Voluntourism: The Business of Orphans

As the new term begins, you might be thinking about how you’re going to spend your impending weeks of freedom. Without a job or internship, those plans might be centred around travelling- maybe a holiday with friends, or an aid project abroad. Something reminiscent of those sweltering gap year days becomes all the more appealing when you sit in your student house, watching icicles form on the inside of your windows…

However, the rapid growth of the ‘voluntourist’ market has been noticed by entrepreneurs abroad. Students in particular are increasingly falling into the trap of ‘orphanage tourism’. This idea encompasses schemes that deliberately maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists- some even go so far as to take children from underprivileged homes to create situations that Westerners can pay to visit.

Cambodia is one such example. Torn apart by civil war in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, it has become a hot bed of ‘voluntourism’- a site for people to visit and try and make up for the severe shortage of development funding by giving their time to orphanages and schools. However, reporters have found that not only are people exploiting the money and labour of people travelling to help abroad, but that Cambodian parents are giving their children to exploitative centres promising a better standard of upbringing and funds from this industry. It’s been estimated by Al Jazeera that over 70 per cent of the estimated 10,000 ‘orphans’ have at least one living parent. Far outstripping demand, the number of orphanages has doubled in the last decade alone.

The ChildSafe Network is a charity who have seen examples of this problem worldwide. “An orphanage is a child’s home, and they have the right to privacy in this space,” the charity reminds us. “Most people would never consider going to an orphanage, shelter or residential home in their own countries. They are not zoos.” And whilst the ready retort may be that orphanages and child-centres in developed countries don’t suffer from the same issues of funding as those in developing countries, the issue still stands that streams of tourists dropping in and out of these children’s lives really can be destructive. The funding tourists provide is not sustainable, and by “visiting orphanages and making a donation, you may be fuelling a system that exploits children” rather than one that helps them in the long run.

It can also be seen through national tour services how orphanage tourism has become commonplace. Hidden Cambodia, an adventure tour service, agreed that “large tour companies, cruise Siem Reap for one day, [and] will do a visit to  a children’s centre or orphanage on the second day”, despite movements on Facebook trying to “educate people that they do not need to visit an orphanage to help”.

However, this issue is one that is just too big for social media. Information is not reaching students before they commit to big tour-operator programmes and thus they may be unintentionally supporting an industry that they believe their money is helping to stop. “There are a number of questionable orphanages, we often hear of them … attract[ing] tourists to their place for performing shows late night and asking guests to attend and make donations,” Hidden Cambodia warned . “There was one recently closed down here where a foreigner had set it up, and there was some abuse. Another one again when the American founder fled when [there] was found  out … to have been some wrong doing [sic].”

The negative impact of such profit-run orphanages affects those who do try to help Cambodia’s weak social infrastructure. However, it is hard to tell from the other side of the world, behind a computer screen, what the centre you end up in will truly value. Some argue that even government accredited orphanages (with their mandatory inspections) don’t always tell the full story, either. A Swiss expat, Sara Wallimann, opened a training school in Siem Reap after finding out that few places had any support for children after they left the orphanage. In her experience, “it doesn’t matter if the orphanage is a registered NGO or not. The government doesn’t check them anyway and we know of NGO registered orphanages that are not trustworthy, who have kids that are not complete orphans and who keep the orphanage in poor conditions.” She warned, “what’s really important is that the orphanage has a strict child protection policy. That’s when you know it’s a reliable place.”

Not all of these centres are run by Machiavellian money-grabbers, but also by charities and trusts who do the best work they can with the donations they can raise. Golden Futures, a student-run charity initiated by a University of Nottingham student, works to provide young adults who have grown up in orphanages in Cambodia with interest free loans for tuition fees, vocational training, or towards start-up costs for small businesses. This means a step towards breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and dependency on aid.

Katherine Stapleton, a member of Golden Futures, explains: ‘Although we know that there is little evidence that microfinance [through business and university loans] does reduce poverty, we believe that the work we do is helping, albeit on a small scale, a few individuals to improve their prospects. With our support [students] have gone on to study medicine or law or economics, giving them a completely different lifestyle to their families who are maybe subsistence farmers in the countryside.”

Rather than simply losing hope in the companies who provide tours and student trips, it is important to make sure that the people who you are giving your money and time to are using it for its proper cause.

“It’s necessary to find genuinely good charities and I would advise people to find smaller charities if they don’t want to be paying a lot to those doing admin,” Stapleton agrees. Yet, she blames the culture of ‘gap year’ group travel for the reasons why people aren’t always interested in thoroughly researching their destinations. “Some people aren’t comfortable traveling alone and want everything arranged for them, which is probably why those organisations exist. A certain amount of cynicism is necessary, but remember that a lot of charities and volunteers are doing excellent work!”

Chloe Valentine


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11 Comments on this post.
  • Gretta
    8 March 2013 at 12:19
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    This is an excellent article and I hope it helps to raise awareness of this important issue

  • Douglas Riggle
    8 March 2013 at 20:01
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    It is a shame that such practices exist. We work hard to vet the orphanages we support at Orphan World Relief. We know the work being done, the annual budget, and how the children are cared for among other factors. We do travel to the orphanages with select people from time to time. Most of our time is spent hammering fences, planning for ways to help the orphanage become more self sufficient and working with the leaders to expand and support the good work their doing. It’s heart breaking to hear children being exploited for another’s gain.

    Doug Riggle, President
    Orphan World Relief

  • Michele Gran
    8 March 2013 at 22:07
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    The real danger here is that support to legitimate organizations will be negatively impacted by the abuses of the “voluntourism” industry. It’s important not to eliminate the possibility for short-term volunteers to contribute their time and donations to ethical organizations who provide long-term, sustainable support to locally based organizations in developing countries. In our ”
    twitter-centric” society, one scandal can eliminate critical programs for deserving children. We at Global Volunteers work in partnership with local development agencies, some who provide housing and safe harbors for abandoned and neglected children, by providing volunteers and essential services where there would be no assistance whatsoever. The key is to support organizations with a track record and a long-term reputation for ethical humanitarian work.

  • Chloe
    9 March 2013 at 13:32
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    Thanks Gretta

  • Vicky Smith
    11 March 2013 at 17:29
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  • Vicky S
    11 March 2013 at 17:33
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  • Calum
    12 March 2013 at 01:09
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  • Danielle
    19 March 2013 at 14:23
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    Good article BUT, you quote positively from one of the biggest offenders of the exactly the type of child exploitation you are talking about! ACODO (as in this ACODO – ) is doing EXACTLY the type of thing you are talking about. I recommend you remove them from your article as it looks like you are supporting their work when it fact I believe they are who are writing against!

  • John
    21 March 2013 at 04:44
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    Here´s some thoughts for you guys.

    Why are these orphanages actually there? and for who?

    Tourism numbers in Cambodia has risen from 1,7 million in 2005 to more than 3 million in 2012. The numbers of orphanages increased with 65% between 2005-2010 and new ones continue being created.

    Where do you think the funding is coming from to start all these new orphanages?

    And where do you think the “orphans” are coming from?

    3/4 of them in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans.

    Why do they need to be in an orphanage if they are not orphans?

    Why do people believe orphanages are a good alternative for vulnerable children when we have disregarded them as a valuable option in our own countries, the damage they have caused to our own children (now adults) have been well documented. Try googling orphanage and institutional care investigations in your own countries. All over Europe government investigations have shown the maltreatment and abuse of children growing up in orphanages and adults in these countries have received compensation for their suffering. These were institutions that where ran by our governments, church and more. In Cambodia the orphanages like the one mentioned in the text are privately ran institutions that receive even less monitoring , supervision and screening than what the orphanages/institutions in our own countries was.

    Just think about it for a bit…….

  • Andre
    22 March 2013 at 09:43
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    As somebody who has lived in Cambodia for 4 years (and more than 3 in Siem Reap), I find it staggering that this article would recommend ACODO as a legitimate or worthy orphanage.

    The reality is that ACODO is notorious as a money-making venture, exploiting the gullibility of tourists, volunteers, and now it would seem travel bloggers too. Admittedly, as cons go, it is in a superior class, and presents a very convincing story. But then again, it is run by a notorious local ‘businessman’ with some powerful connections. Who knows how many hundreds-of-thousands of dollars he has made through ACODO. And now he’s getting some more free publicity through this article. You’ve got to give him some credit.

    But as already mentioned in some of the other posts, clever scams like ACODO are only part of the problem. Many orphanages are set up with ‘good intentions’. Unfortunately, they are the wrong solution. Institutionalizing children (whether they are genuine orphans or not) is supposed to eb the last resort of alternative childcare, and only a temporary measure. That’s why orphanages hardly exist in the developed world. But in countries like Cambodia, where regulation is lax, an orphanage seems to be opened every week. Why? To meed the demand of tourists and volunteers who enjoy visiting or helping out at these institutions. This is not about the kids, it’s all about them, and their fuzz sense of having done some good (even though they are adding to a problem, not helping it).

    The bottom line is simple: whether it’s a notorious scam, like ACODO, or a ‘genuine’ orphanage based on naive good intentions, tourists and volunteers have no place visiting these institutions. In both cases, we are only doing more harm than good.

  • Duncan Stuart
    31 March 2013 at 03:07
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    Voluntourism has been a real grey area for more than a decade now. In Cambodia there are three basic stiuations. One is the arrangement of gap year volunteering via UK or western-based organisations – many of whom charge big money (one of two thousand pounds) while sending very little of this to the NGO that they say they are supporting. In other words if there’s exploitation – some of it is happening back in the UK or USA.

    Then there are two other situations. First, there are the NGOs which do a good job and provide something of the safety-net that the Cambodian government does not provide. Yes, many of these rely on visitors and overseas donors though many are getting jaded by Facebook Volunteers (as the director of one children’s home calls them) who swoop in, take a million photos but see no obligation to make any lasting difference. For this group of NGOs the challenge is how best to invite overseas support, but ensure that it is of benefit to both parties – most especially for the children.

    A third situation exists, and this the the local NGOs who are largely unregistered and deliberately exploit the tourists by using children to attract the sympathy dollar. These outfits are in the distinct minority, but there are enough to cause widespread criticism.

    I think it is wrong to term the whole picture as “the orphanage industry.” To do so implies that the children are simply part of a cookie cutter, uncaring process. In truth most children’s homes in Cambodia care for children whose families’ are unable to provide adequate food, medical care or education. Approximately a third of Cambodian live below the poverty line ($US30 per month income) and 92% of these families live in the countryside. On top of this issue of pvoerty are the attendant issues of alcohol, domestic violence etc – and no critic of orphanages has yet to suggest a better alternative for children in these situations. In Cambodia the alck of social safety net has been met, traditionally, by sending children (sons at least) for care at local monasteries – in otehr words the ‘orphanage’ concept has been a social norm in Cambodia for hundreds of years.

    In the meantime the Government is tightening up the standards of childrens homes and holding them to tighter account. A good thing. I agree with critics of ACODO in Siem Reap, because an orphanage I work with now cares for three of the children previously under their ‘care’ which provided little or no education for school aged children, while getting them to put on nightly cultural shows for tourists. Exploitation? Definitely.

    Volunteers can make a positive difference, but need to show a greater commitment than staying for a few days, most of which are spent behind a camera.

    As I mentioned, I assist with an orphanage in Cambodia that is run by locals but supported by foreigners who have volunteered previously. The children’s home (I prefer not to use the word orphanage, we never pretend the children are orphans – one is,) is registered, ensures the children go to school each day and is committed to assisting the older students into adult life by supporting them through university or other appropriate tertiary study. I would hardly say we are exploiting these children.

    It is a bit simplstic to tar all NGOs with the same brush.

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