Written March 6, 2015
I knew, more with time than immediately, that I had served only to damage a vulnerable child: another stranger to pick him up, set him down and walk away.
The consequences of my actions, however, were probably more far-reaching than that.
In 2008, I was volunteering with an Irish organisation¹ in Zambia when I visited two orphanages (independently of the organisation I was with).
Beforehand, I presumed, without thinking too much about it, that it was a good thing to do – everyone that visited a developing country seemed to do it so it must be.
But afterwards, I felt quite uneasy about the whole thing. I had witnessed a new born baby’s dying moments and I had watched a toddler wail, moments after he had lulled contentedly in my arms.
I knew I should not have been intruding as a spectator in the intensely private and sacred moments of a child dying. I should not have been allowed to.
And the toddler that was crying did so because I had set him down and he wanted to be picked up again.
A young girl working at the orphanage said to me, with a mix of hope and encouragement, “he likes you, you take him home?”
But, of course, that had never been my intention.
I was reminded of this when I arrived in Cambodia and first saw images from a campaign run by child protection NGO Friends-International in partnership with UNICEF.
The images were of miserable-looking children crouched in display units, surrounded by curious people taking photographs, with the line ‘Children are not tourist attractions’ stamped below.
The campaign started in 2011 to inform tourists of the damage they cause when they visit orphanages.
In Cambodia, child protection agencies say, such visits have encouraged the growth of an ‘orphanage industry’ in which many institutions are run as profit-making ventures, filled with children that, for the most part, are not orphans.
Often they are kept in “abysmal conditions” – the more miserable they look, the logic goes, the more money the institution is likely to receive from well-intended foreigners.
And many children are “abused and neglected”.
It is easy to see how when just about anyone can set up an orphanage , encourage other random people off the street to visit, to have a look, maybe spend some time with the children, all in return for donations.
From tourists and paedophiles alike.
It was a sobering experience to realise my actions were the kind that incentivised such an industry, a breeding ground for child sex abuse.
Of course, it is important to note that so many of these orphanages are not set-up with a sinister agenda, nor do they intentionally exploit children.
I met an amazing Australian woman in Phnom Penh who was breaking her back trying to run a registered orphanage for children with the most severe disabilities. These children were genuinely orphaned or had been abandoned in a society where disabled children are often outcast.
Her struggle to provide a roof over their heads and provide for their most basic needs exemplified the incredible people behind many orphanages and, as she would argue, the present absence of any alternative to an institution that would protect these kids.
But for the large part, such institutions are neither necessary nor desirable, according to child protection agencies. That was another lesson for me: orphanages are usually not necessary.
Save the Children and UNICEF both advocate for community and family-based alternatives, with orphanages to be used only as a last resort (in the immediate aftermath of war, for example) and as a temporary measure.
And while so much responsibility for creating and supporting those family and community-based alternatives lies with governments, the same child protection agencies emphasise the role individuals play.
“Private donors in particular,” said Save the Children, “are often ignorant of the fact that by supporting residential care they are inadvertently diverting essential resources away from more positive family-based care options”.
It’s like giving money to kids begging on the streets: it only encourages their parents to put them there.
A Global Issue
In February, UNICEF and Friends-International launched a new campaign that was aimed not at tourists but at those private donors in the West: individuals, faith-based groups and businesses that give money to institutions.
Images in this campaign depict children as dolls called ‘My New Orphan’, wrapped up in shiny packaging being rolled off a manufacturing line. “The more you donate,” their packaging reads, “the more (orphans) you create’.
The message is simple: they want westerners to stop funding orphanages in Cambodia.
“We do say help, please help, because there is so much to do in Cambodia,” said the founder of Friends-International, Sebastien Marot, “but give to the right places”.
I spoke to him at the campaign launch in Phnom Penh. Given my experience in Zambia, I was keen to know if “orphanage tourism” was having similar outcomes in other developing countries and if Friends-International intended to extend their campaigns to such places.
“Cambodia is just the beginning,” was his reply.
He said his organisation and UNICEF have been contacted by countries including Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Brazil and eastern European countries about the possibility of developing similar campaigns there.
“We are realising,” he said, “that this issue is in fact everywhere”.
If you would like more information on responsible tourism and donating, you can visit the Friends-International website; alternatively you can find information on responsible volunteering at the Irish site Comhlámh, which also has a Volunteer Charter.
¹The organisation I went to Zambia with was the Spirit of Paul McGirr – a great, community-based project. You can find more about it here.