• 'Voluntourism' has exploded as the hottest travel trend and a rite of passage for gap year students, but experts say it could be doing more harm than good.

    Wanting to help is a common and admirable reaction when meeting communities who are doing it tough, or have limited opportunities open to them. It’s natural to be saddened by the struggles we become aware of while travelling. Many of us are moved enough to want to do whatever we can to help.

    Each year, 1.6 million people volunteer overseas and voluntourism is considered the fastest growing ‘trend’ in travel. And for the most part, it’s happening with good intentions. However the negative impacts of voluntourism on children and communities are now coming to light thanks to initiatives like the ReThink Orphanages network, of which Save the Children is a member.

    So, what’s the problem with voluntourism?

    Leigh Mathews, co-founder and coordinator of the ReThink Orphanages network, says if untrained volunteers are not equipped to deal with vulnerable children and families in their own country, it’s logical that the same standards must apply in developing countries.

    The voluntourism industry is big business for travel companies, unwitting NGOs and – in some cases – corrupt, unregistered organisations. Voluntourists pay big bucks for the privilege of volunteering – sometimes up to $2,000 per week – and the industry is worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year. But while some people are profiting from voluntourism, there’s a very real risk that skilled locals miss out on employment because unskilled volunteers are filling their positions.

    At 16 years old, Pippa Biddle volunteered to help build a library in Tanzania. She and her friends took on the task, unskilled and untrained in construction. Skilled locals had to fix their work every night — essentially rebuilding the school themselves. She’s since written about the experience to help stop the potentially negative impacts of volunteering overseas.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in the world.

    Many skilled professionals volunteer for NGOs to train and empower local staff, with very positive outcomes. Responsible volunteering is something that we encourage . But it’s important to remember your help should be fulfilling a need, and that the community in which you’re helping feels the benefit after you leave.

    It’s also important to follow guidelines and protocol. Our very own Child Protection Adviser, Karen Flanagan, warns that far too many volunteers are not appropriately vetted to have contact with children, or don’t adhere to essential child protection practices.

    What’s wrong with volunteering at an orphanage?

    Eight million children worldwide are in orphanages up to 90% of these children are not actually orphans1.

    In some cases, children are bought or leased from their parents with the promise of a better life and better education, when the operators of the orphanage are merely trying to meet high demand. The more ‘orphans’ in need, the more tourists donate or pay to volunteer in their orphanage, and the more profitable the operation.

    The children and parents are the victims of these elaborate scams. Which is why it’s crucial that volunteers thoroughly research the organisations they want to help.

    There are other distressing examples of where orphanage tourism helps perpetuate the trauma and suffering of children. Tourism companies who place volunteers in orphanages rarely run police checks — a perfect target for convicted paedophiles. Al Jazeera journalists recently went undercoverand were able to walk in off the street with no identification or paperwork, to take four orphans out of an orphanage in Cambodia for the night.

    An orphanage is no place for a child to thrive.

    Research shows kids in institutions lack adequate love and attention, which physically impairs their brain development. They are at higher risk of abuse, exploitation, drug use, criminal activity, prostitution and suicide.

    Donations and volunteer activity is much better directed towards ethically driven organisations who are working to keep children in families and community-based care.

    Orphanages should only exist where there are no alternatives for children without families, and they should only ever be their very last resort.

    But by all means, volunteer!

    The last thing we want to do is discourage good people from making the world a better place for children. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so. All we ask is that you ask the right questions:

    • What will be the outcome of my volunteering adventure?
    • Am I doing it for the right reasons?
    • What skills can I offer developing countries to empower their next generation to be self-sufficient?

    We can all help to educate and inform travellers on ethical, suitable volunteering options based on their relevant skillsets. You can help by spreading the word. Get more information and resources from the Rethink Orphanages network.