Voluntourism and the obvious pitfalls of ‘orphan demand’

Voluntourism and the obvious pitfalls of ‘orphan demand’

When eco-tourism first emerged as a buzzword in the 90s, this was universally accepted to be a good thing. Demand by affluent travellers for authentic first-hand experience of pristine jungles, mountains and beaches caused local communities to see their natural resources as a source of tourist income. They were incentivised to work harder to protect those resources. A range of new jobs that depended on conservation efforts were created.

At the outset of the millennium we are now seeing the rise of ‘voluntourism.’ Not dissimilar from eco-tourism in some ways, this is driven by demand by affluent travellers from the developed world looking for first-hand experience volunteering to alleviate poverty. The experience typically lasts between one day and four weeks, with tourists carrying out low-skilled work such as caregiving in orphanages or constructing temporary housing for displaced persons. As a result, providing experiences assisting highly visible people in need becomes a source of income.

It does not take an economist to recognise that market demand for ‘helping experiences’ creates perverse incentives. The most troubling of these is the phenomenon of ‘orphan demand.’

The number of orphanages opening in developing countries appears to be correlated with increased tourist presence. Over the last twenty years the number of orphanages in Bali has doubled. Meanwhile Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia now has over 35 orphanages despite having a population of only 100,000 people. There have been reports of orphanages which parade children through tourist hubs late at night, with placards saying ‘help our orphans.’[1]

An enterprising orphanage owner can charge tourists for the experience of caregiving. This ‘experience’ is often booked through an intermediary tour provider, and forms part of a broader itinerary alongside traditional tourist activities such as sightseeing and outdoor adventure.

To well-intentioned travellers, the situations of orphans are largely misrepresented. More than 90% of the children are not actually orphans in the sense that the word is understood in developed countries. They are not abandoned children who have lost both parents and have nowhere to go. Rather, in a development context the term ‘orphan’ applies where one parent has died. In most cases the child is able to be cared for through extended networks of kinship and reciprocal family responsibility.[2]

Given the boom in voluntourism and the perception that there is a ‘crisis of care’ in the developed world, there is a steady flow of funding from NGOs, governments and private entities for orphanages. Sadly the establishment and maintenance of such facilities may divert external support from families who, with help, could care for vulnerable children at home. Families facing dire pressures sign away guardianship rights in the hope that orphanages can meet the child’s material and educational needs. This occurred in the highly publicised case of David Banda, the Malawian boy adopted by Madonna in 2006 from his destitute mother.[3]

Orphanages are universally viewed as the care option of last resort. It is nearly impossible to develop stable, consistent relationships with a caregiver in such an environment. Emotional risk factors are exacerbated where children are exposed to a revolving door of fortnightly volunteer staff. Children in such environments often develop disorganised attachments and offer their affection up indiscriminately.

With the rise of voluntourism, ‘for-profit’ orphanages often display the traits of professional begging. That is, professional beggars are known to make a deliberate effort to look ragged and sickly in order to inspire sympathy from tourists. Likewise some orphanages are kept in a perpetual state of squalor, as these generate the largest donations. It is essentially professional begging at greater economies of scale and the veneer of institutional legitimacy.[4] In response to this trend, last year Responsibletravel.com, an ethical tour provider removed orphanage visits from its itinerary.[5]

Other types of voluntourism do not have the same level of associated risk, but create their own problems. There are a range of experiences on offer, including teaching and assisting at a school, or becoming involved in construction projects for vulnerable communities.

It is important to highlight that the type of work carried out by voluntourists is very different from the type of work carried out by skilled field workers for international NGOs such as Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. It is also very different from the work of nationally based NGOs that carry out tasks such as assisting locals with small but significant steps such as obtaining registration for their small business.

As voluntourism experiences are by their nature short, the skill level that voluntourists bring to any given project is low. Much has been written about the largely redundant nature of work carried out, with the admission by organisers that, rather than the work or time they put in, ‘the funding that they [voluntourists] bring with them is the attractive part.’[6]

One former voluntourist writes of her experience paying $3,000 for a week spent building a library at an orphanage:[7]

‘… each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.’

Some would argue that enticing tourists from abroad to carry out largely redundant tasks is not a bad thing. The work may not be meaningful but it gets tourist dollars flowing through the economy. Meanwhile the volunteers come away feeling that they have made a tangible difference to people’s lives, and return home with a better understanding of the lives of people in developing world. Some people might see this as win-win.

My difficulty with looking at voluntourism this way is two-fold. The first is that it perpetuates the myth of people in the developing world as destitute, without their own skills and resources, waiting on people from the developed world to save them. The second is that it is dishonest and damaging to perpetuate the idea that global poverty can be alleviated with quick-fix acts of kindness.

This is not to say that people should not consider participating in volunteer programs which require them to pay their way. However as voluntourism becomes a booming business, volunteers need to become much savvier in choosing where to give their time and money. The cost is one quick gauge of the responsibility of the tour provider, with a recent study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University indicating that those that cost the most tend to be the least responsible. This is unsurprising given that high costs are often reflective of high profit margins.[8]

Daniela Papi, a long term volunteer who was disillusioned with what was occurring on pay-to-volunteer holidays offers the following advice:[9]

  1. Assess the stated goals and track record of the organisation before going
  2. Evaluate the management and transparency of the organisation
  3. Think about the sustainability of what the organisation does
  4. Ensure the direction and goals of the organisation are locally driven
  5. Check that the volunteers are not taking away local jobs or creating aid-dependency
  6. Question any organisation diverting extensive resources towards catering to foreigners
  7. Think about the impact of a foreigner doing that role
  8. Question organisations that let unqualified and un-vetted volunteers work directly with children.
  9. Question organisations that allow volunteers to do anything that they would not be qualified to do at home

And more importantly, before considering volunteering overseas, look at opportunities for volunteering close to home:

‘If you give your time in the areas you know well, where you have the time to support longer-term needs, and where you can monitor and follow up on the impact of your service, you are likely to have great results.'[10]

I would strongly advise that individuals with a passion for development work become familiar with development literature, particularly books and papers published by authors such as Dambisa Moyo and Jeffrey Sachs. They have contradictory views but as with all things, it is best to learn all you can about a situation and make up your own mind on how you can act from a place of knowledge.


[1] ‘Orphanage Volunteering “part of the problem”, Editorial, The Telegraph, (30 July 2013) at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10209598/Orphanage-volunteering-part-of-the-problem.html

[2]Richter, L. and Norman, A.,’AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care’, (2010) Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 5: 3, 217–229

[3] Ibid.

[4] Birrell, I., ‘Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do,’ The Guardian (14 November 2010) at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna

[5] Go to Responsibletravel.com, ‘Our Campaign: Volunteering Directly with Vulnerable Children’ at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/volunteer-travel/travel-guide?source=qs

[6] Birrell, I., above n 4.

[7] Biddle, P., ‘The problem with little white girls (and boys): Why I stopped being a voluntourist’, Pippa Biddle: Life is an Adventure, (29 April 2014) at http://pippabiddle.com/2014/02/18/the-problem-with-little-white-girls-and-boys/

[8] Paris, N.,‘Expensive voluntourism trips the least responsible,’ The Telegraph (11 February 2014) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10630904/Expensive-voluntourism-trips-the-least-responsible.html

[9] Tips and Tricks for Learning Before Helping at Pepy Tours: http://learningservice.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/1tipstricks-copy1.pdf

[10] Ibid.

Image by Steve Hillebrand, https://pixnio.com/people/volunteer-teaches-backyard-habitat-techniques-to-students. Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/publicdomain/. cc-zero