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Who Are You Really Helping?

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

“It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

-Ivan Illich, 1968

Orphans. In Africa. There isn’t a group more recognizably in need of help in the world. Volunteering one’s time to help build wells, deliver food and clothing, or spend time with children, certainly sounds like a worthy cause.

However, researchers are uncovering the truth behind the “AIDS orphan” industry — a commodification of the sob-stories and suffering of children in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as other countries that are being sold to sympathetic, do-gooder tourists.

Illich’s criticism above came during a conference on international student projects in 1968. Since then, the voluntourism industry has boomed. For some this was a good thing, as well-intentioned students and tourists flocked to hotspot areas to offer minimal labor to communities in need. But for children in Sub-Saharan Africa and similar countries, this put a dangerous price on their head.

“We realized that these kids weren’t orphans at all. They missed their parents,” Tara Winkler, an Australian volunteer said on one of her visits to an orphanage in Myanmar.

According to the Guardian, the children who populate many of these institutions are often separated from families and are used as fundraising tools, with their physical selves and living conditions being kept purposefully unsightly in order to convince visitors to donate.

In Myanmar there are 17,322 children registered at orphanages throughout the country, and only 27 percent of them are actual orphans. In nearby Cambodia, tourism has increased 75 percent in the last few years, and the orphanages in tourist-heavy areas have also risen 75 percent.

“Such an increase in orphanage care could violate the rights of tens of thousands of Myanmar children,” Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF Myanmar’s chief of child protection said. “We need to act before orphanages dot the landscape.”

UNICEF is currently working with tourism agencies and hotels in Myanmar and Cambodia to take orphanage visits off of tours. The Cambodian Children’s Trust has also been established to help reintegrate children who have been taken into these institutions with their families.   

The story is different for Sub-Saharan African children. There is a drastic increase in how many children are populating orphanages — and while the number of people dying of AIDS and children who are losing their parents are increasing, there is still only a small number of truly dislocated children. Most have another parent or relative they can live with. And according to researcher Linda Richter, upwards of 90 percent of true orphans still live with extended family members.

However, the number of children in orphanages in Sub-Saharan Africa is increasing. Due to drastic poverty levels, Richter suggests that some families believe their children will be better cared for and educated if they live in orphanages. These institutions are the beneficiaries of a number of volunteer groups, and so this assumption of African parents may be correct. However, life in an orphanage has been found to have a number of significantly detrimental effects on the very children it means to help.

“The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children,” Richter writes. “Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems that could affect their long-term well-being.”

Children in these settings have been found to exhibit contradictory behavior toward others: they are indiscriminate in who they choose to bond with, sitting in a stranger’s lap mere moments after first meeting them. However, they are often unable to form healthy bonds later in life due to the inconsistency of relationships with volunteers and caretakers while they were in an orphanage.

This means that although volunteers are well-meaning, the emotional interactions they have with these “orphans” may be contributing to long-term behavioral and developmental problems. It’s a hard thing to stomach, as trips to help these children are done with sympathy, but often these are cases of emotional tourism. The do-good feeling volunteers experience during exchanges with these children do in fact have lasting impact — a positive impact for the volunteers, and often a negative one for the child.

“The important thing to note is that institutions that are corrupted and keeping children in poor conditions, that is the worst of the worst,” Winkler said. “But even the very best institutions are harmful to children. It kind of doesn’t matter how bad the institution is. It’s causing child-parent separation. The damage lasts generations.”

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Chan, a nine-year-old, was forced to sing and dance for volunteers who visited her orphanage. She, along with the other children who called the institution home, were so hungry that they would search

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