La La How The Life Goes On

First, Do No Harm

Posted on: June 9, 2016

Responsible travel operators leading change in industry approach to orphanage volunteering

World Children’s Day was June 1st. Like all people with children, I’m a little behind in my organization skills. So we are celebrating it today.

One of the main thrusts of this year’s  WCD is the effort to stop orphanage tourism around the world.  We’ve all seen it. Selfies of twentysomethings with little brown kids smiling. Self-satisfied blog posts by people who have traveled far and paid much money in order to “help” folks in Africa and Asia.

UNICEF and several major international organizations have made it clear that orphanage tourism is not only inadvisable but actively harmful to the children and communities involved. So why are we still talking about it? Because the folks involved in these trips are largely are well-meaning and sincere. So when you come up against big-hearted, well-meaning, decent white people on a mission it is almost impossible to convince them that what they think is Good Works is actually detrimental to the very people they think they are helping. Even if that evidence is coming from UNICEF.

The reasons are pretty straightforward (more details of each point are in the link above):

  1. In some countries, tourism keeps kids in orphanages because they generate revenue.
  2. In most countries, very few of the children are actual orphans as in, “have no living parents.” But they cannot be allowed to visit living relatives for fear of the loss of revenue if discovered.
  3. Children in care are traumatized and vulnerable. Allowing tourists with no expertise in childhood trauma to interact with them is unethical.
  4. Children in care struggle with healthy attachments. Having differing sets of rotating “caring people” in their lives for two weeks at a time, showing affection and then leaving, is deeply damaging to the children long-term.
  5. If particular tourists take a liking to a particular child during their stay, it creates interpersonal conflicts with the other, often older children who were not noticed. This creates conflict within the institution that would not exist without the intervention of westerners.
  6. The presence of unvetted, untrained, uncommitted “volunteers” in the daily lives of children already traumatized and vulnerable is on its face unethical regardless of any “affection” they show the children during their stay.
  7. Research indicates that having unstable, constantly-changing sources of affection is actually WORSE than having minimal affection overall.

If you need further convincing, let’s talk about your kids for a minute. Let’s envision them in their preschool or daycare (the name and management of the child’s location is irrelevant, just as whether the kids in African and Asia are in an “orphanage” or a “community care home” or whatever).

Let’s imagine the preschool or daycare director received money for the school (or themselves) in exchange for allowing, say, Kenyan and Laotian tourists to come sit in the classrooms with your children. They play with them, sing with them, hug them, laugh with them, have them sit on their laps. A couple of the tourists ask to take your son or daughter on a day trip to a local site of interest, alone. The director says yes. While there, the tourists take photos of themselves with your children and post them on their blog. None of the tourists has been background-checked by law-enforcement, nor do any of them have any expertise in  working with preschool children. They are, very simply, tourists who want to come to the USA and help out at soup kitchens and dig some gardens at a preschool. And while they’re here, they get to see what an American preschool and daycare is like, in order to get a sense of how else they could help kids in America.

Please tell me you would not be the first parent to have that director’s head on a damn stick.

Please tell me you would not be the first parent to shut down any argument that “isn’t it better that your kids get hugs from these folks than no hugs at all?”

Please tell me that you would not be the first parent to demand to know how this dehumanization of your children could ever have happened.


If you actually care about the children in African countries or in Asian countries, you will–above all–want for them the same dignity, privacy and security that you want for your own children. If you truly see each of these kids as an individual human soul–just as you see your own children–you will be unable to insert yourself into a situation that removes the protections from them that you demand for your own children. Even if your heart is telling you that you are a good person with good intentions. ESPECIALLY if your heart is telling you that you are a good person with good intentions.

What many of the organizations and individuals working to stop orphan tours have come up against is that old chestnut: Whitesplaining. The white folk involved listen politely and then tell the experts giving them this very expert, well-researched, well-sourced, on-the-ground information about the negative aspects of orphan tours, “But we are different and here’s why.” All the ways in which your research does not apply to me. All the ways in which you don’t understand what it is we do. All the ways in which you are missing the point of our good works. When the only answer should be:

“This is hard to hear, but I’m going to sit with that discomfort. I’m going to consider this information from a universally-respected international organization. I’m going to try to turn off my defense mechanisms so I can truly absorb the information. I’m going to trust that the people and organizations making these recommendations are not doubting my heart and my intentions even while they hold a mirror up to the flaws in my work. And then I’m going to make some changes because I truly do care about children more than I care about my ego or my ‘life’s work.'”

If your tour company still offers these tours, tell them not to. And then find another tour company. Your kids will learn far more about decency and caring for other humans in that one act than they will doling out a thousand hugs to orphans.


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