Fancy being Mother Teresa for a bit? Here’s why your week-long stay at an orphanage in Cambodia is not the charity work you should be doing . . .
Students in the UK are notorious for doing it and hundreds of companies worldwide offer us the opportunity. Voluntourism is an ever-growing industry with thousands of UK citizens enrolling every year — with the best intentions, I might add — to provide essential help to those in need. Yet, is it actually helping? Unfortunately, the reality may be rather despairing.
Charity work is an incredible thing to get involved with. Volunteering programmes across the globe have helped millions of people, families and communities obtain better lives, better medical care, better education, cleaner water and so much more. The purpose of this article is to highlight the charity work that produces the most help, and attempt to steer people away from the work that can be more damaging in the long run.
My argument here is with the short-term volunteer programmes that are done by so many of us who have the ability to contribute to great change in the world, but just need a different outlet.
The majority of voluntourism programmes aimed at students that I have come across in my research tend to focus on working in orphanages — a very specific type of voluntary aid that is in fact, the most damaging. The destinations are endless, mostly focussing on Southeast Asian, African and Central and South American countries whereby you are invited to ‘Better yourself’, ‘Gain amazing life experience’ and ‘Know what it feels like to really make a difference’. The problem here is palpable: it all focuses on you. Like every other business in the world, these companies need to make money, and therefore market the programmes deliberately to massage our already amplified egos, whereby the whole process is turned into a quest for experience directed at the volunteers, instead of being focussed on the people who actually need the attention. Now, of course you could argue that as long as they are getting people to do charity work, it can’t be that bad to use complimentary lingo if the end result is beneficial to the orphans anyway. Well, this is something I must also contest.
Whilst it sounds great on paper to have spent 10 days at an orphanage in Cambodia during your gap year, the reality is often incredibly bleak. As Ian Birrell in the Guardian put it, ‘orphanages are a booming business trading on guilt’, whereby children are often hired or ‘rented’ to pretend to be orphans, allowing criminals to capitalise on the pity of Western tourists. A lot of the money these sorts of scams make is through the spontaneous donations given by tourists to children begging on the streets; however, it is not uncommon for these ‘fake’ orphanages to infiltrate the real ones. A government study in Ghana reported some harrowing facts a few years ago, claiming that 90 per cent of orphans had at least one living parent and that ‘140 out of the 148 orphanages in the country were unregistered’. This is something that all tourists must be aware of when travelling. No matter how credible the website or advert may appear, there have been hundreds of scandals worldwide whereby the children in these places suffer greatly from extortion, and in extreme cases, seemingly legal institutions have often been caught up in horrific scandals of abuse and violence.
If you do however manage to find a legitimate institution to work with, the help you give may not be as beneficial as you might think. These short-term aid programmes can be incredibly detrimental to not only the children themselves, but the community as a whole.
For example, a common job for the volunteers is to help build up the orphanage or school — often by building a wall, or painting and doing odd jobs. By participating in this area of work for free, you are putting the local workers out of a much-needed job. The local economy is most likely struggling rather than thriving, and for many locals, finding work is an endless battle. Surely it would be better to pay the local construction workers to do the jobs (I mean, the trip is putting you back a good £1,500 anyway).
The problem with this still however, are the ongoing promotions of the ‘white saviour’ complex that are constantly being instilled in the children’s heads as a result of these programmes. We are reinforcing the idea of white superiority on a nation of people who are constantly being told they need to be ‘rescued’— an astonishingly condescending image for children to grow up with. This idea is only made worse when you realise exactly how many volunteers pass through each orphanage. Whilst you may think you have bonded with the children during the time you spent there, the reality is that to them you are just another temporary white face who will nurture, educate and entertain them until your 2-4 weeks are up and you say goodbye forever. Right after you leave, another volunteer will assume the position and become yet another fleeting representation of a parental substitute — another white Westerner who has come to hug and take pictures of them. This in turn contributes to further problems as the children wind up becoming what UNICEF calls ‘a tourist attraction’. Even more worrying, are the effects this has on the children themselves. Growing up with a skewed worldview created by fleeting and confusing relationships can only lead to an unhealthy outlook later in life, whereby the idea of permanence is non-existent.
Countless people have started to fight back against these issues, with many campaigns being launched, most notably against the presence of exploitation and the white saviour complex in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Visit www.thinkchildsafe.org for more information, as well as other comedic yet profound campaigns such as ‘Radi-Aid’ and ‘Africa for Norway’ (which I recommend you look up on YouTube).
Charity work should be celebrated and promoted across the globe, but we have to decide which types of aid are actually beneficial in the long run. Whilst there are still certain short-term voluntourism schemes that are completely effective and constructive (e.g., providing medical aid, environmental conservation work and refugee and disaster relief), it is very hard to perform productive aid abroad if you aren’t staying for long.
For more information on which international charities and aid campaigns are good to get involved with, visit websites such as www.doctorswithoutborders.org, https://refugeerelief.org/, http://www.cry.org/.