My Personal Story
This story starts in 2016 during my first overseas trip. I was 18, and had never travelled overseas alone before. So naturally I choose the most controversial pathway and planned to travel south east Asia and India. I never started as most do with a Europe or America gap year, I wanted to experience the alternative to Australia and dive into the deep end.
As a child I grew up in the Solomon Islands, so poverty was something I had seen and experienced first hand. Although I went in with an open mind set, this still did not prepare me for India. Despite the struggles I’m about to describe, I still fell head over heels for India; it’s people, the land, culture and food, and would love to go back sometime soon.
For my overseas trip I decided to volunteer. Sounds great, right? Initially I had thought the same. In some ways I was naive – I wanted to do something positive for a developing country which I knew had struggled so heavily with poverty, education and women’s rights. I started googling and I came across a volunteer organisation which pairs aspiring volunteers to a placement of their choice and a homestay.
I chose childcare, as I had always done some occasional babysitting here and there and felt that was the best way I could contribute with my limited skills as a fresh graduate.
Fast forward to the trip I had arrived in India and had a fantastic orientation week. We ticked off all the major tourist attractions in Delhi, developed basic Hindi language skills, and were fully immersed into their culture.
My first setback was delivered at my homestay; I was told I would not being doing my assigned placement, and instead, would be working as a teacher for young marginalised slum children. Initially I was intrigued, and then disappointed as I felt with no teaching experience I would not be able to contribute anything to these children’s study and development. And I was right. The first day of my program I was taken to a classroom and left there with no orientation. Thankfully, there were two other volunteers in that room whom had been in the placement for a couple weeks before me and brought me up to speed on how things really worked in the classroom.
The children were of all different ages, learning abilities and skills. Some were smart but didn’t receive anything that stretched them further and we were not allowed to give them extra work outside of their classmates. Other students were underdeveloped and it was clear they had been given little to no additional support to assist them to catch up.
This crushed me, as I knew I could make little difference in only a month, although I tried. With no structure to their days and no resources available for us to use the children were able to gain little benefit from volunteer’s efforts. As hard as we tried to teach, to put it simply – none of us were teachers and did not have the backgrounds to put together a rudimentary program within the short time we were there. I felt helpless.
Meanwhile, our accommodation was below basic, although not expecting a hotel experience, we were anticipating a clean, friendly home environment. However, the apartment we were occupying was far from our expectations. The bed linen was not cleaned between volunteers and without cleaning supplies, we could do little about the situation. It was a dump in which only the bugs would have flourished, and flourish they did !
This was in stark contrast to our host family whose apartment was on the opposite side to ours. Although only separated by a wall it was a world apart from our roach castle. It was a clean well-furnished, flashy modern apartment. The host family drove a fancy car and their son, went to an expensive private school, literally shaped like a castle. Their child was not allowed to play with the children at the school because of their social class. Yet our host family owned the orphanage/slum school where we were paying to volunteer.
After 2 and a half weeks of silence, my curiosity grew and patience withered so when an ambassador for the volunteer company came for a chat, I spoke out. We explained the living conditions, our concerns for where volunteer donations were going, the lack of resources, the limited support from the school and how we had received no orientation on arrival at the school. To avoid conflict, we insisted the ambassador was not to bring these issues up with the school owners/our host family until we had all finished our placement.
However, that night we were handed a plate of rice to eat and told to leave by morning. It was a chaotic environment and the intimidation by our host father was extremely stressful creating tension within the group of 5 female volunteers. The next day three of the volunteers were relocated to a new placement and family while myself and another chose to stay in a hotel.
Going into my volunteer experience I had only pure intentions and an open heart. My experience was completely underwhelming and honestly heart breaking. After witnessing the conditions of the school, my trust in my host family was completely shattered and although I wanted to donate money to replace the children’s broken chairs and replace supplies I didn’t feel my donation would be used as intended.
During that experience I only thought of the responsibility of my host family. I had witnessed snippets of corruption within voluntourism through my experience but at the time I still naively assumed it was a one off anomaly. However, after my recent travels in Cambodia and numerous chats with other ex-volunteers I’ve discovered this pattern isn’t uncommon.
I do not feel guilty for having once been a volunteer in this type of circumstance. We cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of these organisations as they both exploit the children and the tourist. What I suggest is to open up about this topic publicly, not just to friends and family, so that your influence may be positive and continue the movement to support children as ethically as possible.
Disclaimer: I do not believe all volunteering is bad and I understand it is an immense support for NGO organisations that rely on the free labour of volunteers to survive. I do not share my story and this information to turn you off the idea of volunteering, but to shed light on the concerns I have for the children used in orphanage tourism, and wether our best intentions are the best for the children as individuals.
Since this experience I have done further research into the realm that is ‘voluntourism’ and discovered that according to Save the Children 1.6 million foreigners volunteer overseas in developing countries which is a $2.6 billion dollar industry. Volunteers like myself pay upwards of thousands of dollars to participate in overseas volunteer programs which in many cases have been found to do more harm then good.
During my visit to Siem Reap this year, I attended a presentation run by Friends International, an NGO organisation bringing marginalised youth out of poverty through support in communities and job creation who donate 92% of their profits towards their student training development program, providing grants for children to attend public school and the Child Safe Movement.
During the presentation I was confronted with the following information:
- 72% of children living in Cambodian orphanages have parents.
- 80% of 8 million children living in institutions across the world are not orphans and have at least 1 parent.
- Families in poor communities and poor families are promised that the orphanage will provide education, housing and food for their children.
- Some children don’t live at the orphanages at all and are instead ‘rented’ with a deal amongst families to have the children attend during the day when tourists are visiting in exchange for money or food.
- These children should stay with their families, this can be done by supporting the families to solve the problems that prevent them from raising their children: generate more income, solve health issues, be supported to get rid of addictions, etc.
- Not all institutions have bad intentions, but many are run like businesses with children as their ‘product’.
Through my research and personal experience I have come to the conclusion that it is best to leave the work to professionals if you are not trained within the field you are assisting. To find out more on voluntourism and corrupt orphanages read through the resources I’ve linked below.
- Find more on the topic of child safe and responsible travel by reading my article on Ethical Child Safe Travel here.
- Read Harry Potter author JK Rowlings take on voluntourism within orphanages in an article by the Independent here.
- Find out why leading high school overseas tour company World Challenge stopped supporting orphanage voluntourism here.
- Read another personal experience story, shared by Pippa Biddle on Huffington post about her tale of construction building voluntourism here.
- Read the Save the Children article on voluntourism here.
- Follow the link here to discover the company ReThink Orphanages focussed on re directing the way we view orphanages and voluntourism within orphanages here.
- To see the positive side of India and my beloved travel memories with 20 photos and reasons why you should visit India click here.
I hope this information was of use to anyone considering volunteering or visiting an orphanage or slum school. I am not perfect, for I once participated, but like I have from the beginning I will always strive to continue sharing information on my site which encourages responsible and ethical travel.