Worth an estimated $173 billion dollars globally, the “voluntourism” industry attracts well-intentioned volunteers to residential care institutions such as orphanages in Cambodia, but may be doing more harm than good.
Recent research conducted by Cambodia’s Ministry for Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation found that children in residential care were “more at risk of health problems and abuse.”
The Ministry recommended against all orphanage volunteer tourism, saying, “residential care centres have begun to solicit more funds through ‘orphanage’ tourism” and some are “being used to raise money in a way that resemble a business.”
Over the last decade, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased by 75 per cent, and the number of children living in them has doubled. The Ministry has cited a correlation between these increases and the orphanage volunteer tourism industry.
The Ministry also voiced concerns about a lack of regulation, stating that under current Cambodian law “anyone can open a residential care center.”
The world’s largest school-based volunteer travel company, World Challenge (WC), has cut its ties to orphanages in the developing world, and the Australian government is now considering making the volunteer visits illegal.
“While [the programmes] might have been good for our [volunteering] kids in the past, it’s plain and simple that it’s not good for the kids over there, and it’s not something we can continue doing,” said WC’s Asia Pacific Manager Mark Walter to Radio New Zealand on September 12.
The founding director of New Zealand based company International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), Dan Radcliffe, responded to the decision by WC, concluding that IVHQ would continue to support programmes in overseas orphanages, as “not all orphanages are run by bogeymen out to exploit children or volunteers.”
When asked whether volunteering in “good” orphanages was still harmful, UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief of Communications Iman Morooka told Salient, “volunteering for, or donating to any orphanage, especially without the proper training and time commitment” is contributing to the prolonged institutionalisation of children.
Morooka told Salient UNICEF are now calling for volunteers and donations to be directed at NGOs that focus their attention on “community support, keeping families together” and “returning children to their families.”
STA travel, who have a branch at VUW, discussed their volunteer programmes with Salient, saying they pride themselves on regular audits and their social welfare policy. The policy states that STA will “employ ethical work practices, and hand pick suppliers who share [their] values.”
STA is currently still offering volunteer programmes to orphanages in developing countries such as Cambodia. They were unable to answer when asked if it would consider cutting these.
Currently the New Zealand government has not indicated a desire to legislate against visits to overseas orphanages.