By Joanna Chojnicka

A friend of mine has recently shared a very personal story on Facebook about her experience volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa, inspired by the article “Volunteering in orphanages deeply misguided, harms children in the process, advocates charge”. According to the article, many children living in orphanages in Africa have at least one living parent; they are often given up due to extreme poverty, in the hope that the orphan homes would take better care of them. This means that the financial incentives and attention flowing in with international volunteering programs may actually be increasing the number of children staying in orphanages. Help should focus instead on the communities, empowering them to take care of children at their homes, so that they do not need to be brought up by strangers, in institutions.

Additionally, volunteering may harm the emotional development of children, who have to repeatedly go through the experience of attaching to someone who then suddenly leaves. This may make it difficult for them to form meaningful relationships in their adult life.

The article gracefully doesn’t mention another issue, but the discussion on Facebook does: voluntourism. It is a fancy thing, for example in Germany, to take a year off after finishing high school and volunteer in a remote corner of the world, or spend two months in summer with a volunteering program. It is supposed to build character, develop interpersonal and intercultural skills, show young people how the world really works… so that they can return to their comfortable, complacent lives and feel good about having done something to change the world.

In their advertising, volunteering campaigns devote much more attention to how fun this experience is for the volunteer than to how useful and needed their help actually is. Because, well, it isn’t. These programs exist because the volunteers need them, not the communities they are supposed to be helping. Of course, they do need help, but maybe just a different kind of help than an ever-changing contingent of clueless teenagers who may end up needing more support than they can give, and do more damage than they are ever able to fix.

In Germany, they have these programs that send school children for a couple of weeks to Africa to help build a school there. Yes, these trips do teach the children a lot about how hard and cruel life can be, but that’s it. For the same amount of money, more capable construction workers could be recruited from the local communities, building the school much faster and putting the money to good use exactly where it’s most needed. Not to mention the environmental cost of flying a class of kids and their caretakers across the world. Possibly the worst thing about all this is that it sends the message that white people are needed to solve a problem, and they will always solve a problem better even if they are only children. If that’s not colonial thinking, I do not know what is.

I have been a volunteer myself – before I knew better. I worked in an orphanage in India back in 2009. After a couple of weeks I also reached the conclusion that my work there was pointless, although for slightly different reasons.

I realize that living in such a place must be a horrible experience. I do not wish to belittle the suffering of the children I was taking care of. But my feeling was that they were a selected few, a showcase of how well the problem of homeless kids was handled. They often received donations, gifts, people came to volunteer to study, play, and do sports with them. Wealthy children came to the orphanage on their birthdays to share their presents and sweets with its residents. That is a great thing to do, but… a few blocks away from the orphanage was a slum area with mud huts. Hundreds of kids with no health care, no education, no other clothes than the ones they were wearing. Why couldn’t these gracious benefactors donate their books, food, clothes to them? Why did no one ever go there to help them learn math or teach them yoga?

Because in the end, it’s all about us feeling guilty. About our need to alleviate it, not their need to receive help. But we can only go that far to do something about it. Two months of volunteering – it must mean I am a good person. Yearly donation for the orphanage – check. As always, it’s the unfortunate of this world who will be stuck with the consequences.

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How to help better

Better Care Network – explains how to help strengthen family care and social welfare systems so that children can be brought up at home. They have a video that explains why volunteering in orphanages is bad for children.

Sponsor a child – for example, with Plan International. You will never meet the child you’re sponsoring face to face, but you make sure that your help does not disrupt her or his life, family and community. Plan Int. is committed to keeping children safe.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – volunteering around the world contributes to our carbon footprint. So if it is something you really want and need to do, pick up an environmentally oriented project. Here, you can work on an organic farm in exchange for board, food, and experience.

GreenBiz has tips on green volunteering opportunities. Note that out of 21 different options, only one regards going abroad. Volunteering in your own community, e.g. with a political organisation or an NGO can also be a very rewarding experience.

If you do go abroad, remember to offset your flight.


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