2nd May 2011
Research recently conducted by Susan Rosas of the International Organization for Adolescents (see here) has shown that the system of orphanage care is fraught with perils that most individual foreign donors, especially volunteer tourists, may be completely unaware of.
With the best of intentions, a cohort of tourists choose to spend their holidays in poor countries like Cambodia volunteering in programmes designed to alleviate poverty or address social problems, rather than simply working on their tans.
Unfortunately, too often these well-meaning people fail to research the possible unintended consequences of their good intentions, where entrepreneurial locals are more than willing to harness their efforts and milk them for their financial donations – for their personal benefit under cover of operating a “charity”. (see here)
One sad consequence has been the emergence of a orphanage business that solicits donations and voluntary labour from individuals and, more worryingly, actively recruits children from amongst Cambodia’s poorest communities. In fact, it is estimated that less than 30% of the children in the country’s orphanages are actually parentless.
Families are persuaded to give up their kids to these orphanages because they are usually convinced by recruiters than their kids will enjoy the benefits of a better life, especially by being provided with a far better quality of education that their parents could possibly afford to provide.
However, Rosas’ research suggests that once their youngsters are old enough to fend for themselves, it soon becomes clear that they lack the basic skills to do so, and thus become at risk to all the maladies that striving to survive in a difficult environment hold, such as exploitation and violence, plus the attendant problems of drug abuse, failing foul of the law and related tragedies.
Rosas’ findings challenge the received narrative that these orphanages successfully address a deficit in these children’s original homes and then provides them with the requisite skills to meet life’s challenges. And this is despite the fact that it is proven to be much cheaper to support the families of these children directly.
Instead, the industry appears to be driven by financial considerations unrelated to the perceived problem (and is growing exponentially). Furthermore, volunteer tourism appears to be contributing to this growth.
In the process, even whatever family support that might be proffered to them is usually denied, meaning that the children in these institutions end up with the worst of all situations: denied the love of their own families while also not receiving any of the claimed benefits that might justify their being placed in care in the first place.