Voluntourism Harms, Not Helps, The World's Orphanage Children

08/22/2016 01:31 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2016

Voluntourism harms, not helps, the world's orphanage children

By Georgette Mulheir

2016-08-22-1471887332-9012107-HaitiChrisleslie171.jpg

Anyone on a flight from the United States to Haiti this summer might be struck, as I was in July, by the sheer numbers of bright-eyed, well-meaning young people heading for volunteer assignments at some of Haiti's many orphanages, eager to help the struggling nation's more than 30,000 institutionalized children.

Sadly, despite their good intentions, volunteers at orphanages are unwittingly supporting the terrible harm that institutions afflict on children in their care.

More than 80 percent of children in the world's orphanages have at least one living parent and most have relatives. They should be at home with their families, not in institutions. What orphanage children and their parents really need is to be reunited, with all the supports and services that will enable those families - no matter how poor - to give their children what they need to thrive and reach their full potential.

J.K. Rowling, the founder of Lumos, who has spoken out against orphan voluntoursim frequently on Twitter, could not have put it better: " Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivizes 'orphanages' that are run as businesses. Globally poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalized. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages perpetuate this highly damaging system and encourage the creation of more institutions as money magnets."

Yet evidence suggests the number of children going into orphanages in some parts of the world is increasing.

While many orphanages are set up by well-intentioned people, some are set up by unscrupulous 'entrepreneurs', whose sole motive is profit and who treat children as commodities. We have helped close institutions and orphanages where parents were encouraged or paid to give up their children with the false promise of education and health care. The children tell us they were constantly hungry in the orphanage, were made to do heavy labor, were beaten by the 'director' and never went to school. Many were sick due to drinking polluted water and malnutrition. We have been able to reunite nearly all of them with their parents, who had thought they were doing the right thing for their children.

The directors of these orphanages have posted images of the children on the Internet to raise funds around the world. For the most part donors who respond to these solicitations are good people, who want to help children. Donors - including volunteers - should ask themselves if their generosity might unintentionally support the business of separating children from families who love them in the name of profit.

Decades of research have shown orphanages to be harmful to almost every facet of child development. Children need consistent, loving adult care, which they can only truly receive from loving families. Orphanages, even those that are well run, cannot replace the love of a family. Crucially, children learn to make emotional attachments in families. And research proves that attachment is crucial to brain development and the development of cognitive and social skills.

A constant stream of volunteers to orphanages, showing affection to children and then leaving, disrupts this attachment process, and can leave children with many, many problems in their emotional and psychological development. The resulting desperation for affection and love leaves them much more vulnerable to others who seek to exploit and abuse them.

On my recent visit to Haiti I met a group of children whom we had rescued from one such orphanage and reunited with their families. In just a couple of months at home they have regained the weight they lost, their skin and hair look healthy once more, they are smiling and laughing, although they still cling closely to their mothers and fathers. Their parents tell us they are afraid they will be taken away again.

One mother said, "I took the decision to give up my son because they told me he would get an education. I thought I was doing the right thing. If I had known what was really happening in that place, I would never have given him away". When I asked one little girl what was best about being at home, she said, "when I was in the orphanage, they fed us rotten food and I could not eat it. But if I did not eat it, there was nothing else and I went hungry. Now I am home, if I don't like the meal everyone is eating, my mum will just cook me something else".

Children need families, not orphanages. Anyone hoping to volunteer in an orphanage should first remember why there are no orphanages in their own countries. Most developed countries did away with orphanages decades ago because of the harm caused to children, but somehow we have forgotten our histories.

There are far better ways to help the world's most vulnerable families and ensure that children in Haiti and across the globe have the love and nurture that only a family can provide.

Anyone on a flight from the United States to Haiti this summer might be struck, as I was in July, by the sheer numbers of bright-eyed, well-meaning young people heading for volunteer assignments at some of Haiti's many orphanages, eager to help the struggling nation's more than 30,000 institutionalized children.

Sadly, despite their good intentions, volunteers at orphanages are unwittingly supporting the terrible harm that institutions afflict on children in their care.

More than 80 percent of children in the world's orphanages have at least one living parent and most have relatives. They should be at home with their families, not in institutions. What orphanage children and their parents really need is to be reunited, with all the supports and services that will enable those families - no matter how poor - to give their children what they need to thrive and reach their full potential.

J.K. Rowling, the founder of Lumos, who has spoken out against orphan voluntoursim frequently on Twitter, could not have put it better: " Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivizes 'orphanages' that are run as businesses. Globally poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalized. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages perpetuate this highly damaging system and encourage the creation of more institutions as money magnets."

Yet evidence suggests the number of children going into orphanages in some parts of the world is increasing.

While many orphanages are set up by well-intentioned people, some are set up by unscrupulous 'entrepreneurs', whose sole motive is profit and who treat children as commodities. We have helped close institutions and orphanages where parents were encouraged or paid to give up their children with the false promise of education and health care. The children tell us they were constantly hungry in the orphanage, were made to do heavy labor, were beaten by the 'director' and never went to school. Many were sick due to drinking polluted water and malnutrition. We have been able to reunite nearly all of them with their parents, who had thought they were doing the right thing for their children.

The directors of these orphanages have posted images of the children on the Internet to raise funds around the world. For the most part donors who respond to these solicitations are good people, who want to help children. Donors - including volunteers - should ask themselves if their generosity might unintentionally support the business of separating children from families who love them in the name of profit.

Decades of research have shown orphanages to be harmful to almost every facet of child development. Children need consistent, loving adult care, which they can only truly receive from loving families. Orphanages, even those that are well run, cannot replace the love of a family. Crucially, children learn to make emotional attachments in families. And research proves that attachment is crucial to brain development and the development of cognitive and social skills.

A constant stream of volunteers to orphanages, showing affection to children and then leaving, disrupts this attachment process, and can leave children with many, many problems in their emotional and psychological development. The resulting desperation for affection and love leaves them much more vulnerable to others who seek to exploit and abuse them.

On my recent visit to Haiti I met a group of children whom we had rescued from one such orphanage and reunited with their families. In just a couple of months at home they have regained the weight they lost, their skin and hair look healthy once more, they are smiling and laughing, although they still cling closely to their mothers and fathers. Their parents tell us they are afraid they will be taken away again.

One mother said, "I took the decision to give up my son because they told me he would get an education. I thought I was doing the right thing. If I had known what was really happening in that place, I would never have given him away". When I asked one little girl what was best about being at home, she said, "when I was in the orphanage, they fed us rotten food and I could not eat it. But if I did not eat it, there was nothing else and I went hungry. Now I am home, if I don't like the meal everyone is eating, my mum will just cook me something else".

Children need families, not orphanages. Anyone hoping to volunteer in an orphanage should first remember why there are no orphanages in their own countries. Most developed countries did away with orphanages decades ago because of the harm caused to children, but somehow we have forgotten our histories.

There are far better ways to help the world's most vulnerable families and ensure that children in Haiti and across the globe have the love and nurture that only a family can provide.

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