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The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm? – Tina Rosenberg Last modified

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Baby rescue is the ultimate volunteer experience. At Hope of Life International, a Christian mission in rural Guatemala, a rescue team springs into action when news arrives that a baby is dangerously ill in a nearby mountain village. The mission, which hosts hundreds of volunteers from North America every month, sends a caravan of Jeeps, canoes and an ambulance to bring the child to its hospital. On the charity’s website, you can see photos of volunteers, their faces rapt with grim determination, walking down a steep mountain path or fording a river, holding tiny babies wrapped in blankets. A video shows dramatic scenes in which Carlos Vargas, Hope of Life’s founder, rescues a baby alongside volunteers, the music pulsing and urgent. “Every second, every minute matters,” Vargas says. “Maybe if we reach her an hour late, we lose her.”

Hope of Life has scouts who work in these mountain villages, looking for sick infants. Although time is of the essence, when they find an ailing baby, the scouts do not bring them directly to the hospital. Instead, they alert the organisation, which assembles a team, accompanied by volunteers, to collect them. Many volunteers who come to Hope of Life are drawn by the dream of taking part in one of these expeditions: they get to save lives, and have a transformational encounter. One woman wrote in a blog post about her experience: “This is what we came for. This is what I have been waiting for. This is what they’ve been waiting for.”

Every year, millions of people from wealthy nations travel to poor countries, hoping to do good. University students want to spend a school break or part of a summer giving back, perhaps even to improve their CV. Christians go with their churches for one- or two-week missions. All seek personal growth, connection to those less fortunate, and the satisfaction of making a difference. For many, the destination is an orphanage, where they aim to bring joy to needy children in the brief time they can spare.

The aspiration to help the most vulnerable children is a noble one, but the booming business of “voluntourism” sustains practices and institutions that actually do harm. There is no such thing as a “good” orphanage, according to child development experts. Eighty years of research confirms that children do best in a family. They are far more likely to experience abuse, cruelty or neglect in an institution than in any other setting. Even in a well-run facility, children do not develop normally.

In wealthy countries, the institutionalisation of children has almost completely stopped. Instead, governments offer services that can help families keep children with them; if that is not possible, they seek adoptive parents or foster families. These solutions are imperfect. Some foster families are abusive; children, especially those most in need of a steady home, can get shuffled from one family to another. “But nobody is advocating going back to institutions,” says Philip Goldman, the founder and president of Maestral International, a Minneapolis-based organisation that advises on social welfare and child protection.

Almost every poor country, by contrast, still puts children in institutions, even though the vast majority of those children have families. Wealthy countries, who consider orphanages harmful for their own children, nonetheless provide a stream of charitable giving that makes orphanages viable businesses abroad. And orphanages need “orphans”. Parents may hand over children because they have special needs, or because the family can’t afford to send them to school. “It’s a huge pull factor: if they can get food, health care, education, specialised services, parents make a decision they think is in the best interests of the children,” says Shannon Senefeld, senior vice president for overseas operations at Catholic Relief Services.

Save the Children looked at orphanages in Sri Lanka in 2005 and found that 92% of children had a living parent. A 2006 survey by Unicef in Liberia found that 98% of children living in orphanages were not orphans.

Donors from wealthy countries – most often, religious groups – often establish orphanages in response to a crisis. But after the crisis is over, donations keep arriving, so the institution stays open. In Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami, hundreds of institutions for children were opened. But Maestral found that more than 97% of the children in them were brought by their families so they could get an education. “Very few of the children had been affected by the tsunami at all,” says Goldman.

According to a report by Lumos, a London-based group founded by JK Rowling that seeks to end institutionalisation of children, one orphanage in Haiti, established by a US religious organisation after the earthquake in 2010, kept children malnourished and living in filth, with no stimulation. Yet it collected donations averaging $10,000 (£7,700) a year per child – much of which ended up in the director’s bank account, a former staff member alleged. That institution, which Lumos believes was engaged in trafficking and selling children for adoption to families in wealthy countries, recruited children using a baby-finder, who convinced poor parents their children would be better off in the institution. “We’ve seen it in Kenya, Uganda, Cambodia – eerily similar patterns,” says Alex Christopolous, deputy chief executive of Lumos. “Child-finders go into communities. They are paid $50 to $100 to identify [needy] families.

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