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Dark tourism. Volunteering in orphanages
and everything you don’t see on social media

Wiktoria Wilk, Lancaster University

At first, volunteering in the orphanages may have a very positive connotation. It is an opportunity to help others unselfishly. It is an act of devoting time, energy and money to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is an attempt to improve their lives, even if just a slight bit. And - most of the time - it is an act of giving without expectations of getting something back. So, what could possibly be wrong with volunteering?


There may be various reasons why people decide to volunteer. In the article ‘In Search of the Identity,’ Carol Daley, a researcher examining the phenomenon of volunteering, and the influence of the sending agencies on the volunteers' experience, indicates there are three main motivations behind the participation in such projects. One of them is enhancing the resume to obtain a more satisfactory job in the future. Simply - boosting a CV. Secondly, it is empathy and the general idea of ‘doing good.’ While the third reason is ‘social and ego-defensive,’ an attitude that is justifying actions that make us feel guilty by replacing them with an act of a good cause.


Moreover, many volunteering websites come up with lists of profound reasons supposedly to encourage taking part in volunteering projects like ‘gaining the real-world experience,’ ‘making an impact,’ especially on the communities you live in, ‘helping to empower others,’ and ‘travelling responsibly.’ While the social media content featuring former volunteers smiling with children, comprehensive stories about causing a positive impact on the community, and reviews of how amazingly the place was boosting our energy, create the urge within us to come forward.  


Volunteering as a way to travel responsibly? ​

Let’s have a look at one of the points, namely - travelling responsibly. Nowadays, travelling has become more popular and more accessible than it has ever been. Booking a plane to South America or taking a train to Asia is rather simple, and many could do it. A combination of both travelling and volunteering was just a matter of time then, resulting in ‘voluntourism’. According to Daley, ‘voluntourism’ is the bridge that connects volunteering with charity work. And, as such, poses a few critical aspects worth considering regarding how volunteering, especially in the orphanages, could influence the ones living there. 


There is a rising problem of children's exploitation. Countries around the world, such as India, Cambodia, Ghana, Haiti, or Nepal, often hire the ‘seekers.’ Such people convince poorer families that they are able to provide their children with a ‘bright future,’ to then suggest parents to abandon them and put into the orphanage. They promise to send some money for the family and reassure the parents that youngsters will obtain security. This may be especially important in, for example, Nepal, where many people were affected by the earthquake in 2015. 


Better education is also one of the promises. It comes from the idea that volunteers, most of which are native or fluent English speakers, come to the orphanages to teach the language. For instance, in Cambodia, there is a strong linkage between education and speaking English as a key to the prosperous future, which usually means going far away from the surrounding poverty. And what could be a more attractive option than learning English from native English speakers? 


More harm than good? ​

On top of that, international volunteers come to the orphanages and pay money. Therefore, it is so significant for the institutions to function. It accelerates the vicious circle where the children are needed to receive money from the volunteers. Many times, they are kept in very harsh conditions or are even being told to lie that they are orphans. Moreover, for no reason, some of the Orphanages in Nepal are situated in the most touristic centres, like Kathmandu or Lalitpur. The tourists, even though not participating in any volunteering, frequently contribute to the problem, simply by buying sweets or books for the children. Sometimes, the latter is, in fact, an idea of the bookstores themselves. Children ask tourists to purchase them a book from the store. The purchase is then returned by them, while the money obviously is not. Of course, not all foundations and orphanages support such practices; however, it is crucial to be aware of the issue.  


Another essential aspect is the impact volunteers have on children’s psychology and development. In his ‘attachment theory,’ a psychiatrist and psychoanalysts, John Bowlby, discusses how children that lose the connection with at least one primary caregiver, can also lose the ability to connect emotionally with others. Therefore, as in orphanages infants tend to have frequent contact with volunteers who come for a short time, but who sufficiently create an emotional bond with the children, it can be problematic, especially in the long run.  


Does effortless mean successful? ​

The most important issue with such projects, however, is in fact, their accessibility. Anyone can help the ‘disadvantaged.’ The recruitment process is incredibly simple and does not require a participant to prove anything such as a degree diploma, qualifications, and experience of working with kids, not even a background check. It could lead to a significant number of abuses, including the emotional, mental, or even the physical abuse of children.  


Still, there are several ways to improve the situation, reduce the problem and find a win-win, so that the volunteers still could help and provide the necessary support, and at the same time do it in a safe and secure way, for both, the organisation and a participant. Many times, the pictures of happy kids that we see on Instagram feeds, or the favourable reviews on Google do not show the real consequences. Focusing on long-term goals of projects could lead to a broader perspective of our participation. So doing appropriate research about the sending organisation, the orphanage and the country we are going to is essential. However, maybe instead of donating money to the International Institutions, we could focus on the local ones. We could invest our time and energy to help those who are closest, locally. Because the place we help in does not matter, the act of selfishness is worth the same everywhere.

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