It’s a familiar story. Well-meaning student goes to a developing country, volunteers in an orphanage, and falls in love with the children living there. Student returns home, shares photos of adorable kids, writes about the experience on social media and in thoughtful college essays. Student never stops missing the children or reflecting on those life-changing days in Ghana, or Romania, or Haiti.

Of all the voluntourism initiatives in the world, the one that places benevolent young adults in foreign orphanages is perhaps the most common. It sounds like a win-win-win: the children gain additional (albeit temporary) caretakers, the orphanage saves a little bit of money, and the volunteers feel like they’re giving back in a meaningful way. If that’s all you know about the worldwide institutionalization of children, the classic voluntourism model sounds like a success.

But the problem is that this model doesn’t actually help the children living in those institutions. On the contrary, it often hurts them by propping up a system that exploits minors and keeps them away from their families.

These children’s real stories are painful to read, and the statistics describing their plight are difficult to comprehend. But, as individuals leading comfortable lives with our loved ones, we owe it to them to learn the truth and act in ways that will actually help.

Woman and baby surrounded by green vegetation.
Photo by Annie Spratt

The Problem with Orphanages

Around the world, at least eight million children and young adults live in residential care institutions, or orphanages. We generally assume that those children have lost their families to disease or accident, but about 80 percent of them actually have at least one living parent.

According to decades of sociological research, it’s not that these parents don’t love their children. Rather, they place them in residential care institutions because they’re grappling with the weight of extreme poverty, especially if their children are disabled or if their country has been affected by war or natural disaster. The parents are motivated by love, believing that institutionalizing their children will provide better access to education and healthcare. In some cases, the parents don’t even take their kids to the institutions — instead, recruiters visit the families and convince them to give up their children. This is a well-documented phenomenon, especially in Haiti.

Life in an orphanage is bleak, and even in the best institutions, the children suffer from neglect. The minors far outnumber their adult caretakers, and the lack of attention, affection, and stimulation severely impacts the children’s physical health, emotional intelligence, and cognitive development. But that’s not the worst of it. In some cases, the children are abused by their adult caretakers or sold to traffickers.

At the end of the day, many of these institutions are, first and foremost, businesses. Their directors know that running an orphanage is profitable, largely thanks to the donations and volunteers pouring in from developed countries. They don’t want to cut off a dependable revenue stream, so they play the game. They accept international support, take in children who should be living with their families, and hope no one looks too closely at where the money goes.

Two young girls playing in water.
Photo by Abigail Keenan

The Problem with Voluntourism in Orphanages

So, if orphanages are usually understaffed, why is it a bad idea to send in foreign volunteers?

First of all, the constantly changing cast of caretakers means that the children will likely develop abandonment issues. The kids aren’t starving for a hug or a bit of affection from just anyone; they need the care that they can only receive from a loving parent or guardian.

The volunteers’ money is a problem, too, as thousands of dollars go toward their airfare, meals, accommodation, humanitarian projects, and personal expenses. While the institutions take a large percentage of that sum, very little goes toward actually improving the children’s living conditions. Often, these funds either end up in the director’s personal bank account or pay for the volunteers to have a more comfortable stay.

And of course, this form of voluntourism perpetuates the White Savior Complex and masks the socioeconomic issues that lead to institutionalization in the first place. The volunteers return home with an incorrect understanding of the problems that other countries are facing, as well as an overinflated perception of what they achieved. To quote Dr. Andrea Freidus, an anthropologist from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte: “My research suggests that students who engage in these programmes actually contribute towards the mystification of larger systems that produce inequality, poverty, particular patterns of disease distribution, and various forms of violence.”

When we take a step back, it’s clear that institutionalization hides existing issues and creates new ones. The volunteers’ good intentions cannot alleviate serious problems, but they can certainly exacerbate them.

Two young girls playing in a splash pad.
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem

The Solution

Eighty-plus years of extensive research have made one thing clear: children belong in families. After all, family life gives young people their best chance at developing normally and growing up happily.

Around the world, government agencies and nonprofit organizations are learning that most parents can raise their own children, as long as they have access to community-based support. They’re also discovering that, when children can’t live with their biological families, adoption and foster care are much better alternatives than institutionalization. In short, the most beneficial, most sustainable, and least expensive way to change these children’s lives is to simply keep them with their families.

In that light, UNICEF is working to prevent future institutionalization by developing community-based social services. Nonprofit organizations like Lumos are returning children to their families; redirecting international donations to social services; training social workers, medical professionals, teachers, and other individuals; and empowering marginalized children.

Lumos aims to end worldwide institutionalization by 2050 — and it’s far from the only group working on the problem. For example, the ReThink Orphanages Network is spreading the word about volunteering in institutions, and the Miracle Foundation, which would like to end institutionalization as early as 2040, is both reuniting families and strengthening community services.

Considering that roughly eight million children currently live in orphanages, these objectives are incredibly lofty, but the need has never been more pressing.

Man and child on beach.
Photo by Danielle MacInnes

The Ways that Would-Be Volunteers Can Help

Before you decide to volunteer in or donate to an orphanage, you should think about the implications of your actions. If you’re interested in learning more about an institution’s ethics and policies, reach out and ask key questions (like “Do you allow visitors to interact with children?” and “Do you have a child protection policy?”).

It’s also a good idea to research other organizations and consider donating what you would have spent — or a smaller amount — to volunteer in the orphanage. Both UNICEF and the Miracle Foundation are extremely transparent about the way they spend their money, and for the past 10 years, Lumos has pledged 100 percent of its donations to programs that help children.

Finally, you can become an advocate for children and families around the world. Write letters to policymakers. Tell your Facebook friends that you’re donating your birthday to organizations working to end institutionalization. Share what you know about orphanages and the dangers of voluntourism. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a difference — it just takes a little work and an honest assessment of what it really means to help.

Ready to get started? Talk to your friends and family, and find ways to make a difference together. Share your ideas in the comments!

Header image by Tina Floersch