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Orphanages, Families, and Ethical Volunteering

by | Oct 7, 2019 | Uncategorised | 66 comments

Most students studying Social Anthropology probably already know about the problems of volunteering at orphanages overseas. Rebecca Smith on the Save the Children website states:

Probably one of the most famous studies on the effects on orphanage care on children is the Bucharest Early Intervention Study, a longitudinal study which started in Romania in 2000 and continues to follow children. They found that growing up in orphanages leads to profound deficits and delays in cognitive and social-emotional development and greater risks of psychiatric disorders. On average, for every three months that a child was in an institution, he or she lost one month of development compared to a child in foster care.

International volunteers who help out at an orphanage for a couple of weeks, or a few months at most, can unintentionally cause harm to the children there. What these ‘orphans’ need is long-term stability, and volunteers don’t help with that. Moreover, many of these children often have at least one living parent.

Save the Children actively discourages people from volunteering at orphanages. Read this blog post by Rebecca Smith, and feel free to watch the video embedded in it as well:

We can all accept the problems with volunteering at orphanages. Smith offers alternative solutions. But some questions remain.

Are biological families always the best place for children? What if the child’s biological parents, or even extended family, cannot provide proper care? Is fostering really the better option to orphanages? Think also in terms of the Born into Brothels documentary we watched in class. Is it worth separating families if even one child’s life can be changed for the better? How can we shift attention and resources to the solutions that Smith suggests, which would require the daunting task of building political will among national and local governments?


  1. Sorcha Cullen

    The article and video illustrate the severely damaging effects of these orphanages and the volunteer schemes that occur within them. Although, due to poverty, biological families may not be the best place for children. It is clear that orphanages are equally damaging. There is a similar theme of volunteers bonding with children in these orphanages and then leaving, creating a cycle of children becoming attached to people who then leave them. Often this will define their childhood and negatively effect their development. Therefore I would argue that foster care is a better solution because it allows children to form strong bonds with their foster family and creates a consistent home environment for children to develop in, institutions cannot replicate this. Volunteer programmes need to focus on helping communities with poverty rather than funnelling money into institutions, so that less children end up in orphanages and consequentially detached from their family and their sense of self.

  2. Kathryn Leaver

    In order for a child to develop healthy, secure attachments it is crucial to have attachment figures that provide stability and devoted care, and the temporary and fleeting nature of volunteer work in orphanages cannot fulfil these needs that are essential for proper development, trust, and security. I do think that fostering has the ability to be just as effective as biological parenting, but it requires that the caregiving emulates that model of loving, attentive care. However, this can be hard to predict since foster carer selection processes may not be rigorous in some countries whose governments fail to address the severity of childcare issues. When Zana failed to obtain official identity documents for one of the children, it provided a glimpse into a system that is chaotic and strained, and I feel that while we cannot change how the state and its institutions (such as orphanages) operate, the poverty that underpins all of these issues must be addressed. This could mean allocating resources towards local communities and providing them with facilities that increase quality of life and in turn, increase household stability. Ultimately, if biological (or extended) families had the means to provide consistent, loving care, it would majorly reduce the amount of children being forced into work (in brothels, for instance), being abandoned (and taken to orphanages), and being neglected.

  3. Lara Dixon

    The article and film drew attention to some of the negative consequences of voluntourism. In the same way that unintended consequences can result from development plans with (arguably) good intentions, as explained by Ferguson (). So can voluntourism, with the best of intentions, have damaging results for the children in orphanages. The point that fleeting visits from foreigners can leave the children with attachment issues seems obvious, yet for some time, charities and tourism companies have marketed volunteer work as a mutually beneficial and morally ‘good’ experience. Therefore, volunteers have genuinely seen themselves as ‘doing good’. The article seemed hopeful that things are starting to change but idealised images of voluntourism are yet to completely phase-out.

    One question posed by Smith was particularly striking: ‘consider whether you would be able to do the same activity in your own country. If you can’t, for example, walk in off the street and volunteer to help vulnerable children in the UK, why is it okay to do this in another country?’. This point really helps to expose the complex realities of a voluntourism praising a behavior abroad, that many volunteers might find discouraged in their home country after some research.

    I’d be interested to learn more about the alternatives offered by Save the Children. Is there still a physical place for short-term volunteers to support family-based care for children? What would this actually look like, if the volunteer was insistent on visiting the place? Is it more beneficial for people to just offer financial support to organisations such as ReThink Orphanages?

  4. Miriam van Teutem

    The focus of both the blog and the article centres around the use of orphanages to care for children, and thus, questions the consequences of the institutionalisation of children in society. While it appears important to acknowledge the good will of volunteers that support such schemes, both commentaries reference research that demonstrates the detrimental effects of the lack of long-term stability, in terms of care-givers and support networks, that orphanages (and volunteering at orphanages) can cause. The article by Smith highlights the idea that even if the orphanage is more than fit for purpose it is the ‘model of care that is fundamentally flawed’ (2018). I support Smith’s argument that, therefore, attention to the wider societal problems of, for instance, poverty and broken homes should be prioritised as preventative methods could reduce the need for orphanages in the first place. I contend also that although biological guardians may be deemed the most ideal care-givers to young children, if this is not possible, schemes must be put in place to ensure a long-term residence for young people to stay and develop in. The priority should be protecting the child from any further instability and I thus contend that regulations must be enforced to prohibit temporary care-givers. I argue that rather than placing the ethical responsibility on volunteers, pressure should be placed on those that allow the institutions to exist and continue in their current state.

  5. Grace Greenlaw

    Smith’s solutions are a great example of how humanitarian aid can be re-thought. She presents a clear criteria which encourages self-reflection, before embarking on a volunteer project abroad. This clarifies, to potential volunteers, that good intentions are just not enough. This also poses the question: what changes in government must occur to reshape children’s aid into a sustainable and ethical practice? She includes a section on what ‘governments are doing to address this problem’, however I argue the western governments of volunteers must address this issue also. If Smith’s criteria (10 point volunteer checklist) was implemented as mandatory reading before embarking in volunteerism overseas, it could drastically reduce harmful collateral damage. However, finding an alternative solution to orphanages is complex, given the variety of family situations of the individual children. Is it more practical to donate money to organisations for local organisations (that offer family support or intervention)? The greatest lesson from Smith is that a westerner’s physical presence isn’t required here, to make positive changes. Volunteers can vote, with their time and money, which organisations to help – therefore it’s important to understand the positive and negative effects of their involvement on vulnerable children.

  6. Esther Kinn

    The article and film both point to how important it is to think at a larger scale when considering issues of poverty. It is very easy and comforting to only consider what your specific actions are, or to focus on a limited number of children to help. In doing so we get to feel good about our actions and get to feel like we’ve done something to solve the problem of child poverty. As the increasing problem of voluntourism in orphanages and the limited success of the ‘born in a brothel’ children at staying education both proove, however, these actions do nothing to change the underlying structures of poverty and therefore do no truly understand the solutions needed.

  7. Ellika

    I think the argument made in this article can be applied to aid programs more widely, which seem to focus on fixing the symptoms of a cause, rather than the root cause itself. The article argues that the apparent issue of lack of parents is actually a symptom of poverty, and instead of treating the symptoms of this issue with orphanages and volunteers, we should be focusing on the root cause: poverty. I’m wondering whether poverty is something that exists on its own and therefor is the root cause, or whether poverty may also be a symptom itself. The article doesn’t seem to suggest what the poverty that feeds into the problem of orphanages is caused by, if anything at all.

  8. Jed Allen

    Addressing both the underlying motivations of volunteers and the root causes of the issues to be tackled is at the heart of forward-looking solutions to development. The Save the Children blog post and the volunteering checklist emphasise the importance of researching the different opportunities that people can take part in and the huge variations in impacts of these. Solutions which take holistic, long term approaches are much more likely to make positive lasting change but these are undoubtedly the most difficult to enact and would require coordination on both the local and international level.

  9. Gemma Mountain

    The problem with institutionalisation is that it appears to be the easiest ‘fix’ to a far more complicated issue. It is clear from the article that fostering and familial placement is preferable to orphanages, yet the problem still remains how to phase away from institutionalisation in such a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary stress to the existing children in these places, whilst also tackling the root causes of the problem of poverty. Simultaneously, structures need to be put in place to ensure that the living situations of children are as stable and healthy as possible. In the meantime, Smith’s article provides us with plenty of useful information that we can implement and disseminate in order to ensure that potential volunteers are aware of the dangerous nature of orphanages, so we may convince them to contribute in other, more helpful, ways. If voluntourism becomes less popular, then it will also become less profitable, which could be a way of making national and local governments more willing to deal with root issues, as the means of funding these institutions would decline.

  10. eleanor little

    In the case where biological families cannot provide proper care to a child it seems undeniable that the fostering model provides better support to the child than orphanages. The presence of an industry based on the existence of orphans (volunteer tourism) only increases their distance from living relatives. Orphanages provide a flawed model of care, failing to produce long term attachments affect the child psychologically and they don’t invest long term into that child’s life. ‘Your family is your health insurance and your pension all in one and orphanages strip away this extensive protective network’(Smith). Institutionalisation of children impacts the child’s future in a way that partaking in the family model (biological or not, as with a foster family) would not. Smith’s discussion of preventative methods applied to the movie (Born into Brothels) might have meant instead helping the mothers who prostitute to work legally, which might allow all their lives to be changed for the better and avoid separation (a key issue with the orphanage volunteering).
    For the good intension of the volunteers (and the photographers) to benefit/reduce the harm to the children, attention must be drawn to research such as Smith’s and other anthropological knowledge to understand the local dynamics and how resources can be best used.

  11. Amber Seddon

    The issue with both institutional childcare for orphans and the presence of aid workers is that there would never be enough resources to nurture the children as there would be in a foster home or with the child’s biological parents especially in the case of children in early development. While the article suggests that it is the reciprocal interaction between the child and the primary caregiver that is what they are essentially lacking in there formative years I am also aware that this is very much centred around Western psychological research into the development of children. But none the less it is very difficult to imagine that the number of care workers provided would be able to give the children enough attention even if they live in a society that raises children in a different format to the West. As with most charitable giving or volunteer work the problem often lies structurally and being able to help in one case does very little to solve the problem as a whole. The impression that I got from the video attached to the article is that you, as a volunteer, are not able to provide the long term support and in-depth relationship that the children in these institutions genuinely need. “I’d rather have not bonded with you and you leave me broken” (Ruth Wacuka) these short term visits if anything only perpetuates the idea that these children will never have any stable relationships.

    Through this concept of “voluntourism” orphans have almost been commodified as a way to boost investment in tourism and aid. They have even in some cases been instructed to present themselves in a way that plays into the image of ‘the orphan’ even though they very well may have living relatives that have given them up in the hopes that they have a better life (but in fact it being potentially even more damaging). The difficulty, I believe, is in finding funding to help reconfigure structures in place (or currently absent) that could help families stay together while keeping them safe such as social housing, easy access routes to education and the like, is that it doesn’t appeal to the West’s need to feel instant gratification with their charitable donations or volunteering projects. If anything I think it should be local organisations from the countries in which the problems arise that should instruct foreign aid workers, donors and international organisations like save the children in what would be the most useful as they have the most intimate and personal experiences with the problems at hand.

  12. Jade Laverick

    The article ‘Orphanages are not the solution’ by Smith (2018) explores the problematic outcomes of volunteer tourism in overseas orphanages, where untrained and unskilled volunteers complete short-term voluntary work that actually causes more harm than good. Although volunteers may be well intentioned, the consequences of their actions actually contribute to attachment disorders, mental health illness and instability of children in institutionalised care. Volunteers give false hope to orphaned children who are then left heartbroken and confused when the volunteer leaves. Furthermore, volunteers in overseas orphanages are contributing to the voluntourism industry, which may encourage countries to abuse orphanages as a profit-making industry. Western companies who offer these volunteer packages contribute to the continued existence of orphanages, even though these types of institutions have been deemed unacceptable and inhumane in their home countries.
    The signposted video, created by Save the Children, called “The Love You Give”, highlights an alternative solution to help children in orphanages by empowering birth families and focusing on giving them the means to look after their children so they stay out of institutionalised care. While this is a viable option for birth families whose only reason for not being able to care for their children is lack of resources, support or money, this is not a solution for children whose biological families are abusive, or unsafe to live with. In this situation, although not ideal, foster care would be a better option than being placed in an orphanage, but only if local foster carers have been trained properly and have the right intentions. Unfortunately, social welfare systems have many cracks in which children can fall through, and so foster care is only a productive solution if the correct support and child welfare programs are put in place by the government. Perhaps volunteers should turn their efforts to local NGO’s and organisations whose goal is to not only empower birth families, but also potential foster carers or adoptive parents. This would give them the resources and means to offer more stable and secure homes for children who cannot be cared for by their biological families.

  13. Rohan Williams

    The above article and video provide an overtly critical perspective on the issue of so-called ‘voluntourism’, the continuous cycle of a majority ‘Western’ demographic aiding a system of destruction surrounding the lives of children placed within orphanage systems around the world. Smith examines the detriment of volunteer work within the realm of alleged orphaned children and the lack of understanding from these volunteers in recognising the damaging effects that forming short-term but effective bonds with children in desperate need of stable relationships can cause. It seems that while the desire of Western tourists to fulfil a personal journey of providing aid is clouding their ability to distinguish help from harm, there also exists a lucrative form of revenue within this institution of tourism for both the orphanage and the country within which it is situated. There exists a wider issue in the neglect to allocate these children to more ethical and child-orientated circumstances such as those found within a family home environment. The benefit of these children is scarcely taken into account in the grand scheme of touristic revenue making and Smith suggests that the solution lies in a drastic reshaping of perceptions surrounding children in care and the environment in which they should be living. She suggests that this must come from the side of volunteers and child-care systems from around the world simultaneously if this change is to be successful.

  14. Amber Pocock

    Smith’s article was very interesting to me because it highlights that, while in countries such as the UK and the US we do not use orphanages any more due to the negative impacts on younger children’s development; we are still injecting money into these institutions abroad without considering the implications for those countries. While donating money is viewed as helpful, it could be seen as almost more harmful in this situation and makes clearer the idea that we need to do more than just donate money to support an institution that we reject in our own society. Smith makes a valid point that we should start to use our knowledge of how we care for children in foster systems to help other countries ideas and see whether there is a culturally more appropriate place for children than an orphanage.
    Smith made a very important point about the importance of family and what it provides to children. I found it vital to remember that ones family is the the factor that does provide you with status. Therefore, when a majority of children that are placed in orphanages have one parent around, it is important for these relationships to be maintained and nurtured allowing the child to be able to retain their connections and help their future.

  15. Georgia Ager-Perera

    The article and video highlight the issues with orphanages. It was argued that orphanages can prove to be detrimental to the development of children, as the necessary long-term connection with a guardian is lost. Additionally, even though the volunteers working at orphanages go with good intentions, they add to the problem in a sense, as they arrive and give these children a sense of hope and someone to build a bond with. However the volunteers only stay for a certain period of time and then leave. Which leaves the children vulnerable once more. What was suggested by Smith and I agree with, is that the money put into orphanages should be invested elsewhere and provide better social welfare for the communities, as it was stated that poverty is one of the main causes as to why children are placed into care. Moving forward, I believe there should be more emphasis on long-term fostering for children without any extended family or guardian and for those who have a guardian, then support should be given for them to continue to be able to support their children. Although I understand this would require a lot more thought and coordination from all parties.

  16. Tania Stein

    The articles and video offer a strong critique of voluntourism involving orphanages. It is clear to see how this model is based on the desires of the volunteer rather than the children it argues it is supporting. The children inevitably become attached to the volunteers, as they become their primary source of care and affection. This serves to make the volunteers feel good about themselves and the work they are doing, which therefore engages them in the ‘white saviour complex.’ Moreover, this allows for a disengagement with the severely damaging effect short-term volunteering has on the children. The sense of abandonment that the children will experience when the volunteers they have come to trust inevitably leave is hugely damaging and traumatic. It also serves to reinforce power structures between the volunteer from the ‘West’ and the child from the developing nation, as it is on the volunteers’ terms when this relationship is ruptured.

    Furthermore, these are profit-making businesses which benefit from removing children from their families and support structures. Many of these voluntourism companies make huge profits from these orphanages, as volunteers pay large sums of money to support the business model. Therefore, children who have parents or family who would be able to look after them are instead being placed in these costly and damaging institutions.

    The solution to this is for aid organisations to completely stop supporting these institutions, and instead for that money to be invested in community support. Ultimately, I would argue that unless the child is suffering from abuse or neglect, they should not be removed from their family setting and community. Whilst I do not mean to in any way underestimate the difficulties of living in poverty, the unsettling and traumatic effects of being removed from familiar settings and community as a child is arguably far worse. Therefore, it is far better to try and empower families and communities so that they can support themselves whilst still remaining together as a family and community. This, of course, is complex itself, as there are many critiques of the way that empowerment often involves promoting a particular worldview.

    In cases where a child is being abused or neglected, I would agree that there should be intervention, similar to how we approach this in the UK. As far as is possible, it would be best to place these children into a stable foster family who can provide the support and care that is needed for a child to develop and prosper. This must be regulated and the foster parents should be trained in dealing effectively and compassionately with vulnerable children. This, of course, is also complicated and requires financial support, but is less costly than putting children into orphanages and less damaging as it allows them to have consistent support and care.

  17. Aisling O'Connor

    Both the article and video illuminate a fundamentally flawed system of care that is continually fuelled by the tourist economy. The article resonates with other humanitarian issues and highlights the ethical impacts volunteers may have when they go abroad to volunteer in orphanages; where a series of attachment and neglect is experienced by many children. Although done with good intent; the mental and psychological impacts of short term and always changing care have been shown to be detrimental to children’s mental health and developmental needs. The article further poses a forward thinking narrative throughout, articulating that for this to improve, we need to provide long term care givers, not simply un trained and “unreliable” short term care. Whether in the form of foster care or providing assistance and help where possible to children’s biological and extended family. Furthermore, the article and video denote how by funding these orphanages, ties are often cut between the children and their families, thus reducing the possibility of creating and maintaining these long term support networks.

    The article ultimately illustrates the notion that orphanages are not suitable for children, and when possible, children should be placed in long term or foster care where they can get the one to one love, care and support that they need. In addition to this, the article portrays how more damage is done than good with these volunteer programs; by continually funding these orphanages it is funding and encouraging a system that neglects children’s crucial care needs.

  18. Helen Davis

    The article and video highlight important emotional, social and psychological effects of growing up in institutions. I found it incredibly powerful hearing the personal stories of care leavers who now advocate for a worldwide shift from institutional based care to actually providing support to the families in order for the child to remain in the home. From personal experience of volunteering, I would argue that a child remaining in the home is not always a viable option, for example with issues of civil war and abuse within the family. Whilst the negative effects of short term ‘voluntourism’ and volunteering for the sake of Instagram likes and gap year stories are clear, I do think there is a space for long term volunteering projects which contribute skills to be passed on within the community e.g. teacher training programs and tailoring workshops.

  19. Ruth Jackson

    This article and video highlight the underlying issues of volunteering and endorsing orphanages as a tourist. The sense of satisfaction created for the volunteer does not outweigh the damaging affects that these brief and irregular visits have on the children that live there. For the children it creates false attachments and is confusing, which at an early age can cause a ripple effect into their adult life. Children that grow up in these institutions are at higher risk of mental health issues and suicide once leaving. Save the Children focus on prevention of children being put into orphanages as a solution due to many of them having at least one parent alive. By supporting children in their family homes with funding, prioritising education and social support it reduces the number of children going into orphanages and therefore will destroy the need for institutions altogether. The sense of belonging, identity and consistency a child gains from remaining at home is vital for their neurological and social development into adulthood and for their general wellbeing and happiness. Many travel and holiday companies have stopped offering volunteer opportunities for tourists in orphanages as the need for ethical volunteering has become vital. There is still progress to make with educating global charities and potential ‘voluntourists’ on the cycle that is created when buying into this volunteering to eventually enlighten everyone to the negative and damaging impacts of orphanage institutions.

  20. Sorrel Wilson

    I think the content above illustrates how certain faults in a system are not always the sole fault of the national government. This draws attention to the fact that Western people are contributing to another countries problems, even if it appears like they are doing good on the surface. This remind me of dependency theory, with the child’s development in an orphanage taking the symbolic place of a countries development in the global system. For example, the aid given to these orphanages actually delays development and keeps the child dependent on the institution. This in turn keeps the country without a proportion of its workforce and dependent on the country giving aid. Therefore, we can see how this cycle occurs on a national, global and individual scale.
    Furthermore, the individual scale is particularly interesting as it highlights how participation can be a negative thing, if done under the wrong circumstances. This is different to other aid programmes who put a great emphasis on the participation of (largely Southern) recipients.

  21. Constance Burtschell

    Both the blog and the video push potential volunteers to question and further research the volunteering opportunities they take on. In this blog the example developed is the one of orphanages and insitutionalised care. A damaging system which harms the healthy development of children, by separating alleged ‘orphan’ kids from their families and communities, putting them in an orphanage. The necessary long term connection and commitment of a carer and guardian is then lost, and the child will only be able to form short-term relationships with people who are for the most part just passing by. This process is furthered by ‘voluntourism’, the support of funders and so on, often coming from ‘Western’ sources. What is best for the children is hardly taken into consideration, as the orphanages become a way of bringing in money through tourism. We are urged to stop participating in such practices as they do more harm then good. Although Smith maintains most volunteers have the best intentions, she, as well as all the participants of the video push us to make volunteering better, and offers a checklist to help us determine the ethicality of volunteering opportunities which is very helpful as we try to navigate the ethics of humanitarianism, and the awkward relationship we may have between our will to “help” and issues linked to aid work.

  22. Sophie Burton

    After almost 80 years of cognitive research into the early development of children the facts are clear: children need a consistent caregiver in order to provide them with the best chance in life. As pointed out in the article and video, experts across all disciplines agree that the practice of institutionalising children leaves them wholly unprepared for integration into society and causes developmental damage which is difficult to undo in adult life. This kind of research has been taken on board by wealthy countries where the institutionalisation of children has dramatically dropped, however, in poorer countries this is not the case. Despite orphanages being deemed an inadequate and even harmful system of care by wealthy nations it is these same nations which continue to provide both a financial and practical means of sustaining them in poorer countries. Perhaps there needs to be a greater focus on a holistic examination of the wider socio-economic reasons parents are left with no other choice but to place their children in orphanages. This approach combined with a conscious effort by charities and NGOs to empower family and community-based care may help to make the institutionalisation of children a thing of the past.

  23. Alicia Blain

    The article ‘Orphanages are not the solution’ explores the problems that can erupt from the way orphanages function, notably the effects of having volunteers coming and going from the institution. Smith addresses the fact that there seems to be a fundamental flaw in orphanages and that the foster system is better, as it involves long-term attachment and relation with someone, which is necessary for the development of human beings. It is sad to see how a good intention can be turned so fast into actions that cause more harm than good for the children living in orphanages. The article and the video address the fact that the system should not be mended, but replaced by making sure that the children who have family members can live with them. That is, repair the problem at its root rather than making a ‘quick fix’. The way the volunteers work gives the members of the orphanage a false sense of belonging and attachment which is quickly lost. Of course this is not a fruitful way to learn about life, and the video shows that this impairs the children later in life, as they do not have the appropriate tools to live in society. Thus the video concludes that the issue should be dealt with by putting resources at better use by providing families with what they need so that these children do not need to seek for orphanages in the first place. But of course, solutions are never that easy to put into place, there would still be the fact that voluntourism is a good way to obtain money and people to help, so what would happen if the element of pity was taken away…?

  24. Aliyah Kossoff

    Successfully illuminating the devastatingly destructive side of ‘volunteerism’- specifically the Western endorsement of orphanages- both the article and video direct our attention to the damaging cycle of dysfunctional attachment bonds, and deficient long-term development perpetuated by institutionalised care. The video begins with a powerful and poignant clip of Kenyan children in an orphanage singing goodbye to their volunteers which provides a snapshot into the emotional harm imposed by such temporary bonds with volunteer workers, whereby the children are often left with nothing more than a furthered lack of stability and consistency of care. Most crucially we are made aware that the lack of secure attachment bonds impact all aspects of development in later life due to the absence of caregiver-infant interactions to provide them with any basic sense of love, identity and belonging. This thus places great emphasis on the importance of the role of one’s own families and community as primary and secondary attachments that are thought to be essential networks for a child. Therefore, we are encouraged to consider alternative options of family-based care, or other routes for children in the orphanages such as greater maintenance of familial connections; or if they are lacking any existing family, fostering is a preferable option as it ensures the best chance of replicating impactful and long-lasting bonds. However, prior to this, we are lead to understand the role of poverty as a key contributing factor as to the vast number of children in developing countries are in orphanages as many families cannot afford the expenses of child-care etc. Thus, perhaps this where our attention should lie: in trying to tackle the prevailing problem of poverty. It is suggested that a responsibility of charities and NGOs should be providing more funding that goes beyond delivering material provisions for the orphanages as they are inherently flawed as forms of care; better yet, more money should be put money into social services and ultimately enforcing methods of preventing the separation of family and child.


  25. Madi Apthorpe

    The information and guide that was given by the author was vey reflective of the present issues surrounding volunteering with orphans. As with all humanitarian work, the presence of aid workers or volunteers can actually create more long term harm than if volunteers were not present. The lives of less fortunate children should not be something to be exploited and therefore a fundamental worldwide change with how and where money is spent within humanitarian work needs to occur in order to appropriately deal with this situation

  26. Heather Rayner

    In outlining the damaging effects of institutionalised care, our attention is brought to the dangerous pairing of unqualified volunteers and young vulnerable individuals whose care is being compromised as a result of a lack of stability. We see through the Save the Children article that children who have grown up in orphanages have a greater risk of developing psychological disorders, however this seems to be a critique of the system rather than of voluntourism itself. There is clearly a greater problem with the systematic care given to orphans, that is exacerbated by voluntourists who are not aware that their short term care is creating deficits in children’s emotional development. I do not believe it is useful to focus solely on a small subsection of the issue at hand (voluntourism), we should rather be focusing attention on the systematic way in which vulnerable children are failed by the state. Or even further, tackling the issues that have caused biological families to be unable to care for their children, (poverty, addiction etc).

  27. Honor Gitsham

    The blog post and video highlight the highly problematic nature of institutionalised care and, further, of ‘voluntourism’ itself; pointing to the relationship between the two. The ample evidence against institutionalised care and ‘voluntourism’ rightly discourages both individuals and governments from supporting either. The alternatives posed are promising – focusing on problems such as poverty, access to education and violence at home to be able to move towards a system of family-based care, rather than institutionalised care. Interestingly, despite the Smith (2018) referencing the fact that “[c]hildren with disabilities are often the first to be placed in institutions [and] the last to leave institutional care”, there was no mention of addressing the social and cultural attitudes towards disability and supporting families who have children with disabilities when discussing problems that need to be addressed in order to keep children out of institutionalised care (DFID-convened Disability Summit in Smith, 2018). Therefore, it is important, if we are to shift from a system of institutionalised care to family-based care, to not only recognise the institutional changes that need to happen at a national and local level of government, but also the social and cultural changes that are prevalent and underpinned by history.

    Leading me to my second point: when challenging ‘voluntourism’ – a phenomenon that fuels institutionalised care – it is important to recognise the detrimental impact it has and the historical underpinnings of such work — pointing to the neo-colonial nature of ‘voluntourism’.

    Finally, whilst I advocate a shift from institutionalised care to family-based care and a stop to ‘voluntourism’, I ask ‘where are the children’s voices in these debates?’ We are seemingly quick to think of children as individuals who lack agency or the ability to know what is right for them, but we saw in the Born into Brothels documentary that some children decided to leave their families and their home to escape a cycle of poverty, whilst others did not. Perhaps not all children are able to make this decision, perhaps we, as adults, have a duty of care to make this decision for them, but surely we should at least be including them in the conversation about where the best place for them is – even if it is not institutionalised care.

  28. Jessica Dawson

    Within the Save The Children’s blog post by Smith and Better Care Network’s campaign ‘The Love You Give’ both organisations are attempting to address a multitude of interrelated issues surrounding and contributing to the detrimental impact that institutionalised care has on young people. Research and data has demonstrated that institutionalised care can lead to higher rates of mental illness, suicide, violence and cognitive delays in young people due to the lack of long-term, stable emotional, cognitive and social care in orphanages. In attempting to prevent this, both organisations have highlighted key areas of issue contributing to the prevalence of orphanages: poverty, voluntourism and donor-ran institutions.
    Firstly, both organisations are campaigning to stop western volunteers travelling to orphanages for a short period of time because it has a detrimental effect on young people. It can cause attachment issues, a deep-rooted lack of trust in people and instability in young people’s lives. The biggest criticism lies that it’s for self-gratification, rather than actually enacting long-term help for vulnerable youths. Highlighting this issue raises difficult ethical questions for Euro-American volunteers who genuinely want to enact change around the world. It forces them to reflect on the impact of their actions: how their seemly altruistic acts are actually quite egotistic and how the prevalence of orphanages is actually caused by their tourism presence, when the children could be cared for in more ethical and healthier ways.
    Additionally, in attempt to overcome the devastating impact that institutions have on a child’s well-being, both organisations are campaigning for family-focused solutions that emphasise the value of keeping young people within the family home and local community. By recognising that poverty is a contributing factor to the prevalence of orphanages, both organisations propose that broader socio-political changes are required. Such changes include building stronger and well-funded social services, who can work with families to overcome their difficulties, providing monetary support to struggling families, setting up support groups for mothers to discuss child-rearing, placing more emphasis on the value of fostering and adoption. All these approaches, and more, centre upon the value of the family unit as the primary care-giver, safety net, educational space and healthy environment for young people.
    However, by placing such value on the family unit, both organisations are downplaying the negative impact that families can have on the social, cognitive and emotional well-being on young people. Within family units, young people can be vulnerable to physical, social and emotional abuse from care-givers. Furthermore, poverty can hinder the family’s ability to provide young people with education, the ability to embrace youth and have a stable, safe upbringing, as exemplified in ‘Born in Brothels’. Thus, one begins to question the ethos behind placing emphasis on the family unit as the primary caregiver, because there are many occasions where the family can hinder a young person’s development and actually prevent them from accessing education, which has the potential to alleviate poverty.
    Nevertheless, the call to end voluntourism, decrease the institutionalisation of young people into donor-run orphanages and providing funding and facilities to enable young people to have a (potentially) more stable, supportive and nurturing upbringing within the family and local community is undoubtedly a step towards supporting impoverished families and enabling young people to live a more fulfilling life.

  29. Ellen Dickinson

    The above article highlights the damaging effects of orphanages on the development and wellbeing of children, and the volunteers that unintentionally contribute to their detriment. As the article by Save the Children states: “supporting orphanages creates more ‘orphans'” and may be seen in some ways to commodify children for the benefit of tourists who want to help, or be seen to be helping. This is not to say that children should not be taken out of the precarious situations that they live in, but putting them into institutions does not end the cycle of poverty but perpetuates it. I think that there is a lack of awareness among some volunteers as to how they contribute to this issue through providing fleeting relationships with the children that create an unstable and confusing environment for them. Instead of directing resources and volunteers towards the institutionalisation of children, we should try to tackle the problems that create the need for children to be separated from their environments. For example, Smith suggests that volunteer organisations should shift their focus onto areas such as social protection programming, increasing the access of local communities to education and creating a more effective and engaged social services. Hopefully in doing this, placing children into orphanages will become less and less of a viable option.

  30. Freya Lock-Pullan

    Both the article and the video highlight the severe and problematic effects that ‘voluntourism’ has upon children in orphanages. The fact that 80-90% of children in care have a living parent raises the questions of why children are in care and whether it is necessary for them to be there. If living with their biological family could put a child in danger, then this is a case where getting the child out would be necessary. However, the most common cause for children ending up in orphanages is not due to danger but poverty. Putting children into orphanages disables their family network and leads to delays in cognitive and socio-emotional development. The reason for so many children ending up in orphanages can be linked to the tourism surrounding orphanages, the demand for volunteer opportunities and the continuous support for orphanages from volunteers perpetuates the issue. Attention needs to be shifted away from orphanages and focused upon empowering family-based care and giving children the opportunity to develop properly in an environment of love and care, whether that be with the biological family or a foster family. Foster care is a far better option for those children whose biological family is not a viable option as there can still be a consistent, caring adult to look after them which is what a child needs for healthy development. As for volunteers, if they do not have the qualifications to volunteer in an orphanage in their home country then they should not go abroad to do so.

  31. Emmeline Velecky

    Rebecca Smith offers a much needed insight into the damaging nature of volunteer tourism and how it perpetuates an already damaging system of institutionalised care for children. The blog and film help to reveal how these children are commodified in more than one way. First by the volunteers, many of whom see the children as objects that, whether consciously or not, serve to give them a quick fix of the self-satisfaction needed to fulfil their white-saviour complex. In turn, this leads to the children being commodified by the orphanages, who see the business as extremely lucrative due to increasing donations and volunteers. This leads to a growth in orphanages as opposed to other, more suitable forms of support and care for vulnerable children and families.

    Unfortunately, while many volunteers would never presume to be causing damaging to vulnerable children, the reality is entirely different. These vulnerable children need consistent care, stability and support from an adult in order to properly develop, socially, emotionally and cognitively. Volunteers do the opposite of this, creating short and fake attachments before leaving, thus stunting the long term development of the children. This can be one of the factors leading to issues integrating into society after leaving the orphanages, as well as higher rates of mental health issues and even suicide.

    Due to the consistent flow of donations and volunteers, orphanages become the primary solution to help vulnerable kids. This is to the extent that children are placed into care because of poverty, even if they still have a living parent or relative. Instead of donations going to programmes that could help offer financial support as well as counselling to families, they go to orphanages which seek to disempower families for profit, at the expense of these children. Perhaps if volunteers were better informed about the nature of orphanage work, this vicious cycle could end.

    The question still remains about what to do when the support offered to families is not sufficient enough to ensure the safety or well-being of children. Either way, volunteer tourism is not the answer.

  32. Peter Kane

    This article brings our attention to a widespread issue with voluntourism, which is the way in which organisations have organised their priorities around a demand for short-term volunteering projects from tourists, rather than responding to the needs of the local communities they are supposedly helping. Vulnerable children are being used as bait to attract a greater flow of Western travellers who are given the opportunity to feel like they are ‘doing good’ for a couple of weeks. With so much money pumped into the transnational business of orphanages, there is no incentive to improve conditions or to close them down, as the most shocking and heartbreaking cases are able to attract more attention.
    Children are being separated from their families by a set of ‘experts’, who have been given a dangerous amount of power and authority to decide what kind of family is suitable to raise children. However, it has been shown time and time again that the inconsistent care given to children in orphanages (not to mention the systemic abuse that often occurs), seriously impairs their development. If the huge amount of funding which we put into inefficient and harmful orphanages was directed to giving vulnerable families a few extra dollars for food, these children would have a far more secure start in life.
    In sum, humanitarian projects need to shift the attention away from giving Westerners an opportunity for ‘personal growth’ and the chance to ‘make a difference’, and instead do the difficult, less obviously profitable work of properly supporting families who are struggling with poverty.

  33. Shadee Lacey

    Both the blog by Rebecca Smith and the video ‘The Love You Give’ provide interesting perspectives about the issues regarding voluntourism and the harmful consequences that it may have on the children. I found Ruth’s account of her experiences particularly interesting, especially her comment about how institutionalizing children have severe mental impacts for the children and how they later engage with society. I think that the blog rightly highlights that solutions to the problems must be taken from the bottom, such as providing families with economic support and that individuals should consider their motivations before taking part in these processes, if at all. The question of whether biological families are the best place for children is complex due to the range of different factors, however, as mentioned with the correct economic support being provided, it could allow for this to be true. Rather than separating a child from their community, I think the problem that should be addressed is in what ways can that community be improved.

  34. Lydia King

    Smith’s article highlights how we can begin to critically think about humanitarianism and volunteering. It seems to be an undisputed fact that long-term care is the best way for children to develop. I therefore agree with the article that more focus should be placed onto local institutions in order to prevent families separating and fix the problems which lead to this. It is quite clear to see if most orphans have living relatives, there are some underlying motives which drive the funding of orphanages. This funding should be relocated elsewhere. This does not necessarily always mean that a biological family is the best place for a child to grow up, especially as that option is not available for everyone. What is important for children is that they have a long-term, personal relationship with an adult. However, splitting up families and children should always be seen as a last resort. Orphanages should not be the ‘better option’. Volunteers should not be encouraged to take part in these harmful models of care, and their efforts should be placed elsewhere so they can make an ethically informed difference. In the UK institutional care facilities are seen as a ‘last resort’, so why is this different for developing countries? Why do we continue to fund practices we do not deem appropriate for ourselves? Volunteer organisations should be heavily encouraged to end orphanage projects, and instead endorse to local projects which prevent this.

  35. Lauren

    Rebecca Smith’s article highlights that the lack of a continuous care giver to a child through the early stages of life can be detrimental to mental development. The fact that this concept is relatively unknown to Western volunteers alongside the way that volunteering is advertised in the West as a way of helping those in need is mentally damaging to children in orphanages.
    As with lots of forms of aid, projects need to be researched further than the positive outlook they are presenting, as the real cause of children in orphanages was due to poverty not a lack of a caregiver, this will essentially help flow money into the needed areas not just those set up for tourist. By supporting orphanages you repeatedly perpetuate a continuous cycle of care which draws more money from tourists but overlooks the underlying issue of poverty.
    Volunteers should also look into why orphanages in the UK have been replaced by foster care, and apply the importance of more stable attachments elsewhere.

  36. Alice Harriet Foster

    The article is interesting in demonstrating the science behind the weaknesses of orphanages. It is often unusual to see this in value debates,especially regarding voluntourism or the ethics of development and this makes a good case for the weaknesses of orphanages. However while Smith suggests that funding for orphanages should be stopped as most residents have family alive, she does not seem to have a comprehensive suggestion for what should happen to those who don’t have family alive, or who’s family may be an unsafe environment. This does not discredit her main argument, but it is an important point to consider, or her progression away from orphanages could risk leaving a few behind.
    The issues raised about volunteering abroad are very interesting. It does seem that this can sometimes be, for people a holiday dressed as altruism, or at the very least of limited real use for the people they volunteer with. However, if certain volunteering abroad is to be discouraged, it would be good to know more specifically Smith’s alternative suggestions the many people with very positive intentions and a desire to do their bit that volunteer, as it would be a shame to waste this enthusiasm to help in a world that could really do with it.

  37. SaraK

    I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I found Rebecca Smith’s article tiresome, (sorry) as do I find the constant criticism that is instilled into the core of anthropology, especially anthropology of development. I am beginning to think that if at this stage, our interventions are still not working then perhaps we need to withdraw from the situation entirely.
    If Smith is able to offer such an extensive criticism of orphanages, then it leads me to believe that there is most likely an extensive criticism of foster care out there too. She talks about what Save the Children are doing, in order to bring about ‘real change’, but this change, how can we be sure it won’t lead to further problematic issues? And there is no guarantee that in a few years, we will not have similar articles in years to come criticising the movements that she considers progressive now?
    I feel we are in some sort of development spiral, never quite solving the problem and if this is so, would it not be better, (as I said earlier), to just withdraw?

  38. Naomi Harris

    This article outlines the various issues institutions such as orphanages and voluntourism cause.
    Bucharest Early Intervention Study perfectly exemplified the plethora of potential negative effects orphanages can have on a child’s development; such as delays in cognitive and social-emotional development and a greater risk of psychiatric disorders.
    While some families are not equipped to care for children, It is evident that placing children in institutionalised care can also be extremely harmful. Especially as this article argues that often the families of the children placed into these institutions are not neglectful parents but are poverty-stricken people seeking a better life for their child. Children require stability, a consistent one on one bond with a responsive, caring adult – which institutions like orphanages are simply not equipped to provide.
    Volunteers from overseas often chose to pay to work with orphanages as these programmes are marketed by tourism companies as a scheme in which they can ‘help’ these children and improve their quality of life. However, they are unknowingly contributing to the instability these children face. While these volunteer programmes have good intentions at their core, they have been turned into businesses that create more harm than good.
    This article argues that creating schemes in which encourage family-based care would be more beneficial to the wellbeing of the children and families as a whole. Helping families out of poverty may lead to fewer children being placed into the care system. And placing children who have unfit or deceased kin into a family setting such s foster care would also be far more beneficial for their wellbeing and development than an institution.
    This article asserts that the root cause of the issue is poverty, which is an extremely complex and difficult issue to fix.

  39. Bella Walls

    Both the article and the video demonstrate the long lasting effects that orphanage care and the constant severing of relationships have on children. While I would argue that children staying with their biological family is best, as Smith highlights that in these countries your family is a protective network that is stripped away in orphanages. However this isn’t always possible because of poverty, loss of parents or abuse. Despite orphanages trying their best to care for children, the constant flow of western volunteers coming in for short periods of time is doing a lot more damage than good. The importance of creating an environment that supports the development of the children is upmost and the children having long standing caring relationships is a hug part of that. Smith asks the critical questions that if these children do have at least one living parent (which a majority do) then instead of pouring money into orphanages why not fund services that help vulnerable families care for their children? Keeping them together and giving children a good environment in which to develop and grow. Because pf the issues raised in this article with orphanages I would suggest that foster care would be a better environment for children to grow and develop in, that being said I think more should be done so that children can stay with their biological family and original communities.

  40. Oscar Tambini

    An interesting point brought up by the article and the video is the flaw in the flow of money to struggling families. Rather than pumping funds into institutions that have huge negative impacts on a child’s development, funding should instead be focussed on helping families access the support they need to care for the children themselves. However, this again raises more concerns. As we saw in the documentary about children living in a brothel, giving families the access to money does not always work. While this case is similar to the orphanages in that a wealthy outsider provided temporary support to children before leaving, it also shows how firing money at an issue is not always the solution. Even with the support, it was challenging to access documents, to get the families on side, to keep the children at school etc. There is a positive shift that governments are making towards social care and intervening in familial issues. A further issue lies in the act of ‘doing good’. It is a very nice example where an act of ‘doing good’ has been commodified, people are paying for the feeling of achievement and joy they get from helping an orphan in an impoverished country. What is driving the desire to not only give up time, but also money, to “help” children in a poorer country when you can so easily volunteer for free in your own country? How can we change our assumptions of what it means to do good when the immediate pay off of working in an orphanage in exotic place may be so rewarding?

  41. Christian McKinnon

    The article and film clearly outlined the problem of volunteering at orphanages in developing countries. They explain how orphanages are detrimental to a child’s development, which is why they have been increasingly banned in recent years. Also, we are told about how volunteering in these orphanages sustains them and creates a demand for more, as there is a lot of money to be had from such volunteers. Many children growing up in these orphanages have families, but the orphanages focus on keeping the children there to make money, rather than searching for and trying to help their families. As a solution, it is argued that volunteers should look to identify the problems within a family/community – why a child is sent to an orphanage – and then work to solve these, as opposed to playing with a few kids in an orphanage for a couple of weeks.

  42. Alexander Kidd

    In this article by Rebecca Smith, she castigates institutionalised child care and the practice of voluntourism. Drawing on recent cognitive and socio-emotional studies, regarding the development of children, there is a patent link between development in young children being stunted and institutionalised care.

    The trend of voluntourism, prominently young travellers volunteering in orphanages around the world in popular gap-year destinations, is harmful to the children in the orphanages due to the transient nature of their stay, creating fleeting bonds. Children, according to Smith who draws on studies in cognitive development, need responsible and long term care-giving to satisfy the high amount of neurons present in the brain in that ages to engender greater stimulation and prevent ‘neural atrophy’.

    Smith writes that the prevalence of orphanages in under-developed countries is largely contingent on poverty. To tackle the problem of institutionalised care as a whole, greater frameworks are needed to facilitate access to economic support for the families as well as greater social protection schemes conducive to higher education rates and family based child care that is ‘culturally appropriate’. Moreover, there needs to be a greater awareness with young western volunteers, and continued inhibition of unsafe child care institutions around the globe.


    When looking at volunteering programs, it is important to consider looking at these programs through a micro-lens. Each programs will have a different effect, some may create positive role models and have fantastic impacts on communities, others may be a hindrance and cause communities to be worse off. Therefore it is important to analyze the impacts of these programs. Is it making a short term or long term impact? Who decides how to invest funding? How can we measure changes in the community?
    Whilst there are many problems mentioned in the article and video, there is nothing wrong with trying to improve the situations of others, providing it is done with caution and developed strategies.

    It is important to always consider how consistency and strategy is key.
    Short term volunteering programs perhaps are less effective. Some companies will have a different set of volunteers come in on a rota but for longer periods of time, for example 1 year. It means they are constantly able to reap the benefits of having volunteers but also interacting with different people. As the cycle continues, perhaps children will become use to volunteers staying for a certain amount of time and then changing. In the same way that regular teachers and carers change per term or annually in education for example. Like ethnographers, anyone who has interactions with vulnerable people should be long term and highly committed to the job. Perhaps certain professional boundaries between child and carer is necessary?

    It is corrupt to think that some children are in care in order to keep funds rolling. This is the duty of the program to reconsider strategies in this instance. It is also the duty of program to be constantly trying to develop schemes, starting by reuniting the 80 percent of orphanages with a relative, trying to secure a stable future.

  44. Rebecca langella

    The article and video made by Save the children concern themselves with the damaging effects of some forms of humanitarian aid, and the economical interests that lie within them. Volun-tourism is something that I am familiar with as university students as it is pretty typical to hear that your friends or acquaintance talking about exited they are about their 3 week volunteering program in Costa Rica. Even though often there is a mocking attitude towards this kind of ‘instagram’ altruism the details of the damage caused by it are not discussed enough. This video explains how western volunteerism has fueled a whole ‘orphanage business’, structures built to accomodate young volunteers that want to offer their services for a short period of time. What is at first glance a great humanitarian project is actually extremely problematic as the children will never have a stable loving figure in their live, and will experience the trauma of loss every time the volunteer they’ve bonded with inevitably leave. Studies have found that children that grow up in such facilities are much more likely to develop mental health problems. This is why Save the Children supports local projects that seek to help family keep their children instead of putting them in institutions, ’empowering them to care’.

    I think that the core problem of this business is that, as one of the activist has said, such programs are for the volunteer benefit, not the child. The way that they strip the kids of their past by telling the to hide their origins and belonging to a family is another way to ‘toy-fy’ them , make them a much less problematic object for the young volunteer to engage with. Those are places where volunteer go to feel go about themselves, which is why they might seem never consider that something about them might be problematic. However, we must question the underlying wider economic reasons those institutions emerge from. Ethical volunteering requires you to acknowledge the fact people you’ve engaged with during your stay do not stop existing once you’ve finished your ‘experience’, and will live on their lives carrying the impact you’ve had on them, for the better or the worse.

  45. Roberta Miglioranza

    In her article ‘Orphanages are not the solution’, R. Smith (2018) argues that institutionalised care is a fundamentally flawed model of care. Firstly, according to studies, orphanages negatively impact children’s development due to the absence of caregivers that are secure, responsible, and reliable: without such a presence, children lack the stimulation that they need to develop physically, socially, and emotionally. As a result, they are at greater risk of psychiatric disorders and have higher suicide rates once they grow up due to being wholly unprepared for their ‘return’ to society (R. Wacuka, The Love You Give campaign). Volunteering in orphanages is highly harmful according to both Smith and people starring in the video for The Love You Give campaign. It creates fake attachment to children that are extremely vulnerable, who are left ‘broken’ (R. Wacuka) once the volunteers leave and are therefore led to trust no-one. Volunteering and voluntourism is for the volunteer’s benefit, not for the child, who needs stability, love, and a sense of belonging instead. Many governments are starting to realise that institutionalisation does more harm than good when it comes to children’s physical, emotional and psychological development. As a consequence, they are trying to end institutionalisation and see it as the last resort.
    Orphanages, however, have become a sort of business: the volunteering industry is valued at $173 billion annually (The Love You Give campaign) and, by supporting orphanages, people perpetuate the problem and fuel a system which is very harmful for the same children they are trying to help. As a matter of fact, at least 80-90% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, which indicates that the main issue is not the absence of parents but the conditions that prevent them from adequately taking care of their children. Instead of assuming that families are unable to take care of their children, G. Mwangi argues (The Love You Give campaign), people should make families able to care for them. For instance, instead of funding orphanages, people should recognise, address, and take action against some of the underlying issues that children and their families are facing. By changing how people volunteer and providing the support and funding that is actually needed, children could avoid being placed in institutionalised care altogether. That said, some children, might stil be separated from their biological families and communities, when these are deemed unsafe. If so, they could be exclusively placed in family-based care, a much better alternative to institutionalisation, at least according to Smith. Whether that’s true in all cases is up for debate. Nonetheless, the questions and points raised by Smith’s article are worth thinking about/through and the voices of those who’ve been hurt by the flawed system that is institutionalised care deserve to be heard.

  46. Isabella Wimmer

    Sadly, I have to admit that both the article and the attached video introduced me to the issues of institutional care, i.e. orphanages, in a way I had not thought of before. Especially, considering the fact that I once volunteered with my family at an orphanage in Romania as a kid, I wonder whether that makes our good intentions actions that caused harm. I remember feeling quite self-satisfied with myself for having given away my toys to kids in need. My mother even went so far to collect donations for her wedding instead of gifts, with which she bought new supplies, such as washing machines, for the orphanage. Indeed, to this day my entire family thinks of this as a good deed, and it slightly bothers me to admit that we unintentionally supported a system that causes more harm than good. Yet, due to the sound argumentation of the article that “donations create orphans” and the astonishing statistic that more than 80-90% of children still have at least one living parent, the analysis not only highlights the problem but also the evident solution. People and volunteers should not stop their willingness to help, whether that’s due to self-satisfaction or other reasons. In fact, these people should redirect their attention to poverty and the way it disables families from staying together. Personally, I think this is a refreshing take on critiquing humanitarianism from an anthropological perspective, which from what I have read so far often seems to solely focus on the bad aspects of aid, without offering a concrete solution to actually improve the situation.

  47. Amber Thornicroft

    In relation to the article presented by Smith, I would argue that in most cases, it is strongly preferable that a child is raised by their biological family, than in an orphanage. Smith demonstrates the seriously detrimental effects orphanages can have on a child’s development, due to the lack of stability and emotional connections they provide. It seems that many children are going to these orphanages to escape poverty, or to have access to education, rather than because of a lack of family to care for them. Of course, without further knowledge of the nature of this poverty, it is hard to argue that biological families are still the best place. And yet, due to the significant detriments growing up in orphanages has on a child’s mental well-being, I still feel compelled to suggest that in most cases, biological families are indeed, the best places for children.

    If then, we are seeing children separated from their families as a means to escape poverty, isn’t it logical that we should be attending the root of the problem, instead of facilitating their separation? As such, I support Smith’s case, that, rather than pouring money into expensive orphanages, we should be addressing the underlying cause; poverty. Smith discusses briefly how Save the Children are attending to this, and the actions of some governments to move away from the institutionalisation of children.
    However she doesn’t go into depth regarding government action, and I would be interested to learn more about this, both on a national and an international level.

    From my understanding, it would seem that as long as there is a market deriving profits from these orphanages, as is being done through ‘voluntourism’, there is going to be significant resistant to goals of removing these facilities. Furthermore, governments may be unwilling to take a role in their closure, as such a move would fuel expectation form for them to invest in some sort of solution. It therefore seems that these orphanages are going to continue to exist, as long as voluntourism exists as an economic driver. For this reason, it is necessary that awareness is created within the Western market- at whom these voluntourism schemes are targeted- of the true nature and implications of voluntourism in this context. The video created by Save The Children is a promising step in this direction. Such insight will hopefully serve to make volunteers more aware of how to view, and to question ‘charity’, and therefore give them the understanding necessary to invest their money and time into more truly ethical establishments.

  48. Yolanda Lindsey-Clark

    The model of care exhibited in the orphanages is disruptive and intrinsically flawed. If anything, it is shamefully ironic that such a model would be utilised by an institution, given that it reinforces abandonment. It would be far more accurate to describe this as a business model, in which the children’s inalienability is brought to question. Instead of being provided with the building blocks for adulthood, their childhoods are commodified. Artificial attachments are sold by the self-serving volunteer, in return for an internalised need to appeal to the donor. This exploitation can easily be transformed into a lifetime on the periphery, which is a far cry away from the sense of belonging that is so desperately necessary for these children.

    • Mimi Hedfi

      Both the article and video force us to question our understanding of what care should look like and how best to provide it. While volunteers may think their actions are having a positive impact, Smith demonstrates that is simply not the case. Children need consistent and stable relationships in order for them to develop in the future, however the influence of volunteers creates false attachments and can be highly distressing. This forces us to question the ethics and moral issues related to the voluntourism industry and what it means to truly ‘do good’. I think articles like these are crucial in reframing how we view volunteering and ensuring beneficiaries are at the heart of the cause.

      A shift from an institutional model of care to a family-based model is crucial in ensuring that children receive the sustainable and ethical care they need. I found the video particularly powerful as it depicted those who had experienced institutionalised orphanages and were campaigning to change the system. This close attachment to the cause ensured a sense of sincerity and empathy, which I think is particularly difficult for volunteers to grasp if they have not had these experiences themselves.

  49. Sylvie Pope

    It is interesting to see that the institutionalisation of orphanages in the countries that Smith discusses, mirrors the institutionalisation of ‘ethical volunteerism’ encouraged in the UK. My secondary school was actively partnered with an organisation that set up these trips and encouraged students, such as myself, to develop community and conservation skills in Swaziland. Regarding the community conservation, we were sent to a school for local orphans and our primary role was to help build and decorate classrooms. There was not a huge emphasis on playing with children but that activity certainly happened. The main contribution our trip made was the funding that was – hopefully – spent on supplies for the school. At that age questions were not asked about the links between the school and the local orphanages, and how our role was interacting with the orphanage ‘sector’. Although our trip may not have played as directly damaging a role as those outlined in Smith’s article, the high turnover of volunteers to the school may have affected attachment issues within some or many of the children with whom we spent time and played. It is noticeable that we were never encouraged to consider our position as overseas tourists, before or during the trip. It also is important to consider that the money we spent on air travel and living costs could have been redirected to local members of the community in the form of employment; exchanging our labour for theirs.

    The power and racial dynamic inherent in Western volunteerism is often closely aligned with the rhetoric of ‘saving’ the non-white woman, child or victim. There is an interesting paradox between the name itself of ‘save the children’, and the message it delivers through Smith’s article and the embedded video. The problem she outlines is that Western volunteers choose to ‘save’ orphans – for a little while – when in fact high turnover of volunteers staying for only short periods of time can entrench the notion that these children are never truly loved or taken care of. The apparent entrapment of children into these institutions, often resulting in later mental health issues, shows that Western efforts to ‘save’ these children in fact doing the opposite. It is therefore also interesting that ‘Save the Children’ is named so, as the message delivered by one social worker in the video is very clear: Western volunteers must not try to ‘save’ ‘orphans’, but enable families to keep and look after their own children, for example by addressing wider structural issues such as poverty. The best way to ‘save’ these children is either to support these family-orientated initiatives, or effectively to do nothing. Doing nothing will still help to dismantle the orphanage industry as, according to Smith, donors and volunteers perpetuate the problem. And thus the paradox is solidified: addressing institutionalisation of children or doing nothing can still not really be considered as a tool for ‘sav[ing] the children’, but rather preventing and ending Western-inflicted exploitative practises. Alternative, more appropriate organisational names might sound something like ‘stop disabling the children and their families’, or ‘save the children – from yourselves’.

  50. Ewan

    While it seems evident from this article that care provided in orphanages can have a detrimental effect on a child’s development, to talk about ‘family’ as a context for development in children without qualification of different types of family models seems risky.

    This reminds me of Tatjana Thelen’s article on care as social organisation (2015) in which she calls for the dissolution of binaries such as private/public and giving/receiving in the way care is conceptualised. She also builds an argument for the disentanglement of the private (the family domain) from the conceptualisation of care – is the notion of family the best way to think through the standard of care provided in orphanages?

    The article draws attention to an antiquated model of care which seems to be the basis of how an orphanage functions, but to what extent do orphanages converge/diverge in their approach – surely different models and approaches are being applied. While the purview of the article is broad how far is it useful to work with orphanages as a category/ideal type?

  51. Chaney Watson

    It’s honestly quite surprising that an volunteering would damage the children as much as it does, with the statistic of the child developing at 1/3 the rate at which it would in a regular household. However, it is understandable on deeper analysis of the larger orphanage industry, with the child being treated as a commodity of course it would develop at a slower rate than anyone else, the child is sold as a way of making us feel better. . Unfortunately, due to the large amount of effort put in to advertising any alternative solutions such as foster care (which has been depicted as a “half-way” point) or supporting relatives of the individual are unlikely to receive support. In all honesty, it would take a long time for the movement to change support of orphanages to grow worldwide, not only because of the high income of it, but also because how poor the optics would be for anyone who even touched it. It shows an immense cruelty to create a business enterprise that is effectively untouchable but I hope with the work of people Smith that that can no longer be the case.

  52. Cheyane Brown

    There is a strong connection between this post and Gledhill’s writings on the role of the anthropologist. Like Smith, we should take into consideration the negative impact that having a temporary volunteer may have on a child in an orphanage. On the other hand, if volunteers can make even the slightest positive impact, should we not encourage their willingness to help?

    I do agree however, that those who do choose to volunteer, should be well informed of the implications and should be offered methods that may help to reduce any of these negative outcomes.

    Smith, in her article, describes the family as a safety net. “The one that help you when you are unemployed…” I am curious as to what happens when your family isn’t this safety net. If we argue that orphanages inhibit growth and development, and the family has been labelled as ‘incapable’, who or what can that child then turn to? Would it not further instil notions of detachment, and low self-esteem etc?

    Smith argues that the issue of orphanages, goes beyond the idea of absent parents. Orphanages are part of a wider system of failures and we need to deal with these problems, in order to reduce the use and reliance on orphanages. The solutions Smith suggests in her article, require governmental support but they also require people and volunteers to change their perspective on the idea of orphanages. She describes them as ‘well-intentioned volunteers’, as they believe they are doing a good job. Yet, Smith claims that they are only perpetuating the problem by supporting.

    Fostering as an alternative can also prove to be difficult. A sense of not belonging and detachment can also occur, where a child is being fostered. Simply by re-instating that ‘this is my foster family’ during introductions, can reemphasise difference and separation. It may be slightly better than an orphanage as a family-bond can be built over time and be that safety-net for the foster child, but in the short run (and potentially the long-run) thoughts on ‘being worthy of love’ and ‘abandonment’ can still occur.

  53. Maisie Gater

    The Save the Children article and video are extremely insightful in revealing how modern voluntourism allows a harmful cycle of institutional care to reproduce. When western volunteers travel oversees to help in orphanages they create important emotional and social bonds with young children, a bond that is essential for their cognitive development. However, as soon as volunteers return home, these bonds are forcefully broken leaving the children with attachment issues that they may carry into adult life. What surprised me most about Smith’s article is how research has revealed that globally, 80-90% of children in care have at least one parent, yet it has been recognised that donors would withdraw if they knew of living relatives. Because of the money voluntourism brings into countries therefore, the children in orphanages become commodified and institutions of care become run as businesses, with many children often being refused vital contact with their relatives for fear that donors would cease to offer money and services. Smith reveals how it is essential for people thinking of volunteering in orphanages to understand that it is not a ‘mutually beneficial’ experience but in fact often very harmful, and encourages them to look to their own countries and communities before they consider volunteering overseas. In order to move away from institutional care, she focuses on the importance of family based care such as financial and counselling support that offers parents the ability to still care for their children at home, whilst also aiding with the issue of poverty(the main reason behind most children’s admittance to institutions like orphanages). If poverty is not the issue, Smith argues for attention to be paid to the foster care system if remaining at home is not a viable option so that necessary care and kinship systems can still be maintained.

  54. Olivia O'Brien

    This blog post and the article highlight the detrimental problems caused by voluntourism, specifically focusing on how orphanages inhibit the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children. These devastating side-effects are only reinforced by the continued funding of orphanages, as well as the volunteers that donate their time. It is obvious these kinds of investments have good intentions, however, it is now clear that the impacts are contradictory.

    Smith does well by prompting prospective volunteers to question why there isn’t the same volunteering opportunities in their own local communities. The answer may help individuals to realise ‘helping’ in these particular ways are far from productive and are irresponsible. It also suggests that individuals look to their local communities for other volunteering opportunities that are perhaps more indirectly helpful to vulnerable children. As the article outlines, a child’s developing brain requires consistent nurture and care, over sustained periods of time, something that casual volunteering cannot provide and is adversely impactful upon.

    Furthermore, for those individuals with the desire to help those in need and who may wish to help countries maybe less economically developed than their own, should consider looking into projects that intend on giving families and civilians better opportunities and livelihoods. Deriving solutions to the problems that lead to children in orphanages in the first, is much more productive. Helping in these ways is much more beneficial for the wellbeing of these children in need.

    I think this blog post and article have for me, highlighted the severity of this issue, it’s not just that there are better ways to treat the problem, funding and sustaining orphanages in fundamentally harmful to the children. From my own experience of seeing peers post on social media, pictures of themselves with a group of vulnerable children they have voluntarily ‘helped’, it is clear that people are still widely uninformed on this matter. The scientific and psychological facts that are promoted in the article need to be promoted more across the western world.

  55. Freya Lightfoot

    In theory, volunteering at orphanages is selfless and supportive- by dedicating your time to vulnerable children, you are removing some of the pressure of the underfunded and understaffed orphanages. However, whilst volunteers believe they are genuinely helping the children’s circumstances, arguably their involvement does more harm than good and is in fact more rewarding for the volunteers than the children. This is because the children are become attached to the volunteers who take on the role of the caregiver, only for the volunteers to inevitably leave. This leads the children, who were dependent on the security the volunteers gave, to have attachment issues and development problems. This is because the model of the orphanage is flawed- it cannot provide the necessary family-based care and security necessary that a family can.

  56. elsie denison

    Both the article and the video highlighted by Rebecca Smith demonstrate the extremely detrimental affects that orphanages can have on the development of children and further fuel an arguably corrupt practice within the voluntourism industry. In the video by ‘save the children’ Ruth Wacuka, a care leaver who had been placed in an orphanage when her mother abandoned her, explains how the government wish once the child in placed in the orphanage for all ties to be cut with existing relatives. Regardless of the fact that nearly 80% of children within Kenyan orphanages have at least one living parent it is rare that any of the children are able to stay in contact with them. This is so the funding continues to be distributed, often from western countries, who would usually tend to withdraw if they felt the child had existing family. Not only is this incredibly corrupt and arguably morally wrong, it fuels the practice of orphanages which reduce the rate of development for the children. Further Ruth explained that when she left the orphanage she found it extremely difficult to know how to live her life, lacking lived experience and contact with the outside world.

    Further Smith emphasises how volunteering in an orphanage can greatly impact the way the children develop a level of attachment and development processes. Having a stream of temporary volunteers means the children don’t have a consistent presence in their life during the most essential years of development. Smith states that during the early stages of development the absence of a secure and responsive caregiver can pose a serious threat to the chid’s long term well-being. Most often it is western volunteers who come for a week or so with no training in caregiving which, although usually comes from a good place, can actually be seriously damaging for the child’s physical, emotional and social development as well as have lasting effects.

    Further orphanages separate children from their family to bring them to an institution which can gain international funding. However most often the child develops best within a familiar community around relatives.

    Smith goes on to suggest that most of the time children aren’t placed in orphanages because of abuse or neglect, ‘ but instead they are placed due to poverty or because of a lack of access to education in their own community’. This being said surely channelling international funding into the communities in poverty instead of the orphanages could help to solve the issue in which thousands of children are taken to these institutions and away from their families. Growing up within your biological family and surroundings has been proven to be the most effective form of development.

    Save the children is doing a huge amount to help alleviate this problem, working along side local and national governments to direct funding into areas of poverty and help provide access to schools and education.

  57. Katy Bek

    It is clear from Smith’s blog post from Save the Children that there is a conflict of interests at the heart of these orphanages. They are sustained by mostly young, naive volunteers from Europe and America – perhaps hoping to justify their holiday by offering their time to, in some small way, be a part of the children’s lives. Their interest is in helping those ‘less fortunate’, but the effects of the actions can be disastrous for the children caught up in it.

    They are inadvertently contributing to a system which isolates children, stunting their development and messing with their psyche to bring in tourism and therefore money. Children have very fragile minds and instability in childhood, even with both parents present, can cause all sorts of mental health and relationship issues later on. I can only imagine how, for these children stripped from their families, receiving so much attention from caregivers who stay for a few weeks tops could mess with their heads.

    The fact that many of the children in these ‘orphanages’ in fact have at least one living parent seems ludicrous. Poverty should not implicate children being separated from their families. The time, effort and money given towards these orphanages would more effectively improve children’s lives by going towards improving the circumstances of their families. Unfortunately, the good intentions of voluntourists would probably be better served by just visiting the same countries and spending their money in the locality on indulgent tourist activities, rather than trying to ‘save the world’ by temporarily caring for vulnerable children.

    I thought it was really interesting that Smith encouraged us to ask whether we would consider ourselves useful to orphans in the UK. Why should just anyone be good enough to care for vulnerable orphans in poorer countries?

  58. Ellis Harbord

    ‘Orphanages are not the solution’ rightfully highlights the disruptive nature of institutionalised care and informs the reader of the cognitive damages that Orphanages can bring to a Child’s psychological and emotional upbringing.

    I believe that voluntary work is not purely altruistic, many travelling volunteers want a short lived experience and also the pictures to go alongside it. Whilst this article does not comment on the motives behind voluntary aid workers, it is directed at those who want to travel and work with children and encourages them to take a second look at the experience they want to take on.

    The writer believes that poverty is a critical reason for putting children in orphanages, and therefore she states that ‘we need to put funding into services that helps vulnerable families access money through social protection programming, livelihoods, and other economic support’.

    If voluntary ‘experiences’ can be cultivated to support such proposals, then a more cooperative effort can be made by both the organisations that package such experiences and the very ‘outsiders’ wanting to volunteer abroad.

  59. Arabella Cable

    Smith’s article and the film clearly portrays the act of ‘voluntourism’ as having more detrimental effects on the children than good, as it causes instability in their lives when people come and go. Although volunteering in orphanages has been marketed to Western society as a ‘good’ and interactive way that one can give back, there is often a significant lack of experience and understanding from these volunteers who can, in fact, leave an already vulnerable child even more damaged. It appears that through our own lack of understanding we are actually aiding the continuation of these institutions when we should be tackling the bigger systemic problems of poverty while trying to find solutions to re-home orphans with guardians that they can form a permanent bond with and thus aid their emotional development. I understand that often the biological parents are unable to fulfil their supposed role through circumstantial issues, but instead of believing that we are ‘doing good’ through donating money to the institutions we should be supporting charities that offer familial and community-centred care, rather than contributing negatively to the children and the country’s development.

  60. nichola valentine

    I believe this article highlights the grater issues surrounding volunteering in third world countries and how it allows the facilitation of the white saviour complex to the detriment of vulnerable children

  61. Erin

    Smith’s article and the video attached question the ethics behind voluntourism and the schemes that are seemingly put in place to improve the lives of children in suffering. It is clear through examining the moral issues surrounding these schemes that voluntourism is more beneficial for the individuals taking part, than for the children who rightfully should be the main focus. Smith explains the psychological impacts these orphanages are leaving on young children, drawing light on the importance of a family-based care and kinship ties. Not having a consistent caregiver, or any kinship ties in communities such as the examples given, can be massively detrimental to the children later in life, as Smith explains it becomes harder to disassociate from these early experiences. The focus being placed on foster-care and encouraging kinship ties is a positive movement towards reducing the growing problem caused by these institutions. With charities and governments working towards reducing the amount of individuals partaking in these volunteer schemes, and the amount of institutions themselves is pushing towards a future in which focus is placed on tackling the issues head on, as opposed to creating a solution that is seemingly beneficial, but in reality is creating more problems than there were to start with.

  62. Toby Walkland

    It is interesting to note the parallels between Smith’s blog post and Lewis’ paper calling for a unification of knowledge between western not-for-profits and NGOs in the so-called ‘Global South’. Particularly in Smith’s statement that “there is a substantial body of evidence that made the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and many other countries transition from institutional care to family-based care and yet we continue to support this antiquated model abroad.” Why this “substantial body of evidence” is only just becoming institutionalised in governmental practices in the areas Smith discusses is certainly a problem Lewis may attribute to this wider concern over the split between NGOs and not-for-profits. Perhaps if this knowledge were shared, Smith’s concerns over orphanages may have been dealt with far sooner.

  63. Viktoria Rosenqvist

    Rebecca Smith’s article, as well as the video ‘The Love You Give’ help portray the issue that orphanages represent. Indeed, Smith argues that many studies underline how children do not benefit from being institutionalized but actually suffer from such a system as she attempts to raise awareness around the phenomenon of ‘volontourism’. Children’s struggle to bond and evolve with an adult consistently present in their lives results in higher chances of mental health issues and suicide rates. Smith attempts to question the ethical issue that represents tourist volunteering by explaining that the issue is not one of children having difficult familial situations but one of children needing stronger bonds. She argues this need for stronger emotional bonds should be addressed with different solutions, and that the short relationships created by volunteers with the children in orphanages do more harm than the volunteers know. Instead, Smith offers a solution through Save The Children, an organization working with governments to implement foster care and support to kinship carers struggling to provide the sufficient aid to their children.

  64. Adam Finn

    I had previously read about Romanian orphanages,and how a lack of funding and the illegality of contraception and abortion under Ceausescu led to overcrowded orphanages with horrific conditions. I saw photos and read stories of children being tied to beds, being forced to spend their days naked because they couldn’t afford clothes, and patterns of abuse formed by the abusive, untrained workers. At first, I thought the reference to the Romanian orphanages in this context was inappropriate – of course these kids are growing up developmentally challenged after all they went through! I was also aware of “voluntourism”, and how it was very damaging for western tourists to come to an orphanage or similar centre and form short term attachments with children. However, on reading in, it surprised me (although it shouldn’t have) that these were not specific problems, but that the entire system of orphanage care was fundamentally and terribly flawed; even the well-funded, clean, “good” orphanages were extremely damaging for children’s developments.
    It is fairly unsurprising that vital roles in children’s lives were being filled by Western tourists for profit, and it follows a pattern of the poorest and most vulnerable being taken advantage of by the wealthy and the powerful.
    The author’s solution is logical: to tackle the root of the issue by preventing children from ending up in situations where they are institutionalised.

  65. jack

    The article and the video make it very clear that there is very significant issues with supporting orphanages, both through donations and through volunteering time, as the practice has little benefit for the children it is purportedly helping. With the constant turnover of voluntary workers at the orphanages it can seriously hinder development in the children because of the lack of ability to form stable attachments with an adult figure. A significant shift in the application of resources then seems to be necessary, and of the solutions provided by this article and smiths video I would argue that providing financial aid and advice to families in poverty would be one of the more advantageous. Smith provides the statistic that 80-90% of children in orphanages are there not because of abuse or actually having absent parents but because their family is impoverished and does not believe they can support a child. By easing the burden of poverty through the provision of adequate economic support, and improving access to education it will attack the roots of the problem and help elevate the reliance on orphanages. However this still leaves the question of the 10-20% of children in orphanages that are there because of abusive or absent parents, in this case I agree with Smith again in that the solution is to improve the state of social services at a local and national level to provide safe, stable alternative family environments to take care of those children. A last concern is the entrenchment of so called ‘vollentourism’, due to the money the industry of bringing volenteers over to developing countires generates there is not much inscentive to tell those volenteers about the harm they could be causeing and so steps should also be taken to tackle misinformation being given to those who are offering their time out of a genuine wish to do some good. Providing them the full information they need about the dangers of volunteering at institutions like orphanages should also be a concern.


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