Skip to page content

Voluntourism: Perpetuating, not alleviating, the exploitation of vulnerable children

Lumos voices

Voluntourism: Perpetuating, not alleviating, the exploitation of vulnerable children

Written by Morgan Wienberg, Cofounder & Coordinator at Little Footprints, Big Steps

Images of desperate children flooded the media when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. Moved by those images, I wanted not only to help those suffering people but also to connect with them. So I decided to volunteer in Haiti. During my first week in Haiti, the mission organisation I’d joined took teams of volunteers to visit a locally-run orphanage nearby.

The conditions in this orphanage were the worst I’d seen any human being living in: toddlers were lying in their own vomit on the concrete floor; children were bathing in the same parasite-infested river their latrines drained into; bruises, infections and wounds covered the children’s emaciated bodies. Many children didn't even know their real name or birth date. They cried from thirst when we visited and cried of dreaded abandonment when we left.

Little did I realize that by visiting this orphanage, I was perpetuating the exploitation of these sweet children. I learned that 73 of the 75 “orphans” knew and missed their birth families. Children were suffering horrific abuse in this orphanage while their parents thought they were in a place of increased opportunity and well-being. Yet children were dying in this orphanage. They were being sold. By donating our time – and our money and gifts - to this orphanage, we as volunteers were supporting the exploitative business of the orphanage owner. We were hurting the children we wanted to help.

More than that, we came to understand that the willingness of groups of foreigners - automatically perceived as wealthy - to visit Haiti’s orphanages was a motivation for the corrupt owner in the orphanage we visited, and others, to recruit children by taking them from their families. We were incentivizing her to keep the children as desperate and sickly as possible so as to present a more urgent need for support. Yet support provided to this orphanage was certainly not benefiting the children.

Even if these children had been real orphans, and even if the orphanage had been well run and registered with the Haitian Government, visits by groups of strangers to vulnerable children would not have a sustainable impact on the children’s lives. Visits involving what we know as voluntourism might, on the contrary, undermine children’s development of any sense of stability and trust.

It is true that visiting an orphanage may allow you to connect with certain children. You will feel moved. However, that connection will leave the child with a sense of loss and abandonment; with the uncertainty of never knowing if he or she will ever see you again. Voluntourism creates a cycle of consistent abandonment and inconsistent relationships in the lives of children who are already highly vulnerable.

So, how can we successfully help vulnerable children in Haiti? First, we can support children who are living with their families to help prevent abandonment. And we can become involved in community development and education initiatives instead of orphanages.

You can also approach the Haitian child protection authority, IBESR, to learn how you can support foster families or others caring for vulnerable children in family settings. IBESR can advise you on support for registered orphanages and institutions which are looking after children’s health and welfare in an appropriate way whilst plans are put in place to reunite them with families.

Helping vulnerable children is very important but so, too, as I have learned, is the way you do it. Learn more about our work –