Slumdog Promotes Voluntourism in Orphanages: Good or Bad?

See below, a recent article came out in Travel News about a TV program on the slums of India that has increased the number of volunteers wanting to help in orphanages, is this good or bad? It’s probably good for volunteer companies and their bottom line and working with kids has always sold really well BUT is it in fact good for the kids?

We send volunteers to orphanages to paint rooms or play with kids or help ‘educate’ but really who is benefiting the most? The volunteer or the kids? Have there been any studies saying that placing strangers with orphans that only stay for one week help or hinder the abandonment issues that orphans anyway carry with them?

As all of this promotion and encouragement of volunteering with orphans continues I’d love to hear proof from someone that the kids are truly the ones benefiting. The orphanages I have talked to in country always tell me they think teh volunteers’ efforts hurt the kids but they need to smile and make nice with volunteer companies because they are reliant on the funds.

Let the debate begin!

Slumdog TV Promotes Voluntourism

British organisations which offer volunteering opportunities overseas have seen a marked increase in the number of people wishing to travel to India to work in orphanages. Travel industry leaders believe the rise in enquiries for this sort of overseas expedition is as a result of Channel 4’s recent India Winter season.

The series, which drew in record level audience figures, featured programmes including Slumming It, The Slumdog Children of Mumbai and the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Spokesperson Marcus Watts, from the independent gap year association The Year Out Group, said he believes the rise in interest from people wanting to carry out voluntary work in India shows just how influential TV programming is. He said: “Channel 4’s India Winter season was something which has captured the minds of many people. Lots of viewers saw the way thousands of young children live on India’s streets and have felt inspired to do something to help them.

Volunteers working overseas really can make a small difference to the lives of kids who have been abandoned or orphaned.” Greenforce, which is a not for profit organisation, and a branch of Gapforce, sends a different group of British volunteers twice a month to India. The average trip ranges from two to five weeks. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 70. Upon arrival in India, Gapforce trains its volunteers to speak basic Hindi before allowing them to work in the orphanage. Volunteers can choose between working in a residential orphanage in Jaipur or assisting in a day centre for orphans and homeless children in Delhi.

Director of Operations Daniella Noykova, from Gapforce, who has herself volunteered in India, said: “Words cannot express how much these children enjoy meeting our volunteers. These orphanages are incredibly stretched when it comes to resourcing so having additional support is always welcome. “ The work which volunteers carry out in the orphanages is varied. It can range from helping building the children’s confidence and integrating them into the community, tutoring in home work, teaching vocational skills, organizing games and recreational activities and most importantly providing much needed individualised attention. For more information about Gapforce’s volunteering opportunities, visit http://www.gapforce.or


5 thoughts on “Slumdog Promotes Voluntourism in Orphanages: Good or Bad?

  1. My vote: Bad.

    Travelers can learn much through interaction with foreign cultures, true. Like you, I’m all for responsible tourism: travel that introduces lifestyles and perspectives that differ from (and perhaps challenge) the norms and mores within participants’ comfort zones. Experiential tourism (including voluntourism) is interaction-based; it is a kind of transaction between host and guest. As with any transaction, each party is morally obligated not to exploit the other (Fair Trade, anyone?).

    An especially heavy burden weighs on orphanage tourism providers. Their business is to facilitate interaction, thus they ought to ensure non-exploitation for tourists and hosts alike. The vulnerability of impoverished children is obvious, but it’s less clear in the case of comparatively affluent tourists. Without proper transparency, philanthropic tourists can be duped into spending time and money on experiences that are ostensibly helpful but actually harmful. Orphanage profiteers throughout the developing world capitalize on both parties’ vulnerabilities, making huge profits off well-intentioned but ill-informed voluntourists.

    I’ve recently written about the causes and effects of exploitative sham orphanages ( While my interest in this topic was set off by personal observations here in Cambodia, reports from UNESCO, IRIN and others show that these institutions pervade the developing world.

    If you are considering an orphanage voluntourism trip, ask yourself these questions:
    -If I were the parent/guardian, would I allow a procession of complete strangers to interact with the child?
    -Is it healthy for a child—especially one who has already suffered parental separation—to form bonds with volunteers, growing attached to visitors who invariably leave?
    -Is the child enrolled in school full-time, or is (s)he kept out of school to spend time with guests? Related question: Does the child’s “education” consist of unqualified tourists who volunteer to teach (insert native language) for stints of a few weeks? If yes, does this constitute a quality education?
    -Is the child forced to perform in any way for guests (indigenous song and dance, e.g.)?

    I am not making a blanket assertion about all orphanages. But the rights of children and the gullibility of tourists are so often abused in orphanage voluntourism that perspective volunteers should err on the side of skepticism. As a rule of thumb, an orphanage that will allow strangers (re: short-term volunteers) to interact with its children is not the kind of orphanage you want to support.

  2. Thanks for an honest and insightful comment, Eric. I agree with most of what you say. Indeed, the world has gotten a very close look in the last month at both the upside and the downside of humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Naive or hasty responses, no matter how well-intentioned, will certainly fail, and can be very damaging. It can even land you in jail! I always direct potential volunteers and donors back to the missions of the sending and receiving organizations. If they aren’t clear, transparent, or if they don’t ring “honest,” they should be avoided. I don’t subscribe to the “any help is better than no help” argument. Yet, those with the resources and the will MUST respond. You’re right. It’s a delicate balance and should NEVER be taken lightly.

  3. “The impact of volunteers and their effect needs to be closely managed. Volunteers can not go into an orphanage to replace paid professional staff.

    My experience with Greenforce has found that long term professional staff can rarely be substituted for by short term volunteers. Any organisation placing volunteers needs to be able to maintain a long term link with the orphanage and where possible employ their own staff in country. Having staff in county to monitor the volunteer placement enables professional checks to be made via the Education Ministry and other government and NGO bodies, but also by living in the country the volunteer organisation can quickly hear any under current or feedback regarding the impact of the volunteers or the background to the orphanages themselves.

    Following on from Michelle Grans point, this longer term commitment ensures hasty or naive attempts at help are avoided. Also following on from Eric Lewis point, having professional supervision can go some way to restrict the negative impact of short term volunteers, for example promoting class room sessions rather than one to one sessions, which ensures all pupils receive the benefit rather than specific one to one bonding. Also preparing volunteers before they go, so that ladder learning can take place, i.e. one group of volunteers builds on what the previous group has discussed or taught. This requires close supervision with the orphanage staff, and again reinforces the fact that participants must do their research prior to selecting a volunteer placement.

    This is not an extensive list but I suggest three points to look for : A volunteer organisation that is not for profit. An organisation that is helping long term, and not just where the news cameras go. A third point, does it have its own local staff to oversee a positive long term impact.”

  4. Just curious how many of you require full criminal background checks on volunteers working with kids? I asked this question a couple years ago and not many of you did, would love to know if that’s changed??

  5. Alexia. For Greenforce, all.

    If you do more than 100 volunteers per year, then the Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks are at no charge, therefore there is no excuse not to have them done. You would want them done, if they were in bound, looking after your own children!

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