Orphanage trips by Aussie schools are doing more harm than good

Australian private schools are increasingly taking their senior students to volunteer in orphanages, but they’re doing more harm than good. Lemuellz/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Australian private schools are increasingly taking their senior students to volunteer in orphanages in Asia. During these trips students undertake maintenance or building work, but invariably they also spend time playing with the children in the orphanages. Schools see these visits as an opportunity for their students to help others and to gain perspective on their privilege.

What do these trips mean for the children in orphanages?

Before answering this question it’s important to understand what it is like for a child to grow up in an orphanage. Decades of research have proven that children need to be loved and cared for by a limited number of people who are dedicated to them and able to respond to their needs. This sort of care is very difficult to provide in an orphanage.

Schools and students think they’re being charitable, but children aren’t tourist attractions made to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Kim Tyo-Dickerson/Flickr, CC BY

The need to look after many children generally results in a regimented existence, with each child having many caregivers. Children are cared for as a group rather than as individuals. As a result children who have been raised in orphanages experience delays across all areas of development, as well as psychological damage.

Although Australia no longer has orphanages, some other wealthy nations do. Even in these well-resourced institutions, the same problems exist.

The lack of someone who loves and is committed to a child makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Rates of physical and sexual abuse (perpetrated by adults and other children) are high in orphanages, wherever they are located. It is unfortunately not surprising that 30% of the reports of sexual abuse made to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have been made by people who were abused in orphanages.

Knowledge of the harms of orphanage care closed all orphanages in Australia decades ago.

Orphanage voluntourism takes children from their families

The majority of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. As recently reported, orphanage voluntourism is actually removing children from their families. Unscrupulous individuals are persuading families to give up their children (sometimes with a cash payment) in order to make money for themselves from donations from wealthy foreign voluntourists.

They are literally creating orphans, for financial gain.

A campaign to end orphanage voluntourism. Author provided

In some countries this has led to an explosion in the number of orphanages. In Cambodia the number of orphanages has doubled in the last five years, while the number of orphans has decreased.

Even when intentions are pure, the building and resourcing of orphanages results in the removal of children from their families. In the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, 17 new orphanages were built for “tsunami orphans”. However, 98% of the children in these orphanages had families and had been placed in these institutions in order to gain an education.

Community support for education would have prevented these children from being exposed to harm in orphanages. Reputable aid organisations will not build orphanages, but instead work to support families and communities.

This is a much more caring and cost-effective model. Keeping children in orphanages is very expensive: five to ten times more expensive than supporting them in their families.

Orphanages are never good places

Much of the psychological harm suffered by children in orphanages is caused by having multiple caregivers who come and go, rather than just one (or a few) who can be relied upon. Short-term orphanage volunteers who pay attention to, play with and care for children may feel they are doing good, but they are just adding to this harm. They increase the number of caregivers a child experiences and are just more people who abandon them.

Children who live in orphanages often become adept at gaining adult attention by being cute and by engaging with strangers – something that psychologists call “indiscriminate affection”. School students often mistake this behaviour for genuine friendliness and happiness.

Young people who undertake these tours come home with an idealised view of orphanages and with aspirations to support them into the future. This was the experience of ex-orphanage voluntourists, now successful entrepreneurs Rob and Paul Falkan, who donate business profits to build orphanages all over the world. Schools who help foster the view that orphanages are good may inadvertently harm children into the future.

So what should schools do?

It is good that schools want to encourage their students to have a greater understanding of the world and to help others. But to quote the child rights organisation Friends International, children are not tourist attractions:

Children are not objects, they are not cute things you visit, feel sorry for, give pencils and teach them ‘heads and shoulders, knees and toes’ for the umpteenth time.

Schools should not be fooled into thinking that their arrangements are somehow different and exempt from these problems.

Instead of taking well-intentioned action that actually supports the abandonment, abuse and neglect of children in orphanages, schools should actively support aid programs that keep children in their families and that find foster care for children who do not have families.

Schools should investigate and support the many reputable aid organisations that focus on family preservation and the emptying of orphanages.

Students may like to start with Lumos, the organisation set up by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Named for the spell in the books that casts light in dark places, Lumos aims to end orphanage care for children.

If schools want to take students overseas volunteering it may be appropriate to develop relationships with schools that would benefit from a sister school relationship.

Orphanage voluntourism takes children from their families and causes psychological damage. Australian schools have a responsibility to their students and to children in orphanages to inform themselves and ensure that their student activities are doing good and not harm.