Volunteering in an Orphanage: Noble Intention with Counterproductive Outcomes


Volunteering is becoming an immensely popular activity around the world. Volunteering is a voluntary act, of an individual or group, giving time and effort for community service without getting paid. Volunteering is promoted to young people as an opportunity to have a unique experience, to create meaningful relationships, to increase our social interactions, to expand our world-view, to develop important social skills like empathy and teamwork, and to aid the communities in need. Organizations seeking volunteers emphasize that through volunteering, one can learn about different cultures, step outside their comfort zone, learn how to operate in different environments, and help vulnerable groups. Indeed, by taking time to volunteer, one can affect the lives of many, however, quite often volunteers can cause harm. Could there be another side of volunteerism that is rarely talked about?

Every year, millions of people from developed countries travel to poor nations, hoping to do good. All seek satisfaction of making a world a better place. For many, the destination is an orphanage, where they aim to help vulnerable children in the brief time, they have available. On the surface this might appear as a noble cause, but is it? There is a critical need to raise awareness of the risks of harm involved in these volunteering practices.

Indeed, the majority of people who want to volunteer in an orphanage have a very good intentions and the best interests of the children at heart. Still, this does not change the gloomy reality that this volunteering practice often has a counterproductive impact and puts children at risk in various ways. Why is orphanage volunteering harmful to children?

Working with vulnerable children in orphanages requires a very specific and professional set of skills, which volunteers, majority of time, lack. A particularly common and unfortunate trend in international volunteering is the act of sending volunteers who have not been fully trained nor coached in the orphanages. Keeping in mind that children in orphanages do not experience healthy psychological development, need for trained professionals to work with them is even more acute. Children form attachments very quickly. As volunteers become regular presence in the orphanage, children begin to connect and accustom to the volunteer. However, the departure of volunteers can have a particularly adverse effect on children as they learn not to trust or invest in relationships. Every time volunteer leaves, children are left behind. This can create a sense of abandonment and invalidation. For the most part, volunteers have little understanding of the potential of their behavior to negatively impact upon the emotional stability of children.

Over the 80 years of research demonstrates that children placed in orphanages have development delays, growing up in an orphanage harms physical, emotional and mental well-being of children. Although many orphanages are established with good intentions, they are still not able to provide the sensitive care children require for healthy development. 

Bucharest Early Intervention Study, an ongoing study which started in Romania in 2000, seeks to examine the effects of early institutionalization on brain and behavior development of children who have been placed in institutions. As learned through their work, neglect can be harmful to a young child’s development. It can impair young children’s executive function skills, can lead to profound deficits and delays in cognitive, social-emotional development in children, as well as, increased risk for psychological disorders and stunted physical growth. 

The latest working paper from Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains the potential for early, effective interventions to have a positive impact on long-term outcomes: “The timing of intervention is a critically important predictor of outcomes. If appropriate intervention occurs very early in various studies the benchmark age for removal from extreme deprivation has been identified as 6, 12, or 24 months substantially improved functioning in cognition, attention, memory, and executive functioning can be achieved.”

Children in orphanages are especially vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and harm. Orphanages are a target for those with harmful intentions towards children. International volunteering does not require person to undergo a strict criminal record check to ensure suitability, which means that strangers might be given intimate access to vulnerable children. 

Volunteering in orphanages contributes to the harmful practice of building and funding orphanages.  Rising number of orphanages in a country indicates an increase in the separation of children and families. The high demand to volunteer in orphanages turns orphanages in booming business as it encourages the expansion of such care centers, thus reinforces the institutionalization of children. In other words, supporting orphanages supplies the demand and creates more “orphans.” Children are being recruited to fill the spaces in orphanages across the world. In developing countries children are being separated from their families on the promise of better life, which is never fulfilled. Instead, children are used as tourist-attractions to raise money from foreign volunteers and donors. Some orphanages purposefully exploit children in their care by keeping them malnourished as well as keeping their living conditions deliberately deprived in order to leverage more donations from donors.

What are some alternative models being presented? There are already a variety of individuals and organizations actively advocating against orphanage volunteering. Current approaches mainly include producing guidelines and related training to help people volunteer more responsibly along with raising awareness of issues surrounding orphanage volunteering and ethical volunteering. Non-governmental charity “Lumos” actively promotes an end to the institutionalization of children worldwide and since 2009, has prevented 20,915 children from entering harmful institutions. “Lumos” strives to increase awareness about the harmful effect of institutions on children’s lives and aims to end institutionalization around the world fully by 2050.

 Furthermore, “Save the Children” is a leading humanitarian organization for children which works closely with national and local governments to regulate child care institutions, strengthen families and work on the underlying cause of separation. “Save the Children”, together with “Better Care Network” established the global initiative “Better Volunteering Better Care” to promote more ethical alternatives to orphanage volunteering in developing countries. Rather than strengthening and reinforcing the orphanage system, we need to support programs that promote alternatives to orphanages including family strengthening, social work training and economic development. The first step towards protecting these children is prevention. In majority of cases, poverty is a driving factor why children are placed in orphanages. According to the organization ‘’Save the Children’’, 80% of the children in orphanages worldwide have at least one living parent and those without parents often have grandparents of relatives who could take care of them. Therefore, instead of donating money to orphanages, we need to address the root of the issue, redirect support away from orphanages, and put funding into services and programs which help vulnerable families to access money through social protection programming and other economic support and thus, staying together.

To contribute a meaningful change and put an end to heavily ingrained orphanage system we need to raise awareness of the issue. The majority of volunteers are completely unaware of the damage they are causing by volunteering in orphanages. Another great way to assist de-institutionalization of children is to research and support organizations who are making a positive impact and be a part of the change to truly aid the vulnerable children in need.



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