Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages

September 5, 2014

Here we have a clearcut case of good intentions gone awry. It does not mean that all international service is bad. But it absolutely does demand that volunteers or travelers interested in connecting across cultures do their homework about international service and global development.  It demands that educators and community leaders go the extra mile to ensure young people are aware of the broader structures and incentives affected by their international experiences.

This post provides a concise breakdown of the issue: why people who spend their lives dedicated to child wellbeing do not want you or your students volunteering in orphanages. And why Friends International and UNICEF are behind the visually shocking campaign to end orphanage tourism featured above.

In 2013, The Better Care Network and Save the Children UK began a global interagency initiative to review and share existing knowledge on volunteerism as related to the alternative care of children in developing countries. They did so because:

Learning Service, a group dedicated to responsible volunteer travel, has put together a brief video on this issue that can serve as a great instructional tool:

Sometimes looking at individual, horrific cases in Cambodia and Nepal can create the impression that the issue is only about the malicious acts of some of the worst offenders. That is not the case. This is fundamentally about the ways in which the funding behind travelers’ good intentions creates different financial incentive structures for people on the ground in developing countries. Infusions of cash from visiting volunteers can make an orphanage seem like a good option on the community side as well. But child health and wellbeing experts know orphanages are not the best answer.

Orphanages are bad for children. Therefore, orphanage volunteerism should be discouraged.

But then what? What about the children you’ve seen or been exposed to – through images online or perhaps through previous volunteering and mission trips? As I mentioned above, many developing countries have strong networks of family-based and community-based care. And of course, orphanages themselves are a colonial imposition. Childcare is something that communities have always  cooperated to address. As efforts are made to move away from orphanages, a host of organizations are working to ensure there are clear steps toward responsible family and community care:

If you want people to be able to give their best and actually contribute when they volunteer, please share this post. No one wants to let good intentions reinforce perverse incentives that do real harm.

Can international service be done well? Absolutely. Throughout the coming months we will feature additional blog posts on that theme. In November we will offer a series of posts as part of a special section on global service-learning in The Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning. That series will include profiles of strong programs.

If you’d like to engage this conversation: make a comment below, post on social media, or sign up for email notifications of blog posts by using the box on the right. Thanks, as always, for reading. Let’s raise the conversation on quality in international engagements.

EXTRA: For more background on the harms and dangers relating to orphanage tourism, check:

Eric Hartman is an Assistant Professor in the School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University and serves as editor of globalsl.org.

The photo at the top of this page is part of the Think Child Safe Campaign.


36 thoughts on “Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages”

  1. Volunteers are drawn into orphanage tourism by believing they can help children. In true fact, they’re encouraging their mistreatment by investing in faulty institutions indicative of former colonial power. Part of what we do, is educating potential volunteers on the harm orphanage tourism does, and by supporting orphanages with time or money, the abuse of children is perpetuated and even worsened.

    The Friends Int/UNICEF advertisement sends a clear message: Children are not tourist attractions. Yet voluntourists continue to visit developing countries to ‘help’ children who are not in fact orphans — with better opportunities if placed back in their communities and families. It’s up to sustainable organisations to reject orphanage tourism and those organisations, such as Lumos, to give children a home and an education.

  2. I agree with much of what was written here and am glad to know that such a conversation is happening. I have two concerns, however.

    First, the word ‘orphanage’ is not well-defined. It gets used and we each have our perceptions of what it means, though most of us have never been to one. For me, I remember seeing images from Romanian orphanages on the news in the 1980s. While there are no ‘orphanages’ as such in most western countries, the title continues to be used in Africa. I am involved with one in Kenya and it is more like a large group home than my understanding of a classic ‘orphanage’. Children who have been orphaned reside there as well as others who have been abused and neglected. Sometimes, parents are not able to provide for their children’s needs and the children end up there as well. While this is tragic, it is preferable to being alone on the street or remaining in an abusive home. While the government provides no financial support to the orphanage, they at least do not want to leave children in dire circumstances.

    Second, the statement, “Three-fourths of these children have living parents,” may or may not be true. A single study by UNICEF in one country in 2011 may not be generalizable to the whole world. What little I know about the term ‘orphan’ is that it is divisible between ‘full’ and ‘part’. Some children have lost both parents, which is what is commonly referred to when a child is labeled as an ‘orphan’. However, some children have lost one parent and the remaining parent is not able to financially support the child. As a result, the parent may place the child in an orphanage in hopes that they receive better care than the living parent could provide. I cannot imagine as more difficult experience for that parent so we should be cautious to suggest that their act of courage is to feed the needs of tourists. It is not.

    Are there problems with disaster tourism? Absolutely. We need to work to enlighten people and humanize those being used as spectacles. Should we speak in broad terms and claim moral superiority over others? Absolutely not! Dialogue requires at least two parties who will speak and listen respectfully with each other. I give my resources to organizations that do good work; through some, I am fortunate to develop relationships with people in other countries. I should not cut off my support or relationships but continue to reflect on my privileged position and the benefits and harm to which I can contribute through those relationships (seeking more of the former and less of the latter).

    An example. The bad? 50 children were going to be turned out on the street because the orphanage I work with needed to move and they had no ability to do so (no funds, no government assistance). The amazing? People in Canada donated generously and the staff in Kenya made all the plans to develop a new facility that would meet the needs of the children and their community. They move in this month!

  3. Hi Joel,

    You make some fine points here. It is a complicated issue. Some of my writing is motivated by what seems to be a critical need to raise awareness in a space where everyday assumptions can lead people who wish to do good to instead cause harm. The message needs to get out – that there are these clear and really horrific issues – so that people can begin to ask tough and nuanced questions, or make nuanced comments. And I thank you for adding some nuance to what is above.

    I should also add or admit that in this area I am reminded of the expression, “God loves a convert,” and by that I mean I have become conscious that exposure to this issue converted my thinking fairly radically, and you can probably see why if you listen to this presentation by an NGO representative from Nepal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7J21n6-emI (particularly from 10:34 to about 16 minutes). So, again, thank you for engaging the conversation. I’ve also begun to walk through this in a more complicated way.

    An example in my work: an ngo I work with (that connects volunteers with community organizations around the world) recently decided at a board level – because of the concerns outlined above, and because those are credible and repeatedly verified concerns – to take a couple concrete actions.

    (1) Ensure our site directors on the ground in communities around the world are all trained in and understand child protection best practices. We want to be sure our people are adequately resourced to spot practices that are harmful to children, and to make necessary changes.

    (2) As we expand*, until further notice or learning, we are not going to partner with residential care centers (orphanages) in the immediate future. This is because of the disturbing patterns of growth that correlate tourist destinations with orphanages rather than orphans (parents with no living children) with orphanages.

    (3) *We have a standing relationship with one orphanage that stretches back nearly two decades. As our site director develops capacities in respect to #1, we are going to review that relationship.

    As you will hear in the video if you choose to listen to it, and as you have seen in your own work and experience, the people in the trenches with child protection work will admit that there are some individual children for whom there is no alternative to orphanages. But their stance remains that most children have better opportunities in community-based care networks, whether that be with uncles, aunts, one parent and supportive family members, or some other community-based option.

    For me the issue becomes we have to hold tightly to the possibility of creating perverse incentives – to do our best to ensure we do not do so – while we also remain profoundly committed to supporting children around the world. Asking tough questions is part of that support. And as you point out, it is best to do that in nuanced ways.

  4. Orphanages is never the solution for orphans, I come from Indian administered Kashmir, and here we have mushroom growth of orphanages and often we find orphans becoming source of income and status for the orphanage owners. Irony is that organisations like Save the Children are in partnership with such organisations running orphanages. This is something very serious which needs to be discouraged so that Orphanage culture is converted on to communit/family care

  5. There are valid points here. But, although it might seem that it is better to keep kids with their families, this may not, in fact, be true. There are many homes where children are not looked after, even in Australia, and where children are abused or neglected. Keeping the children at home can be bad for them. I know many examples where kids who go home for holidays are stripped of everything by their families. In the end, they either leave their precious belongings at the orphanage, where they know they are safe, or they don’t go home at a

  6. I would never say NEVER the solution, hwvokashmir. I agree that some people use orphanages for personal gain. The orphanages I work with are amongst the best run in the country I deal with, and have had to take in kids from ones that have been closed by the government for mismanagement. But keeping them with families is not ALWAYS best either.As I said above, there are many homes where children are not looked after, even in Australia, and where children are abused or neglected. Keeping the children at home can be bad for them. I know many examples where kids who go home for holidays are stripped of everything by their families. In the end, they either leave their precious belongings at the orphanage, where they know they are safe, or they don’t go home at all, because they are bullied for what little they have. I work with orphanages in Asia, and I work with kids in home care. I have seen kids in home care abused physically and verbally, the help given to the families for them diverted for other purposes. Don’t paint all orphanages in the same colour. And don’t put down the good work that many, many do.

  7. We are sorry if we have hurt any one and surely taking part in this discussion is to learn from each others experiences- The contexts are different in different parts of the world, We have family system in tact and if the family members are incentivised for taking care of the orphan child, it can serve a lot of purpose, the major problem which we have witnessed here is that the kids in orphanages get away from their natural social local moorings and then once they come out of the orphanage at certain age they again become orphans. may be in your at the orphanages work differently. the society has to take responsibility and come forward. if we can make the systems of monitoring strong and incentivize the nearest relative of the orphaned children it may surely be helpful…..

  8. Important issue. I just want to share about an organization working in Kenya caring for HIV positive people. It’s called CARE for AIDS (careforaids.org) and one of their leading motivations and strategies is Orphan Prevention. I realize this is a different conversation than how to deal with existing orphans and conditions at orphanages, but I just wanted to share about this organization whose stated purpose is to keep parents alive and healthy so that they can raise and care for their children.

  9. This is an important issue. Just wanted to share another resource, which explores how international adoption has contributed to child trafficking: “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption” by Kathryn Joyce.

  10. ^A comment from one of the website’s original co-founders! ^Excellent. Maybe Jessica Friedrichs is willing to contribute a book review to the guest blog. 🙂

  11. The inherent structure of charitable children institutions is in itself a threat to healthy growth and development. Even the best managed institutions harm children. The debate should not be between a child’s family and an orphanage but rather between a child’s family, an alternative family based care setting or an institution. If the child’s family is not suitable then an alternative family based alternative is the best option for the child.
    In Kenya the proliferation of orphanages and the financial benefits that come with them have created a disposition that orphanages are better for children from poor backgrounds leading to a scenario where a majority of children placed in them are not orphans. This has also gradually eroded (together with other factors) the African norm where orphaned and vulnerable children were taken care of by the extended family. In conclusion, African cultures and traditions onthe care of orphans are what should be encouraged and formalized to ensure the safety of children as opposed to institutions.

  12. That is fantastic! Thank you so much for your good support through this article. I work with children in western Kenya and what you have said is exactly what happens. We have seen the difference in lives through the work of the volunteers. Many children have suffered in the hands of relatives and even some foster families. We will stand together with children homes. Thank you so much

  13. I have seen many children or rather orphans being abused in their relative’s homes. They are turned into housemaids and they cant even go to school before they work. They are denied food if they have not finished chores allocated to them.
    I believe children homes of call it orphanges have helped children out of slavery.
    Visit orphanages and ask them to bring their previous children, you will realize the good work done in the orphanages. We know some people have misused orphanages but it is the government of that particular country to take step, close the orphanage and take the children to other homes that are caring for the children in the right way.
    Just the way some uncles and aunties mistreat orphans is just the same way some orphanages are not doing good jobs, but the good thing is, orphanages can be monitored and good things can come out of it.
    I encourage orphanage volunteering, it is not tourism. These people help with work and needs.

  14. There is a program that the UNICEF/USAID initiated, the money is sent to the families that have orphans either from their brothers or sisters etc. I can assure you this money is spent on the families’ children and not on the needs of the orphans. The orphans are still frustrated, they still stay home due to lack of school fees and the children of the home are going to school. Their fees is paid from the money that is provided because of the orphans. I will always support orphanages and urge the governments to close down the orphanages that are corrupt. I know all orphanages are regulated by the government and so it is easy to monitor them and make sure that they are doing the right thing for the interest of the child

  15. I have seen many children being abused in extended families homes. If there is suffering in institutions then the same sufferings are in the homes where orphans are placed. If someone can not take care of her husband’s child born outside marriage how can she take care of a child who she doesn’t know. I have seen children being rescued from their step mother’s wrath and yet their fathers are alive. Institutions are still the best but the governments have to regulate them and keep a close eye on them. They have raised leaders

  16. Your argument is somehow self defeating. The same scenario of abuse happens even for parents taking care of their own biological children necessitating that the children are taken away from them. In deed abuse can happen anywhere be it in a family or a children home. The problem with the children home is that even in absence of abuse, and the best of conditions, the very nature of group care given to the children eradicate the possibility of the children developing attachment to a primary caregiver which as a result affects their cognitive development, This salient detrimental effect of institutionalization is what makes children homes unsuitable for long term care of children. The opposite is true for family based form of care.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • update-img-new

    Get updates on what's new in the Campus Compact Network