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Why we don’t support orphanage volunteering

The idea of “giving back” while on holiday, gap year, or career break is becoming increasingly common. One of the most popular types of volunteering is working in orphanages – spending time caring for or teaching young children who are living in residential care.

Here at Save the Children we’ve been getting increasingly concerned about this trend and what it means for vulnerable children.

A series of articles has highlighted the problem of orphanage volunteering in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda, and we’re aware it’s a growing concern in at least 15 further countries worldwide.

We’re worried about unskilled and untrained volunteers having access to extremely vulnerable children – and that the demand for this kind of volunteering is contributing to the harmful practice of building and funding orphanages.  

A serious threat to development

Children living in orphanages simply don’t get the secure care they need to survive and thrive. Decades of research point to the fact that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children.

A major study of Romanian orphanages, published in 2009, found that that institutionalisation of children under the age of three is one of the biggest threats to early brain development, with effects similar to that of severe malnutrition, lead poisoning and drug use during pregnancy.

Who’s responsible?

Back in 2006, we conducted a study in East and Southern Africa and found that on average it was 10 times more expensive to fund an orphanage compared to community and family care.

We thought the statistics would help convince governments to shift their funding to community and family care – until we realised the majority of funding for orphanages wasn’t coming from the government. As a Liberian Government official told me, “we aren’t running that many orphanages, the churches are.”

Liberia isn’t an isolated example, either. In most of the countries where we work orphanages are being run by church groups and those who start as volunteers. The institutions are poorly regulated and they’re doing a job that could be done by the children’s families, with the right support.

A staggering 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one surviving parent. But even children who’ve lost both parents should be able to turn to their extended family – an incredibly valuable resource in countries where the state is not well funded or well-functioning. They’re the ones who look after you when you’re sick, pay for your schooling and care for you when your parents can’t.

They’re incredible care networks. But instead of getting support, they’re being pulled apart and disempowered by the establishment and over-reliance on orphanages – often funded by visitors who just want to help.

Finding a solution

Save the Children, together with the Better Care Network, established ReThink Orphanages – a collaborative initiative aimed at discouraging volunteering in orphanages and promoting more responsible alternatives. Read this paper to find out more about this complex issue.

Throughout May, Better Volunteering Better Care (now renamed ReThink Orphanages) has been collaborating with the responsible travel community to release a series of blog posts on the issue of orphanage volunteering.

These posts will conclude on 1 June – International Children’s Day, and are linked to a petition to encourage travel organisations to remove orphanage volunteering from their product offerings.

If you or your friends are thinking about volunteering, don’t be discouraged. You can learn so much about the world through traveling and working with others. However, it’s important to conduct careful research, and ask the right questions about safeguarding and protecting children.

For some great resources on responsible volunteering, visit learningservice.info and globalsl.org, and read through Next Generation Nepal’s guide to ethical volunteering.

And if you would like to volunteer with Save the Children in the UK, find out more here.

For more updated information please see Rebecca’s most recent blog on the topic of orphanage volunteering

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