Voluntourism a Setback for South Africa’s Orphans

I’ve always been against volunteers working in orphanages, but this is the first article that has come out stating that as well. Is the tide turning on orphanage projects? So often the feel good best seller of many volunteer companies? If you do offer orphanage projects how do you ensure it operates responsibly and doesn’t end up like the below?

Read the full article at: http://www.timeslive.co.za/opinion/editorials/article739070.ece/Voluntourism-a-setback-for-SAs-Aids-orphans

In the Human Sciences Research Council report “Aids Orphan Tourism”, author Linda Richter criticises this kind of new tourism, saying it merely adds another level of abandonment for the children.

“Many of the children they [volunteers] leave behind experience another abandonment to the detriment of their short- and long-term emotional and social development,” Richter writes.

The tourism ministry did not want to comment on the story published on Page 6 of this newspaper, saying it was too new a trend.

But should we view voluntourism as a potential boon for our tourism industry?

The image of volunteer tourism – of well-heeled, well-bred First World folk descending on the suffering children of Africa – is an exceedingly uncomfortable one to summon.

Already there’s been the phenomenon of celebrities dropping in on developing countries to adopt a toddler or two.

Those who might support voluntourism would say that the orphans are at least getting some attention.

But orphans are not abandoned animals that can be cuddled and then dropped when the fun starts wearing thin. To ship in for a few weeks, only to ship out again holds the potential of emotional trauma for the children.

While our tourism industry – in a post-recession world – might need all the help it can get, there are some visitors who might be somewhat problematic and voluntourists fall into that category.

Our children – the many who have been abandoned and orphaned – need help, but it is highly debatable if they need this kind of help.

8 thoughts on “Voluntourism a Setback for South Africa’s Orphans

  1. I completely agree about the orphanage volunteer projects–unless they’re for long-term volunteers with a background in this type of work.

    However, what really bugs me about this article is the number of other places that are picking it up (blogs, news outlets, etc.) and making a sweeping judgment that ALL volunteer travel programs are harmful rather than helpful. I’m not sure if they’re missing the point of the article, or if they’re just reading the headline and first sentence, but wow, have you noticed that as well? Bummer.

  2. There’s about to be a ton of press against orphanage tourism by the number of media that have contacted me so if I operated trips to orphanages I would be putting all over my site why my trips are different and responsible, just a piece of advise guys.

  3. Oh dear here we go again – a hastily written article making sweeping statements. Yet another lost opportunity to help potential volunteers make responsible choices. I agree with Sarah. We at people and places DO send volunteers to work in orphanages – BUT only skilled volunteers who work alongside local people NOT instead of them and only with the informed consent of the excellent local staff and trustees of the orphanages.We are not alone – there are other volunteer organisations who work ethically and sustainably with local communities to ensure that volunteers do not “do more harm than good.” But there are still way too many who continue to exploit communities and volunteers alike . Please please, if there is to be a rush of articles about “orphan tourism” could someone ensure that at least one is not simply a regurgitated press release but is based on research.There is demand for volunteer travel – fact – so lets help these potential volunteers find ethical organisations – not create more confusion.

  4. I have seen a number of similar articles in the press based on Linda Richter & Amy Norman’s recent report, and have been concerned about their sole focus on ‘AIDs orphans’ and the potential some of the articles have to negatively affect the many hundreds of community projects in South Africa and beyond that are doing the best they can with limited facilities and funds.

    The gist of some of these articles may give the casual reader the impression that Africa is being invaded by a crusading army of ‘Angelina Jolie wannabees’ that are negatively affecting the emotional well being of every AIDs orphan in Africa. Inevitably, this sensationalist style of reporting often describes these volunteers as ‘spoilt brats enforcing colonial stereotypes’ or some other nonsense. Perhaps they would prefer us to live in a world where we are only allowed to help someone if they are the same colour or nationality as us. I’m pretty sure that most volunteers are unable to relate to that concept. As for being spoilt… if you want to see that kind of traveller, maybe head to the beaches and nightclubs of Ibiza. With so many holiday options available that don’t include hard work, vomit, nappies, animal dung etc, I think international volunteers represent the best of today’s young travellers and should be applauded for expending their valuable time helping others less fortunate.

    Whilst Linda & Amy’s report does raise some important issues, it relates primarily to the minority of children’s homes (and by extension the volunteer agencies that source volunteers for them), that allow volunteers to be placed for short term positions to fulfil the role of ‘primary caregiver’.
    I fully agree that this kind of practice should be discouraged, though of all the children’s homes I have visited in the past 7 years, very few would fit into this category.

    We work with a small number of homes and enforce minimum stays of 6 weeks for our volunteers. At each home, the children have full-time parental caregivers. AVIVA volunteers fulfil a support role for the caregivers but do not replace them to become a ‘temporary parent’ for the children. We also include information in our literature about emotional attachment and brief all our volunteers accordingly.

    Something that seems to be forgotten in all of this is the emotional damage that so many of these children experience before they arrive at a children’s home, whether that be through neglect, abandonment or abuse. Without the support of local and international volunteers, many children’s homes would not survive, and one can only imagine how much worse the children’s physical and emotional well being would be then.

    Each of the homes we work with actively engage with extended families and potential foster families in local communities in an effort to place as many of the children as possible in a traditional family environment. All of them are either in the process of, or have already migrated to a cluster home environment for the children, so that the days of large dormitories full of children will be a thing of the past for them in the next few years.

    In an ideal world, I’m sure we would all love to see every one of these children placed in a stable, loving home, with a full-time parent or two. The reality is somewhat different, and I believe the vast majority of the organisations that support these children are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances. Perhaps researchers would do well to spend their time looking at ways to reduce the social problems that lead to children ending up in a home or place of safety.

    Linda and Amy’s report also infers that international volunteers displace jobs that could be offered to local people. This naive assumption requires only a little thought to see how illogical it is, so I’m surprised that this was not countered in their report. I’m sure these organisations would love to employ local people, but in reality, the vast majority of them rely on volunteer support as they barely have enough resources to feed the children in their care, never mind employ locals.

    With each of the children’s homes we work with, we have seen amazing improvements that would only have been possible with assistance from local & international volunteers, and various community based benefactors. For example, one home we work with had a small number of volunteer caregivers and 60 children living in very poor conditions in 2004. Six years later, they now have much improved facilities for 150 children, a community Health Centre, a HIV Respite Centre, a crèche for 300+ local children, a community soup kitchen… and they employ 95 local people.

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