Broken Children and Empty Buildings: The Problem With Volunteering Abroad

If you've traveled out of America and to almost any third-world country, then you've probably seen it: Children holding babies on the side of the road begging for money from stopped cars. Mothers holding infants and motioning to their mouths asking for food or a few dollars. Pre-teens with disabilities pedaling small wares or busking in metro stations and bus stops. It's heartbreaking and leaves many wanting to help. Some may give a few dollars or provide some food when they can. While others may be so emotionally impacted that they may even go as far as volunteering at a local orphanage, or school. Anything they can do to help. But, this is where things can get a bit tricky.


There's a burgeoning trend in international travel known as voluntourism that focuses on traveling with the primary intention of volunteering in different countries. Voluntourism, a portmanteau of the words volunteer and tourism, offers participants the chance to travel, typically in small groups, in order to help out at orphanages, schools, hospitals, small communities, or hospices. Usually participants pay a small fee for these tours and in exchange, they get to spend their days working with their group on a project or by directly servicing the organization that they're working with- usually simple construction work, tutoring, or providing basic aid to children or those in need. 

Volunteering is an excellent way of traveling the world and also making a positive impact throughout your travels, but with all travel related scenarios, it is important to do adequate research before joining a voluntourism group or simply donating your time, and money to an organization because, more often than not, your time spent helping out could actually be doing more damage than you think.

In 2010 a massive earthquake shook Haiti to its core. Lives were lost, entire cities were destroyed and the world sprung into action to help. Millions of dollars were raised and billions were set aside to be donated to help those most effected. Volunteers from around the world flocked to the island to help in any way that they could. Many came and were prepared to spend weeks helping to rebuild schools and hospitals and lots of work was done, but at what cost? See, when most people head across international boundaries to volunteer they aren't doing so as experts; they are simply doing so as kind spirited amateurs without much to offer in terms of real help other than an eager spirit and a can-do attitude. While you may feel that your simple construction job was just what the community needed, those good intentions are what often times put the people who needed those jobs out of work. Why pay for the service when someone else is willing to do it for free? This isn't what people in crisis need. They need real help. They need doctors. They need engineers. They need infrastructure development and sustainable jobs that come from economic and political reform. They need a long-term plan and people who are able to invest real time into rebuilding more than just the damaged buildings. 

The global tourism industry is a multi-billion dollar market and people will try to cash in on it in any way that they can, and sometimes that means businesses will engage in some shady practices. By unknowingly supporting these institutions you can be contributing to dangerous and illegal practices which can place the individuals that you thought you were helping in more danger. One such danger is by supporting "orphan tourism." 


Orphan tourism is when volunteers travel abroad to live and work in orphanages in poor countries. They will often pay a fee to live and work with the children, but places such as this actually have a much darker side.

According to Jacob Kushner of the NY Times, "'orphan tourism' — in which visitors volunteer as caregivers for children whose parents died or otherwise can’t support them — has become so popular that some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities, intentionally subjecting children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money. Many “orphans,” it turns out, have living parents who, with a little support, could probably do a better job of raising their children than some volunteer can. And the constant arrivals and departures of volunteers have been linked to attachment disorders in children." 

JK Rowling founded Lumos, an international non-governmental charity which promotes an end to the institutionalization of children worldwide argues that though well meaning, this sort of volunteer work perpetuates the institutionalization of children. 

Helping is tough. Hearing about all of the ways in which someone wants to take advantage of people's inherent good nature is disheartening and thinking about all of the ways in which your good intentions are harmful is confusing. So what do we do and where do we go now? Do we just stop helping all together? No. But it's important that we become more informed about the causes that we're contributing to and understand that our intentions and the consequences of them don't always align. Volunteer work shouldn't just be something that you use to pad your CV and your eagerness to help shouldn't leave behind a legacy of broken children and empty buildings.

Patrick SpringerComment