Orphanage volunteers may have the best of intentions - but they may unwittingly be doing more harm than good, as this ex-volunteer discovered...
It was 2010, I was just finishing my A levels and had two months before starting university. I knew I wanted to go away and do something different. I was interested in development work and as an eager and naïve 17-year-old, volunteering abroad in an orphanage seemed like a rewarding, helpful and ethical thing to do.
When I was researching orphanage volunteering there were endless companies who were willing to take my hard-earned cash from my Saturday job and send me all over the world. There was so much choice and it all looked organised and legitimate. Eventually I settled a well-known volunteering organisation. They were based in Australia which made my mum a little dubious, but I was set on my decision so I ignored her concern and booked. At no point in the booking process did I speak to anyone on the phone, Skype or by email. I paid my tour costs and then booked my flights. Easy. No questions asked.
My friends thought it was a great idea. Teachers and family friends wanted to donate books and pens for me to bring over – the only person who really questioned it was my brother. “Why don’t you wait until you’re older and have a job and actual skills to share?” was his reaction.
I really thought what I was doing was a good idea. The programme didn’t require any specific skills, I had a good education and a strong work ethic. Surely, I could be of use?
I arrived in Nairobi with a group of other volunteers. We were supposed to work in an orphanage there, but it was well-staffed and volunteering felt a little futile. I asked to be moved to a different project, and went to an orphanage in a small village not far from Mombasa. There wasn’t any work for us to do there either, apart from play with the children and help them with their homework. The orphanage was set up in individual houses, each with its own ‘mother’ who would look after the children, cook, clean and help with homework. I felt awkward and useless, so asked for a different project again.
Along with two other volunteers, I started to work at a placement not far from our homestay. We volunteered our time by teaching English and maths and helping out at lunchtime. The children were overly excited by three white girls coming to visit them – we must have been more of a distraction than anything else!
One young girl became fond of me, and one day I noticed a bad cut on her leg. It looked infected, and after mentioning it to another adult I was told to take her to the local doctor. They let me take her out of school, on a bus, with no accompanying guardian. I have since worked for a child protection charity and have realised that this was breaking nearly every safeguarding issue that would normally apply in such a situation.
At no point in the weeks leading up to my trip did the organisation ask for a DBS check or reference.
I also had no medical experience. Having initially spotted a potentially infected cut, I was then given latex gloves and a dressing kit – and with an entire village watching, asked to clean and re-dress her wound. Should I have been doing this?
Years after this trip, I began to reflect and realise it was a form of exploitation – not just of the children in the orphanages I visited, but of myself too. I had a good heart, a genuine interest in development work, and a desire to understand a different culture – but vulnerable children shouldn’t have been exposed to even more risk just so that I could have that experience.
I wanted to help, but wasn’t helping at all.
I currently live in London and work for a charity which is based in South Africa. I recently had the privilege to visit South Africa on a work trip, fully skilled and qualified in my role. If only I had waited a little longer and gained the relevant qualifications and skills before going off to ‘make a difference’. Now I am working in an area I am deeply passionate about and I can contribute in a way that is useful, ethical and effective.
Voluntourism creates dependencies and vulnerabilities.
There needs to be more awareness in schools and universities about the harm of orphanage volunteering. If any young person reading this is thinking about volunteering abroad in an orphanage, please think again. There are so many other ways you can help a cause you feel passionate about. And if it’s cultural experiences you are after, just travel and keep your eyes and ears open to everything. You’ll make much more interesting and sustainable contacts that way!