The dark side of voluntourism…

Posted on: 6th May, 2014

Category: Health & Lifestyle

Contributor: West Cork People

By Declan Murphy Above: Further details of this thought-provoking campaign developed by a Cambodian organisation can be found online at www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/

I realise this is a topic I’ve dealt with previously, but I’m convinced too that it contains an incredibly valuable message that desperately needs to become much more widely known and discussed than it is at present, so that the damage it often causes can, perhaps, be limited. With understandably popular foreign volunteering opportunities having long since developed into what is now a billion dollar industry, it’s not at all surprising that the most prevalent message one is likely to see regarding ever-popular orphanage volunteer placements is that they’re truly altruistic undertakings that are most certainly worth whatever fees may be involved. What you’re much less likely to read about though, is the fact that many of the ‘orphanages’ and children’s homes that facilitate such placements across the world, are little more than cleverly disguised businesses that exist almost solely to make money from well-intentioned western travellers looking to be more than mere tourists.

I’d like to think that the vast majority of those who choose to engage in such volunteer placements, wouldn’t dream of doing so if they only realised that many of the children in these institutions are actually victims of human trafficking, who’ve been taken from their families and are being cruelly exploited simply to supply the increasing demand for what’s being so wrongly sold as a meaningful travel experience that benefits all involved. Yes, it can be incredibly meaningful for the volunteer, and most probably profitable too for those facilitating the experience, but not a whole lot of benefit for the countless innocent children required for the scam.

Thankfully, the truth is slowly starting to filter through and more and more people are becoming aware of the insidious nature of this particular type of volunteer placement. Here in Nepal, in the last couple of months alone, there have been three high-profile raids on children’s homes popular amongst volunteers and children who’d been virtually imprisoned and denied access to their families for years were finally rescued and happily reunited with their parents. Sadly, many of those involved have the type of high-powered political connections that allow them to avoid any real threat of prosecution.

In the face of such corruption, the best solution by far comes in lessening the demand for these hugely exploitative placements which on the surface can so often appear both worthwhile and commendable. Whether it’s worried parents who want their intrepid offspring to have a more structured and supervised first solo foreign adventure, or the travelling individual themselves, opting to do more than ‘simply go on holiday’ while perhaps creating an attention-grabbing bullet-point for their CV, there needs to be an open and honest evaluation of the core motivations for wanting to engage in these type of volunteer placements, as well as a realisation of the truly horrific reality that’s actually behind many of them.

Aside from the fact that many volunteers (be they past, present or future) will often insist “that ‘their orphanage’ is different and, in fact, totally legitimate…”, I think it’s important that we look beyond the actual legitimacy of individual institutions and consider the fact that what has become such a popular pursuit for westerners visiting poor countries like Nepal, is actually something child-protection laws in our own developed countries certainly wouldn’t condone happening closer to home. I can’t imagine there are many organisations working with vulnerable children in Ireland who would happily accept the offer of voluntary help (be it well-intentioned or otherwise, and for a couple of days, weeks or months) from visiting foreigners. Why is it then that the exact same scenario in a poor country like Nepal is instead regarded as a worthy and commendable pursuit?

While there may be some truth in the argument that many organisations depend on the funding that volunteers often provide and without it the children wouldn’t receive proper care, it also shouldn’t be overlooked that if there weren’t volunteers in need of cute ‘orphans’ to volunteer with, many of these organisations wouldn’t have so many children to look after and therefore wouldn’t need so much funding in the first place. In a report published in 2008, UNICEF estimated that 85 per cent of the children in Nepali orphanages actually had at least one living parent, and expressed the view that for the psychological wellbeing of the children involved, even a bad family was, though far from ideal, better than no family at all.

An equally shocking statistic was shared by Nepal’s Central Child Welfare Board in 2012 when they publicised that almost 90 per cent of the 657 registered children’s homes in Nepal were, in fact, located in the country’s five main tourist districts. A bizarre coincidence? Or a clear indication that Nepal’s orphanage phenomenon has some clear and strong links with foreign tourists? I’ll leave you draw your own conclusions… I’d like to ask too, in finishing, that if you or someone you know may have been considering volunteering at an exotically-located orphanage this summer that you perhaps give it a second thought and carefully consider the potential consequences involved. I can only speak of my experience in Nepal, but I’ve little reason to suspect that the situation in other poor countries in hugely different. Some careful research and reading prior to making any firm plans will help ensure you find a placement that doesn’t jeopardise the safety and well-being of innocent children.

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