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Caveat Emptor: tourism, orphanages and the road to hell

responsibletravel.com has taken the principled position of not offering volunteering trips which feature orphanages until there are industry best practice guidelines and criteria for child-focussed volunteer trips.

The Facebook pages on better volunteering and better child protection have contributed to the campaign to secure change. Change is needed because children fare better in their families, we should be supporting families, and residential care should be the last resort.  

But on this issue the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As Justin Francis articulates the challenge for the industry in his blog

“Inadvertently, well intentioned volunteers are fuelling the demand for orphans.   In Cambodia 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans.   Almost all orphanages are funded by overseas donors, many of whom turn to volunteer tourism and train children to perform and attract donors. Read more    Watch the Al Jazeera documentary on ‘fake’ orphans here

Volunteers are creating a surge in residential care homes, including orphanages, because parents are tempted to give up their children in response to the western ideal of education and upbringing.    For example, with a population of less than 100,000, the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat has 35 orphanages.  Watch a documentary on this here. One even parades children late at night behind placards reading ‘Support Our Orphans’ as visitors drink and dine.

The issue arises in Ghana, South Africa and Bali; and doubtless in other countries too. Read more

So far the campaign has focused on the volunteering sector of the tourism industry – but the issue arises wherever tourists visit orphanages or give to child beggars. Tourists risk encouraging human trafficking, the purchase and abuse of children. The tourism industry needs to ensure that it does not contribute to creating demand which results in child abuse and that it does not inadvertently facilitate these exploitative practices. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  

peopleandplaces has published a list of questions which those organising volunteering trips should be asking

The industry needs to take responsibility but so do the tourists, travellers and holidaymakers. If you are not being asked for a criminal record check you should have serious doubts about any organisation with which you might volunteer.

Take responsibility – ask the questions, test the organisation you are planning to volunteer through. These are the questions that matter: you need the answers 

And remember that the principle of caveat emptor applies to the purchase of volunteering trips abroad as much as to any other travel experience and the same remedies for misselling and non-delivery on the promises made in the brochure or on the website apply to voluntourism as to any other form of tourism.

There is advice for travellers about how to be a Child Safe Traveller 

Child Safe Traveler Tips from the Child Safe Network: Think Child Safe

Take a look at the Think Twice campaign – watch the video  

Questions to ask of any company you plan to volunteer through:

So, You Want to Volunteer Abroad? Questions

Further resources:

peopleandplaces  blog 

World Travel Market debate raises the issues

The story was carried in Telegraph Travel

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