Volunteering in orphanages
It is incredible that tourists are encouraged to take part in the short-term care of young, vulnerable children through volunteer programmes at orphanages.
Children in orphanages are immensely vulnerable. There is consistent evidence that children who are institutionalised at a young age develop a variety of emotional, social, behavioural and educational problems. Separations caused by hospitalisation, assignment into foster care or entry into an orphanage cause dramatic disruptions in attachment relationships. Once in institutional care, the routines, staff turnover and large child-caregiver ratios cause frequent disruptions in attachments.
Children have a right to be protected
Children out of parental care have a right to protection, including against experiences that are harmful for them. In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments as a result of rapid staff turnover in orphanages, exacerbated by care provided by short-term volunteers.
Welfare authorities have a duty to act against voluntourism companies and residential homes that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits from the conditions in which vulnerable young children are placed.
An orphanage is a sign of failure of all other avenues
Out-of-home residential care should not be an option when support can be given to families to take care of their children instead. There is international agreement that residential care is a matter of absolute last resort, to only be used for as short a time as possible, when all avenues for appropriate family care have been exhausted.
Residential care should only be an option when families and communities - supported by government and civil society - are unable to protect children from vulnerability; when early prevention strategies have failed; and when transitional care structures cannot return children to a safe and enriching, non-residential family care environment.
Instead of supporting orphanages, our duty is to support all other avenues of positive, long-term solutions that prevent the institutionalisation of children.
'AIDS orphan tourism:
A threat to young children in residential care'
What follows is a synopsis of 'AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care' a study by Linda M. Richter and Amy Norman.
The study focuses on AIDS orphans in Africa, but it applies to volunteers at all orphanages. It is a fascinating read for all people considering spending time, or who have spent time as a volunteer at an orphanage.
Organisers of voluntourism will no doubt find this interesting as well.
A study on the harmful effects of voluntourism
The dominant global perception that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing an 'AIDS orphan crisis', coupled with growing trends in international voluntourism, has fostered a potentially high-risk situation for already vulnerable young children in the region. The study shows how short-term attachments formed between children in group residential care and volunteers may worsen known impacts of institutional care.
Advocates against the exploitation of orphans by tour operators
The study advocates against the exploitation of especially vulnerable young children in sub-Saharan Africa for commercial gain by tour operators in the current growth of 'AIDS orphan tourism'.
It proposes instead that people who wish to volunteer their time and talents to assist children less fortunate than themselves be properly informed about children's development and attachments to others, as well of the vulnerabilities and rights of young children, especially those outside of family care.
First, the UNICEF definition of 'AIDS orphan' is confusing: they define them as children who have lost either one or both biological parents. AIDS orphans, in this sense, is a technical demographic and epidemiological term not commensurate with common-sense definitions of an 'orphaned' child. For example, although there are approximately 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa categorized as orphans, only 2.4 million children are estimated to have lost both parents as a result of AIDS.
More than 80% of 'orphans' have a surviving parent
Contrary to everyday understandings, more than 80% of children defined as orphans have a surviving parent. This fact has not been well-communicated, and many donors and programming agencies in the global North proceed from the assumption that children defined as 'AIDS orphans' have lost both of their parents, have been abandoned by their families and are in need of replacement care.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, only very small numbers of orphaned children find themselves living without any resident adult caregiver. In South Africa, 0.6% of children have been estimated from national surveys to be living on their own. Furthermore, although such households may emerge following the death of adult members of a household, and must be regarded as special cases in need of support, these households tend to be transitional, with adults soon moving in to care for children, or children moving to join other households.
Most orphans continue to live with their families
Indeed, in contrast to prevailing rhetoric, studies show that most orphans - upwards of 90% - continue to live with their families, with most single orphans continuing to live with their surviving parent. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that nearly every factor identified as critical to increasing childhood vulnerability in the context of HIV/AIDS-affected families involves financial strain.
Economic constraints are often responsible for the barriers to the effective integration of orphans into households, the discrimination or neglect of children orphaned by AIDS, conflicts related to property, inadequate food and clothing, and disruption of the schooling of orphans.
Residential care is a matter of absolute last resort
Mindful of the vulnerabilities faced by families, there is international agreement that residential care is a matter of absolute last resort when all avenues for appropriate family care have been exhausted. Residential care should only be seen as a viable option when families and communities - supported by government and civil society - are unable to protect children from vulnerability; when early prevention strategies have failed; and when transitional care structures cannot return children to a safe and enriching, non-residential family care environment.
However, despite national and international policy, misconceptions surrounding the 'AIDS orphan crisis' have led to the assumption that large numbers of children are without family care, fuelling the funding and establishment of residential care homes.
Residential care is up to 100 times more costly
In terms of a large-scale response to the 'crisis of care', residential care has a number of disadvantages. It has been shown to be at least 10 times and up to 100 times more costly than family care. The establishment and maintenance of such facilities may divert external support from families who, with help, could care for vulnerable children at home.
As illustrated in the highly publicised case of David Banda, the Malawian boy adopted by Madonna in 2006, destitute families sometimes place children in orphanages in the hope that their child will receive food and be educated. If directed at families, this additional financial support would enable destitute parents to better feed, clothe, educate and care for their children at home.
Beyond the large-scale and unsustainable costs associated with residential care facilities, there are serious problems about the nature of care received by children residing in institutional care and the long-term implications in terms of childhood development.
As residential care increases for the permanent placement of 'AIDS orphans', it is important to briefly review the implications for young children, often of a long-term nature. Within the psychosocial literature, there is agreement that long-term institutional care adversely affects young children in a number of ways, even upon follow-up into adulthood.
Stable attachments develop a sense of security
The most agreed upon explanation for these effects concerns the dependency of children's development on stable and secure attachments to one or more adults. There is strong evidence to support the fact that human infants are born biologically prepared to form attachments to their caregivers and that the neurophysiological templates for human development are dependent on such attachments. Stable, strong and affectionate attachments enable infants to develop a sense of security that supports their exploration of the world and encourages them to seek out new learning and relationships.
Given that human infants are 'designed' to maintain stable contact with secure attachment figures, there is perhaps no greater threat to their developmental integrity than disruption of the 'parent (caregiver)-child' relationship. Repeated early experiences of frustration in their need for stable and consistent soothing and attention, including separations, result in infants and young children developing insecure or disorganized attachments.
Such experiences may negatively influence a child's sense of self, emotional functioning and social behaviour. Separations caused by hospitalisation, assignment into foster care or entry into an orphanage cause dramatic disruptions in attachment relationships. Once in institutional care, the routines, staff turnover and large child-caregiver ratios cause frequent disruptions in attachments.
There is consistent evidence that for children who are institutionalised at a young age, a variety of emotional, social, behavioural and educational problems develops and persists over time. Recent studies of adoptees from Eastern Europe to the United States and Canada suggest that development deficits and delays tend to be irreversible.
The entrance of tourists into caring for vulnerable children
However, it is on this landscape of child vulnerability that global tourists are encouraged to take part in the short-term care of young, vulnerable children through 'AIDS orphan tourism'.
Volunteer tourism operators frequently advertise the enormous 'needs' of both the institution and the children who reside there, and short-term volunteers are encouraged to 'make intimate connections' with 'previously neglected, abused and abandoned' young children and to take part in their daily caregiving activities.
While some of the general issues of voluntourism are up for debate, the study focuses on the particular issues associated with 'AIDS orphan tourism'. In a Time magazine article on the topic of volunteering with children in residential care settings, two opposing views were presented.
Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, an industry watchdog in the United Kingdom, stated that 'If you're going to work with children in an orphanage, [how will they] understand what you're trying to do when you don't speak their language and you don't stay long enough to form a relationship? ... what does it mean to the child?' However, Sally Brown, founder of Ambassadors for Children, countered that 'If a kid can be held for a couple of days, you're able to make a small difference'.
The primary concern is with the health of children
This study argues that programs which encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary caregiving roles for very young children are misguided for a number of reasons. The primary concern we have is with the emotional and psychological health of very young children. Young children who enter residential care, whether in large-scale orphanage settings or smaller scale children's homes, are likely to have already experienced very difficult circumstances.
Enter the voluntourist in response to advertising, such as this excerpt from a large company marketing online:
Working at a residential home for orphaned, neglected and abused children. This is a great chance to improve the lives of youngsters who haven't had the best start in life. You'll need to have a genuine love of children and a willingness to get involved in all aspects of their daily life, from playing games and organizing activities, to feeding and changing nappies.
Many advertisements make it plain that volunteers will work with very young vulnerable children:
"The home provides full residential care for children between the ages of 0-5. The home aims to provide a healthy and nurturing environment for orphaned, neglected and abused children. The children have often had to deal with the stress of loss, abuse or neglect and so need lots of love and attention."
Short-term volunteer tourists are encouraged to 'make intimate connections' with previously neglected, abused and abandoned young children. However, shortly after such 'connections' have been made, tourists leave; many undoubtedly feeling that they have made a positive contribution to the plight of very vulnerable children. Many of the children they leave behind experience another abandonment to the detriment of their short and long-term emotional and social development.
Dissolution of bonds with successive volunteers is damaging
Inherently, the formation and dissolution of attachment bonds to successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children being cared for in such environments. The early adversity faced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, putting them at greatly increased risk for developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being. Consistently observed characteristics of children in institutional care are indiscriminate friendliness and an excessive need for attention.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the African Charter on the Rights and Wellbeing of Children and the legislation protecting children in many countries place a special burden on those caring for children separated from their parents and families.
Children's right to be protected against repeated broken attachments
Out-of-home residential care should not be an option when support can be given to families to take care of their children. Second, children out of parental care have a right to protection, including against experiences that are harmful for them. In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments as a result of rapid staff turnover in orphanages, exacerbated by care provided by short-term volunteers.
Third, welfare authorities must act against voluntourism companies and residential homes that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits from the conditions in which vulnerable young children are placed.
Last, well-meaning young people should be made aware of the potential consequences of their own involvement in these care settings, be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions and be given guidelines about the rights of children.
Please support the REPLACE Campaign. Our objective is to get all children who are in orphanages placed into loving families and to prevent those who are at risk, from going into orphanages.