they have made a positive contribution to the plight of very vulnerable children. Many of the children they leave behind experience another abandonment to the detriment of their short and long-term emotional and social development.
Dissolution of bonds with successive volunteers is damaging
Inherently, the formation and dissolution of attachment bonds to successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children being cared for in such environments. The early adversity faced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, putting them at greatly increased risk for developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being. Consistently observed characteristics of children in institutional care are indiscriminate friendliness and an excessive need for attention.
Residential care is a matter of absolute last resort
Mindful of the vulnerabilities faced by families, there is international agreement that residential care is a matter of absolute last resort when all avenues for appropriate family care have been exhausted. Residential care should only be seen as a viable option when families and communities - supported by government and civil society - are unable to protect children from vulnerability; when early prevention strategies have failed; and when transitional care structures cannot return children to a safe and enriching, non-residential family care environment.
However, despite national and international policy, misconceptions surrounding the 'AIDS orphan crisis' have led to the assumption that large numbers of children are without family care, fuelling the funding and establishment of residential care homes (orphanages).
Do No Harm - Do Your Research
The following two reports are quite detailed, but well worth reading before volunteering.The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering (Nepal)
Volunteer's Perceptions (Cambodia)