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Voluntourism and how not to throw the baby out with the bathwater...

2 November 2017 - 3:16pm -- Joseph

This is a post in response to the article TO STOP THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF CHILDREN, STOP VOLUNTEERING IN ORPHANAGES on Words in a bucket. If you haven't read it, you probably want to go and read it before you read my response...

It's true that volunteerism is a double-edged sword. It's also true there are orphanage out there that are run for profit and are exploiting their position to that end. That is an issue of inappropriate commercialisation. It's true that many children in orphanages aren't orphans as we would define them; many have one parent.

It's also true that the orphanages provide a vital support structure for many families. Being a single-parent family is simply not viable in many cases. Often putting a child in an orphanage is the only way to ensure that they have a roof over the heads and food to eat. Many single parents work two or three job, or have to travel to different towns or even countries to find work. Orphanages provide a vital service in this regard.

I would be very wary of blanket dismissing orphanages, or of engaging with one as a volunteer. Neither should you simply assume that 'orphanage = good' and engage uncritically with an organisation.

I don't have a wealth of data t back up these assertions. I do have some experience. I worked in Buea, Cameroon for a year with HINT, an NGO providing computer skills training, small business loans etc. I also visited and fund-raised for HOTPEC orphanage. HOTPEC is run as as NGO, they struggle to cope with the demand for space and food, they don't turn children away but would never seek to 'recruit' a child who has other options.

There are orphanages that are not run for profit; that exist because there is a need, not because there is an opportunity. I don't know what the percentages are of 'good' and 'bad' orphanages, though I'm pretty sure that the reality is not the clear cut, but many shades of grey. Certainly most orphanages work with foreign volunteer agencies if they can, as this can form vital sources of help and support.

I wouldn't say that foreign aid and volunteers is the hub of the issue; exploitation is the ket issue here. If an organisation is run for profit, that's a bad sign. If an organisation is keen to recruit orphans, that's not a good sign.

The reality is that poorer countries are not full of people helplessly sitting around waiting for assistance, or crooks waiting to fleece anyone they can get hold of (as some quarter of the press would have you believe) . Certainly those spongers and crooks do exist, but like anywhere else they are a minority. There are also many many people running schools, training centres, health centres oprhanages etc. because if they don't then there is not education, no health care, no safety net for the many families effected by AIDS, road deaths and other major killers. These organisations stay open any way they can, which certainly includes foreign aid. If volunteers from wealthier countries stop volunteering tomorrow, with all the ancillary fundraising and connections this entails, oprhanages will close, children will be homeless, children will starve.

By all means be skeptical, do not throw your time or money at organisations uncritically, but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The way to stop exploitation is think critically, ask questions, do your homework; simply disengaging will not solve the exploitation problem and will cause greater hardship for many.

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