From Orphanage Volunteering to Ethical Volunteering

A guest blog from Next Generation Nepal (NGN) Country Director, Martin Punaks During my student years, a couple of my friends and I saved up our money and went backpacking across South America. I called on a favor from a friend who knew someone who ran an orphanage in Peru, and we managed to arrange a one-month volunteering placement.   The elderly lady who ran the orphanage cleared some of the children out of one of the rooms so we had beds to sleep in, and we spent our days hanging out with the kids, trying to teach them English, and feeling very pleased with ourselves that we were doing something good. We took some brilliant photos and got some cool stories to tell other travelers we met on the backpacking circuit, and we conveniently tried to forget about the long hours we spent with nothing constructive to do. Then one night the elderly lady went into a bad mood and accused us of not being of any use to her or the children; she said she had only let us come as a favor to her friend. We laughed this off as a sign of how "crazy" she was, but deep down I think we knew that she had a fair point– we couldn't speak Spanish, we had no useful skills to offer, and we just used up valuable space and food which should have gone to the children. But hey – the kids were cute and we made them laugh, we meant well, it was cool, it was fun. Nearly twenty years later in my role as the Country Director for Next Generation Nepal– a United States international NGO working from Kathmandu – I regularly meet students and travelers from developed countries who are just like I used to be. Many of them are invariably volunteering in orphanages. Of course, I sympathize with their desires to have an adventure and do "something good" for the world – I would be a hypocrite if I did not – but knowing what I know now about orphanage volunteering, it makes my heart sink. What most orphanage volunteers do not realize is that, rather than helping children, they may be inadvertently causing them psychological harm. Furthermore, in Nepal, they are fueling a criminal and corrupt profit-making industry that deliberately separates children from their families so they can be used as poverty commodities in orphanages to attract fee-paying volunteers and donors (see Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages for more information). This is why Next Generation Nepal decided to do something about it. Traditionally we have tackled the symptoms of child trafficking into orphanages by rescuing children and returning them to their families, but recently we have made concerted efforts to also tackle the causes of trafficking, and this has meant coming face to face with orphanage volunteering. To truly understand why orphanage volunteering is harmful in Nepal, we first need to understand some of the history of the country. The phenomenon of separating children from their families began in Nepal during the 10-year civil war which ended in 2006. Traffickers portrayed themselves as boarding school representatives and made promises to parents about modern schools and safe living conditions in Kathmandu which their children could benefit from and avoid forced conscription into the Maoist rebel army. However, instead of being taken to educational institutions, these children were taken to under-resourced orphanages where they were at risk of exploitation and inter-country adoption as "paper orphans" (children with living parents whose legal papers have been falsified to portray them as orphans). Even after the civil-war ended the traffickers continued to promise "education, wealth and success" in the city, and there continued to be a ready supply of poverty-stricken and desperate families willing to pay for their children to receive this apparently "golden opportunity." The orphanages themselves adapted to the changing times: having lost revenue from inter-country adoption (which is now highly restricted to most Western countries), they shifted their focus to the increasing number of charities and tourists who came to Nepal to take part in development activities and tourism. With money to be made from running orphanages in tourist areas, the traffickers simply had to ensure an ongoing supply of "orphans" and "destitute" children to attract donations from sympathetic volunteers. Over 15,000 children currently reside in orphanages in Nepal despite at least 2 out of 3 of these children having living parents. It is no surprise that almost 90% of these orphanages are located in the top 5 tourist districts of the country. International and Nepali laws and policies are against the use of orphanages except as a last and temporary resort. They state that all efforts should be made to keep children with their families. But separating children from their parents and putting them in orphanages has become all too common in Nepal. When children grow up in orphanages they are at risk of physical, mental and sexual abuse. There have been countless examples in Nepal of children being harmed in orphanages by the people who were meant to be caring for them. In Next Generation Nepal’s experience, even in the orphanages where children are not being beaten, starved or sexually abused, they may still have been unnecessarily displaced from their families, and they may be being prevented from having contact with their relatives. The willingness of fee-paying volunteers and donors to support orphanages not only gives these corrupt businesses credibility, but it provides the economic life-line for them to continue operating. New orphanages are still being set up in Nepal by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who are keen to make a quick buck from the trade in children. For the children living in such places, they are being denied their fundamental human right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to know and be cared for by their families. They also experience a form of grief each time a different volunteer leaves with whom they have formed an emotional bond. During the course of a child's short life growing up in an orphanage, they may form and break emotional bonds with hundreds of different volunteers that come and go like visitors to a zoo. Unsurprisingly this leads to attachment disorders later in life and they find it hard to develop healthy emotional relationships with other adults. Children that grow up in orphanages are more at risk of getting involved in crime and anti-social behavior later in life, and of being homeless and unable to cope with life outside an institution. In many developing countries a young person's links to their family, community and local dialect are essential social capital, which help that young person to obtain employment, gain citizenship, arrange a marriage and inherit land. When these links with the family are broken, it leaves the young person isolated and vulnerable in a poor society with minimal social welfare provisions. In Nepal, the institutions of "family" and "community" are often the only social welfare structures that young people can rely on and, when these are removed or weakened by raising children in orphanages, it affects the entire society. The brutal fact is that children who grow up in orphanages too often turn into angry and unhappy adults. A friend of mine called Karjit, who grew up in a series of orphanages in Nepal (despite not being an orphan), explains it like this:

There were so many volunteers: short-time, long-time, middle-time, according to visa! … Sometimes they organize program and I don’t want to go. Children sometimes feel angry because they want to do what they want. There is a nice movie and children they want to watch, but volunteers organize a football program and house managers say you have to go. And all children were angry … Why foreigners come to Nepal? Why do they go in orphanage? That time they come for short time and they give love to us, but then they leave, and when I write they don’t reply. I say to a volunteer, ‘Sister, I am very lonely’, and they say, ‘No problem I am here’, but then they go their country and I write but they don’t reply. When I was little everyone can love me, now I am big and I need love.

So let us be clear – orphanage volunteering is not advisable. But what can we do about it? Well the first thing is to help more people to understand this, and this is what Next Generation Nepal's report, The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating child trafficking through ethical voluntourism, is all about. Next Generation Nepal created this report to spread awareness of the dangers of orphanage volunteering amongst tourists, volunteers, donors, NGOs, Governments and members of the public. However, the report is about more than this, it is about understanding what ethical alternatives there are to volunteering in orphanages. We live in a globalized but unequal world where wealthy Westerners will continue to travel to learn about different cultures, have exciting adventures, and hopefully "give something back" in recognition of how lucky they are. This is inherently a "good" thing in terms of breaking down cultural barriers and therefore it should be encouraged. But like many good things in the world, it also has risks, and these have to be mediated. So to help guide young enthusiastic travelers –like I once was – we have created a section on the Next Generation Nepal website dedicated to ethical volunteering. Ethical volunteering means approaching your work with a mindset that wants to learn about the culture and context of the place you hope to work in (before rushing in to "save the world"!). It means learning about international development, and which approaches work and do not work. It means considering the suitability of your skills to the volunteering placement; considering the sustainability of the work you will do so that you have a long-term positive impact after you have left; and asking lots of intelligent questions to the volunteering agency to ensure that what they are offering you will not harm anyone. If this all just seems too complicated to organize, then we simply recommend that people practice "ethical tourism". This means going out to experience the world with an open mind, making friends with local people and learning about their lives, sharing stories about your life in the West to broaden their horizons as well, spending your money on local ethical businesses to boost the local economy, and becoming a kinder and wiser person in the process. I am proud that I travelled the world when I was younger. I am proud that I tried to "give something back" through volunteering. Although, with hindsight, I wish I had never volunteered in an orphanage. I hope that with the help of excellent websites like and through organizations like Next Generation Nepal, the next generation of travelers and volunteers will be smarter than I was.
Martin Punaks is the Country Director of Next Generation Nepal (NGN). He is based in Kathmandu where he has lived for four years. Martin has 15 years’ experience working in child protection and child rights and with not-for-profit organizations in the United Kingdom, India and Nepal. He graduated with Distinction from a Master of Arts in the Anthropology of Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
For more content on this issue, visit Community-Based and Policy-Level Experts on Orphanage Tourism, which features an hour-long presentation from Martin in addition to a presentation from Severine Chevrel, who coordinated the Better Volunteering, Better Care Interagency Network.