Voluntourism at Orphanages and Why It’s Wrong

In the last decade, there has been an ongoing trend of people engaging in what is commonly known as voluntourism (volunteer + tourism), which is the practice of traveling across the world in order to do some volunteer work, the most common being volunteering at orphanages, either as teachers or as construction workers for a new library.

In theory this sounds like an amazing opportunity to give back to those who need it the most and to help them improve their own lives and yet, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and some forms of volunteer work are actually damaging the communities in ways that will take a long time to fix. So, before you’re planning on volunteering abroad, ask yourself these 4 questions:

Why do you want to volunteer abroad?

If your reasoning is as simple as: “I want to help people” then I’m sorry to break it to you but you’re dead wrong if you think voluntourism is the best way to do so. You can help people in your daily life, you can help people at your local orphanage, you can help people in many different ways. The reason why people choose voluntourism is because of its three main advantages:

It is time-convenient (taking a course before volunteering and staying there for one year? No way! One week is more than enough!), it brings you a high personal satisfaction (claiming to have helped kids in Africa receives more high-fives than helping kids at your local community for some reason) and more importantly? Sometimes you don’t have to pay for your dream vacation since you can use online projects to help fund your travels!

Ask yourself: Do you want to travel or do you want to do some meaningful volunteer work? If it’s the former, then travel and have fun, if it’s the latter then stay home and help your local community. You cannot have it both ways, really.

Have you considered the negative impact you create in the community?

Volunteers at orphanages often assume the role of English-language professors and/or construction workers and instead of receiving payment, volunteers actually pay money in order to work (seriously, to this day, this still baffles me). This, in turn, creates a low demand for the real professors (you know, the ones that actually studied in order to teach English) and the expert construction workers.

On an even more serious issue, you’re actually increasing the abandonment issues of the children at the orphanage since, after taking those heartwarming Facebook pictures, most volunteers just leave to their next adventure and never bother to look back to the orphanage where they worked. Even worse, they create false role models for the children that will never be achievable.

Don’t you think that a Cambodian child should benefit the most if he had a local role model instead of worshiping a wealthy person who paid tons of money in order to be with him for one week?

The most negative impact of foreign volunteers? They actually create a demand for more and more orphans, which brings us to our next point.

Have you really investigated how the orphanage system works?

In developing countries, specially those whose main revenue is tourism, orphanages are run by both private and public companies that in the end, focus on the same thing: Generating revenues. In the western world, a successful orphanage is an empty one since that means that all the kids have been adopted and are living happily ever after with their new families. In developing countries with a great influx of foreign volunteers, it is actually the opposite.

In Cambodia, if an orphanage runs out of orphans, it actually looses revenues since foreign volunteers will no longer visit to spend money. So what do they do to meet the demand for orphans? They actually pay families in order to borrow their children! Yes, instead of sending their kid to school, some Cambodian parents send them to the orphanage just to generate some extra cash on the side. How sick is that? “In Cambodia, the number of orphans has halved while the number of orphanages has doubled”.

And hey, did you know that most orphanages that accept foreign volunteers never bother to do any screening at all? To them, it doesn’t matter if you have the skills to help and even more scary, they don’t care about your real intentions to be close to children. It is an extremely disturbing fact that orphanages allow sex-offenders to be in contact with children just because they never bothered to do a little background check.

Still don’t believe me about how orphanages are a profitable business? I developed something called the “good intentions” test. It consists of writing an e-mail to the orphanage saying that you’re in the area and would like to help, they will, of course, give you their outraging rates for accommodation and food (30 USD per day in Cambodia? Yeah right).

You will then reply saying that you’re taking care of your own expenses on the side and are only looking to help people in your free time. If the orphanage that you want to volunteer actually has good intentions, then they will accept you. But trust me, you’re not likely to get any reply, after all, they are a business.

Of course, some orphanages in developing countries are really ethical and are not looking for foreign volunteers. The best way to screen those from the ones that are just a business is to investigate a little bit more. The ethical orphanages will never let you be close to the children, they will never let you build anything (unless they legally hire you to do so).

They WILL allow you to volunteer only after completing an intensive course and making a commitment of at least six months (mostly doing computer work or related activities related to your degree and education). And of course, they will never ever ask you to pay money in order to volunteer. Never. In fact, some of them might actually “pay” you with free accommodation and/or food.

How about helping your local community?

If you’re really keen about helping people (which is really good, trust me), then how about volunteering at your local community either after or before your trip? If you’re not a constant nomad, I’m sure that you can dedicate your weekends to a good cause. And trust me, you will be a better role model to the local children since they can easily relate to who you are and the hope you’re giving them is a real one.

Should people stop volunteering abroad? Yes, and I believe that once they finally do, the same governments and NGO will soon realize that the cost of running an orphanage with rental kids is just not worth it without the foreign revenue and they’ll start to do the real job: Finding new homes for the orphans. But unless the demand for orphans decreases, things will still continue to look grim for the orphans, all thanks to the good intentions of people who want to volunteer abroad.

Have you ever volunteered abroad? How was your experience? Would you do it again?

Volunteering at Orphanages

Volunteering at Orphanages

65 Responses

  1. Syd

    I’ve also always been appalled by the idea of “paying to volunteer.” If you’re actually doing any good, they wouldn’t have to pay you. If you’re paying to volunteer, clearly your money is what’s helping—not your presence. I’m glad you linked to that article on Medium. I read it the other day and I think she does an excellent job of articulating her point. Volunteering, regardless of where you do it, shouldn’t be about YOU. I worked with Un Techo para Mi Pais when I lived in Argentina and I think they are a great example of an organization that emphasizes local control and is extremely (sometimes brutally) realistic about what is actually helping. Even so, probably a financial donation (if i had had any money, which I didn’t really) would have been more valuable to the situation than I was.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Exactly, money is always a better option than being physically there. In Argentina and Brazil there’s something called “poverty tour”, which is basically a tour of a Favela (called Villas Miseria in Argentina), meant to educate travelers about how the other half lives. The money goes to the tour company and the people barely get any income whatsoever. I did one in Rio without investigating beforehand and I felt like part of the problem once the tour was over.

  2. Tim

    I am in total agreement with your you and what you wrote. I recently returned from Cambodia where there is a big push against volunteering at or touring orphanages. The whole idea of touring an orphanage is disgraceful but some folks do it for the very reasons you outline above. I have done a volunteer stint abroad and will admit it was one of the best experiences. It was a medical trip where the intention was to bring supplies to outlying regions in the Himalayas. We were in places for two days at a time (total 5 weeks) and therefore bonding with anyone was almost non-existent. It was a great feeling and I do recommend that everyone do it at some point but as you mention; choose wisely. Children should be out of the mix. Sending money is far more useful as long as it goes to the right cause, To your point of why people would ever pay to volunteer it is because it prevents the system from being abused. If it was all free you would get many people signing up and then taking off after a week or two with a free trip to where-ever under their belts…not very cool but this happens. Making people pay is a way of finding those who have a real commitment to the project. Of course and once again, I agree that this also leads disreputable organisations to see the opportunity for a profit. The solution is beyond me but helping others does help yourself. Just make sure, as much as you can, that the reasons behind your decision are sound and not based on ego or high fives.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      That sounds amazing, Tim, I would love to visit the Himalayas, specially on a very significant assignment such as yours, I think that what you describe (medical trip) is a very good option for volunteers that want to create a meaningful positive impact. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Travelling Book Junkie

    I have never volunteered or looked into volunteering abroad so this article has been a real eye-opener for me. I agree, that if you want to help people start with your local community that way you can see the difference you are making to the area you are living in although granted some people are nomadic which makes this slightly more difficult. Thanks for sharing your views on this. :)

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      You’re welcome! I agree that for some people volunteering is not viable due to their status as nomads or due to work related reasons, that being said, sometimes small donations can really make a difference.

  4. Gwen.

    I volunteered as a secondary school teacher in rural Kenya for a year back in 2003. The school was remote and third tier, and they were way understaffed; they were actually “employing” recent high school graduates to fill in some classes. The students really struggled with English classes, even though English (as the Official Language) is part of the curriculum from age 7 (Swahili is the National language). I didn’t feel like I was taking anyone’s job, since the post had been vacant for years, and as a native English speaker, I was really a boon to the school. My students’ English scores improved by massive margins. That said, the longer I lived and worked there, the smaller and more insignificant I felt, just a tiny person in the midst of a very big need. By the time my stint was up, I felt a little abashed that I thought I could “help” these students, since one year was not enough time to even learn my environment, let alone build lasting change. And I felt that I was abandoning the community that had welcomed me (I was). It takes a lot of time to understand a place and a people, and all the forces that drive them. The more you know, the less you understand.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      That’s a very touching story, Gwen, I specially loved your phrase “The more you know, the less you understand” and I totally agree. Thanks for sharing it!

  5. Bianca Malata (@ItsAllBee)

    Oh my GOD!!! I CANNOT thank you enough for writing this post and with such great care to details. I have always wondered why I should actually pay to help?! I always volunteer to mentor at schools in London and each time I have to do a CRB and it appears all of these places mentioned will just allow any one near children, people who could be dangerous to the welfare of the kids. Its terrible. And this money probably never makes it to the kids. Sharing this post as much as I can.

  6. tammyonthemove

    Thank you for writing this article. I am an aidworker (and have also volunteered locally and overseas) and have worked in Cambodia for two years, so I know all too well how exploitative the orphanage business is. If you are a social worker then you can volunteer in an orphanage. If you are a teacher then you can teach. If you are an IT person then you can volunteer for an NGO and help them with their IT. But please please if you have no real skillset then don’t volunteer abroad. Just because you have a better education then a lot of local people doesn’t mean that you are qualified to help them. International Development is a very complex issue and it takes years and years (generations!) of work to make a change to local issues. Tourists should let the professionals do the job. If people really want to volunteer then they should check out your local NGOs or even international NGOs that operate in your their country, i.e. UNICEF. Organizations like that always need people to help them with their fundraising for example.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Exactly! I can think of at least 5 different ways in which college-educated volunteers can be used by orphanages to actually find a home for the orphans but instead they are reduced to manual labor and teaching English.

  7. Britany Robinson

    The topic of voluntourism is such a difficult issue. It’s frustrating that people that really do what to do some good in the world when they travel are often sucked into unethical situations. You just really have to do your research. I’ve personally have an unfortunate voluntourism experience and will probably never do it again. It’s really sad that certain institutions ruin it for others that might really need the help.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Exactly! It’s a vicious circle really: Corrupt orphanages have a lot of resources (thanks to voluntourists) and so they are able to advertise and increase their reach while the few ethical orphanages are ignored, even by their own government!

  8. The Crowded Planet

    Dear Raphael, thank you so much for sharing this article. I had already read about the girl’s experience in Tanzania and I was appalled about the whole thing. I honestly cannot believe that something like hiring children out to orphanages is allowed to happen. This is very, very wrong indeed. At the same time, I have long been trying to convince friends and families travelling to developing countries that just giving things out to children (sweets, coins, pens and so on) does nothing to solve their problem. The root of this issue is that people do these things to feel better about themselves. If only they knew what is really going on! I am going to share this like crazy. Thanks Raphael!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Hand-outs and freebies are an horrible thing to do since they’re barely used by the children (most of the items are actually resold after the generous foreigner walks away!). In Cambodia there’s a network of people doing the powder milk scam, I wrote about it here, it’s really shocking and depressing!

  9. wisemonkeysabroad

    What an eye-opening, informative post! Thank you so much for the rundown. We have heard negative stories behind volunteering with animals is not what it’s cut out to be (i.e. in a panda research centre etc) ….hadn’t really thought something similar could apply to humans too :(

  10. Karen Warren

    I’ve often wondered about those volunteering holidays. I think there are times when volunteers can be of use – some conservation work, or long term placements for those with appropriate qualifications – but the key must be to find out exactly what you will be doing, and whether you can honestly supply the necessary skills. Any work involving people (like orphanages) relies upon building up relationships, which is impossible in a short space of time.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I agree, it’s all about qualifications. I wouldn’t mind if a medical doctor from outside decided to volunteer in a local community, I will actually applaud him for his sacrifices but 20-something college students who believe that one week at an orphanage will actually help the locals? No-no.

  11. Elena (http://gonewiththebackpack.blogspot.com/ )

    It´s a very interesting topic you bring up here! I had the same experience trying to volunteer in an animal refuge in South America…you end up paying for you stay at the refuge much more than you would pay staying in a hostel and eating in restaurants 3 times a day, and working full time on top. And when you offer to cover your own expenses and just help the animals (also full time of course), guess what the answer is….
    On the other hand I am from a country with lots of orphanages (Bulgaria) and we all know how difficult life is for the kids there. I just hope that they are not used to benefit someone but I really doubt it. I happened to visit an orphanage near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 2 years ago and while playing with the kids (mentally defective children) I had to hide myself a few times so the kids don´t see my tears…You have to be made of stone not to be moved by the sight of them. They really had nothing and nobody. I am pretty sure you don’t need to pay in order to volunteer there, you just bring old clothes, toys, food or just play with the kids, anything counts. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any volunteers, just local organizations trying to raise money in their name.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Volunteering with animals is also a touchy issue, I will actually embark on some projects next week that involve staying at animal sanctuaries here in Mexico and I hope to provide a more elaborate take on the subject. Who knows, maybe volunteering with animals is a better option than volunteering with people :)

  12. She Dreams of Travel

    I could not agree more with some of the points you made here. It really boils my blood that like you said helping kids in Africa gets more high fives than helping in your local community. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Kids in Africa need help and in some ways maybe even more so than the kids in your local area (depending where you live of course), but I just feel that so many people who go overseas to do volunteer work for one or two weeks do it more just for the cool points than for the actual work they are doing. (This is also why I hate celebrities who think they’re so awesome for adopting foreign babies when they have the time and the money and the lawyers to easily adopt a child from their own country who is in need.) Or if it’s not for the cool points then maybe because as you said they didn’t really take the time to think about the impact they would be having. Medical trips aside, I think volunteering should require longer commitments and at the very least a background check! It’s so sad to hear that there are children being exploited to use orphanages as a business. I hope this changes in the near future.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      A psychology professor of mine once said that charity is a very selfish action. Of course, most of the class disagreed but his point was very valid: There is a very strong neural stimulus for helping people that makes donors and volunteers feel better about themselves and, on a subconscious level, creates a drive for more and more. The poorest the person, the better the giver feels. That’s why most people that volunteer abroad will never think about volunteering locally: satisfaction.

      • She Dreams of Travel

        I havent volunteered overseas, but I have volunteered locally, and it was quite the rewarding experience. I think anyone considering volunteering abroad should definitely give it a try at home first. And I can totally understand to a certain degree where your psychology professor was coming from. At a certain level volunteering is for how it makes us feel.

  13. Stacey

    Thank you for posting this! I really appreciate that you’ve picked appart the volunteerism industry!

    When I read the part about Cambodian families being paid to ‘lend’ their children to orphanages, I couldn’t beleive it until I thught, wait…. what happened when I was in Cambodia?

    When I was there, there were tone’s of child beggers asking westerners for money. These kids would be in filthy rags and often they’d say things like, “give me money so I can go to school!” and then off to the side you’d see their manicured parents off to the side egging them on.

    When one considders how much they make begging/lending their children out, I’m not surprised they do it. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and not encourage that. Children need to go to school. Education can be their way out of poverty if they are allowed access to it.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Sadly, the average visitor doesn’t have time to rationalize the big contradiction that is taking place before his eyes: if you give the kid money…he will definitely NOT go to school, he will just ask more money to other people. Visitors definitely need to be educated!

  14. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist

    I’ve volunteered. My conclusions are as yours: you should always do something connected to your professional skills. You should do something through a well-organised institution which has a deep understanding of local conditions and is in fact managed by locals, who will deploy your skills in a specific and useful way. There should be an interview process and during this process they should explain their needs and your specific duties in detail so you can arrive fully prepared to start.

    You should avoid working directly with the target group (children/animals/patients) and instead seek positions through which your skills will benefit the target group long after you’re gone, via locals who are there to stay. You should try to view it as a chance to build ongoing relationships with these locals, offer remote support as able, and repeated/long-term support for preference.

  15. Jon @ jonistravelling.com

    I love that Onion article, really funny! I completely agree that people should volunteer in their own countries first. While staying at a guesthouse in Cambodia I overheard an interview with a South African who was volunteering. I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t lending a hand in his own country – they definitely need it. I guess it’s easier/more fun in Southeast Asia!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Yes, it’s a very bad social phenomena. People look at people who volunteer at home as normal while seeing people who volunteer abroad as heroes who make great sacrifices! I really don’t get it :/

  16. Bemused Backpacker

    TOTALLY agree with you here mate! Voluntourism is NOT real volunteering and it is doing so much harm. When anyone asks me how to volunteer (usually with baby orangutans in the jungle or elephants, or some small poor children in an African village) my first response is usually try your local homeless shelter or other community volunteer programme at home first before they travel. Their true motivation usually becomes very apparent. It is nowhere near as sexy as boasting about volunteering in an orphanage in Africa or with cute animals in the jungle to their mates is it? I do get quite angry about this because there are some REAL genuine volunteer organisations out their who genuinely need help, and these vulture voluntourism agencies and the mentality of voluntourists with a superhero complex out to save the world aren’t doing anything to help anyone.

  17. Manouk - Bunch of Backpackers

    Great article. Unfortunately, volunteering does not alway mean you’re actually helping (even though intentions are good). During my travels I also saw some volunteering in orphanages, and often volunteers would only stay for a few days meaning the children had to say goodbye really quickly each time.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I can only imagine the depression of the orphans when they make a connection with a volunteer and said volunteer leaves and never bothers to even write back!

  18. Angela Anderson (@angelatravels11)

    Very interesting post. I haven’t traveled and volunteered before and would definitely consider it in the future. I agree that if you just want to volunteer, it is best to start local and help where you live. Thanks for all the tips and advice.

  19. Samantha @mytanfeet

    I absolutely agree, I was under the spell that “I would change the world!” when I signed up for a non profit volunteer program in Central America… for a huge hefty fee. Granted I was actually helping dogs and cats but still. These organizations are just taking advantage of people’s intentions which may be good, may be bad and exploiting the locals in the process. I could go into a huge rant about this but I’ll save it haha. Excellent post Raphael!

  20. Jempi

    Thanks for the advice and good tips Raphaël. I have never volunteerd while traveling. Here in Belgium, when I was younger I volunteerd each summer holiday and it always was a great experience. Nice post!

  21. Fie

    One of my friends volunteered in Ghana and I just love all the stories and love she can share from her experience down there :)

  22. Sharon @ Where's Sharon?

    I have never understood people paying to volunteer either.

    I have done it twice overseas and countless times at home. Both times I did it overseas, it was something I did in the afternoons while studying spanish in the mornings in Guatemala. One of the things I did was stuff envelopes and help a NGO with their databases (I worked in IT). The organisation relied on foreign tourists for these types of jobs, spending all their donations on what the organisation did. The second time, I worked at an after school program for primary school kids who would have been home alone otherwise. Again, the organisation relied solely on foreigners. We were not taking the jobs of locals as there was no money to pay people.

  23. Yummy Planet (@YummyPlanetBlog)

    Very interesting article. I’d never really thought about this (and I’ve never volunteered abroad) but it makes sense. It’s sad to see how people get fooled by this kind of tourism. My way to help people abroad is choosing my accommodations and activities as well as I can to support local businesses. And it also means I don’t always try to find the cheapest hostel/restaurant/… But you need time to research and check the adresses beforehand to avoid fake “ecotourism” places for example.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Excellent perceptive about ecotourism and how some hotels fake it in order to attract more travelers! Having a backyard garden does not make a place ecotouristic!

  24. The Caffeinated Day Tripper

    About a decade or so ago, I got involved in a campaigning/advocacy organization that takes action (not donations) to end extreme poverty and preventable disease in Africa. It’s nonpartisan (so important in America), raises the public awareness and works WITH politicians (I am incessantly writing my elected officials) to fight preventable disease, invest in agriculture/ nutrition and, most recently, to demand transparency in poverty-fighting programs and in the countries resources to avoid corruption, monitor how aid is used and direct some of the wealth back to the folks who deserve it. Right now we are working to get the Electrify Africa Act passed– a House bill that will bring electricity to 50 million people in Africa for the first time. A HUGE boost against extreme poverty. This can be done at home or on the road via my computer, iPhone or good old paper & pen. There are so many ways to help that don’t require travel or paying a dime…just your time. Great post!

  25. Amber Ray

    Great (and thought-provoking) article! I experienced kind of what you mean in a round about way… I lived in Thailand for a year and a half finishing my Masters thesis, which is geared towards NGO work. While I was writing, I ran out of funding from my school. I was trying to find NGO work to fill the rest of my time and build my resume, but it was difficult because so many placements were filled with tourists just finding ways to extend their stay in SE Asia, and they were paying whereas I couldn’t afford to. It was really frustrating on my end, because in a lot of ways it’s like the opportunities have dwindled in my field, for people really trying to build a career with educated intention to help create actual foundational/systemic change, in exchange for those who just want to have a cool Facebook photo. Totally agree with you also that this sort of voluntourism really ends up doing much more harm than good for the situations themselves as well!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Amazing perspective, Amber, thanks for sharing it and yes, I absolutely agree that voluntourism makes life hard for people who really want (and know how) to make a difference!

  26. inpursuitofadventureblog

    I never understood the concept of paying to volunteer… Just never made sense. Thanks for the tips for helping to find places wiling to accept volunteers and actually do some good

  27. Michael

    I do agree with some of what you say, but not the blanket statement to just not volunteer abroad. If done right it can be helpful but of course this requires a lot of things to fall in place.

    Two years ago I volunteered in India in an orphanage. I didn’t find them online or anywhere, I found them through AIESEC, a global network of young people who place students in internships abroad. I was living in the orphanage for two months, for free. They never asked me to pay for my accommodation or my food.

    And I wasn’t taking anyone’s jobs. They run their own school and have an English teacher, I was allowed to teach whatever I liked or not teach at all, only requirement: make sure the children are happy.

    For these kids, from super poor backgrounds, some orphans, some abandoned, some suffering from HIV, it is very special to get attention and love and affection from an outsider. We realized (there were four girls from Brazil and Egypt with me as well) that we were looked at differently because of our skin colour, us being internationals. We wanted these kids to understand that just because we’ve had an education, are from overseas or have a different skin colour, is absolutely no reason for them to treat us differently.
    We made a point of eating every meal with them, from the same plates, the same food, even though they kept offering us bigger plates, special curries and chairs. In everything we did we tried to avoid special treatment and to live just as they did.

    I completely agree with not paying to volunteer, and I think a major issue is that people approach orphanages directly. If one goes through a reputable and well-known network with local connections, and there are many, one would probably easily find the places to ethically volunteer at. The lack of a background check is a little concerning, though I was interviewed in my country before even being allowed to see the opportunities available.

    Abandonment is another important issue, and one of the reasons I am torn about that orphanage I was at taking more volunteers (they haven’t since I’ve been there, but I have been back to visit them another 5 times and skype with the kids regularly). It is tough for the kids to meet someone and get close to them, especially as we lived there, and then never hear from them again. I’ve made it a point to go back and keep in touch via Skype, I know the managers very well, I’ve gained some insights into their finances and governance model, and I’ve helped raise funds to build a library and renovate the boys’ room, but I always first consult the managers to find out what their most pressing need is, and how they want to solve it.

    There are a lot of pitfalls to voluntourism, and 90% of it is probably not really doing any good, chances are most of it isn’t doing much harm either, not long-lasting, but of course some is. But don’t write it off completely, because if done right it can do a lot for people.

    My kids in India have improved a lot in their English skills, their geography (from not even knowing what continents are to being able to point out my home city on a map). And I’ve gained a family overseas. I know their individual background stories, their dreams, which kid is good at math and who’s a great dancer. And there are stories like that out there, I’ve met others with these stories, and I think it’s important to highlight those, too.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Hi Michael, I just read your article at Medium and the problem I have is that your volunteer experience completely changed your way of thinking (and that’s good!)…but not the one of the people you were supposed to help (I’m pretty sure an average Indian boy could have learned Geography from an Indian professor, claiming otherwise is just plain elitism).

      I would like to invite you to read this article by Ivan Illich called “To hell with good intentions” http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm

      To quote him: “Suppose you went to a U.S. ghetto this summer and tried to help the poor there “help themselves.” Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, of your status as middle-class college students on a summer assignment. You would be roundly rejected, no matter if your skin is white-as most of your faces here are-or brown or black, as a few exceptions who got in here somehow.”

  28. Bob R

    If you want to take a ‘poverty tour’ –and I do encourage people to– go on one organized and operated by those that are actually living the poverty. There are plenty of decent examples. It just takes some hunting to find them.

  29. Louisa

    To the author of this piece- ( I just volunteered in Bulgaria and found out something extremely disturbing). I’m not sure if I’m allowed to write about it and if it safe for myself personally. However, there is a story there that needs to get out. It is very much similar to your article.

  30. HG

    This is true, and it isn’t. In Eastern European orphanages, no effort is made to help those kids find homes. Families find out their kid has Down Syndrome, or is blind, or delayed, autistic, etc and leave them at the hospital. Or in a box in a ditch. They live in an institution until they die. Some starve to death due to malnutrition. Weaker children can’t feed themselves and the institutions are understaffed/don’t care. This isn’t 3rd hand weepy gossip – I know of 3 familes through an advocacy group who were raising funds to adopt and the children starved to death while they were trying. A family who brought home a 16 year old girl with Down Syndrome (her only health issue that didn’t develop as a result of institutionalization) who weighed 19 POUNDS. Self-soothing rocking or thumb sucking leads to being tied or straightjacketed with oversized clothing. One little boy had his thumb amputated because he sucked it to the point of infection. The “voluntourists” you comfortably disparage are the only link, the ONLY link and rare at that, to the outside world. They are connected with groups internationally who advocate for, find families, pay for additional medical care because the orphanage can’t or won’t. Pictures and video and first-hand accounts are the only way disabled kids can be pulled from these places in Ukraine, Romania, Latvia…. and that only happens when someone comes to volunteer, then as future families adopting come in and do follow ups. Otherwise some of those kids would sit in the crib inside in the same room until they die. We are in the process of adopting now and it is nothing but bribes and horror trying to stomach it. It’s all well and good to sneer at people’s “elitism” as you throw it all away to travel the world – but there are often not local people who want to do the work, often the only contact people will have with anyone who wants to help them will be these do-gooders being put down here. People in the US wouldn’t take it the same way because we don’t treat people as horribly as they are treated in these places, and because every class of people has cultural entitlement that just isn’t present in many other places who actually DO appreciate people running summer camps or knitting hats or making sensory toys or providing the only physical touch they might get in an entire year.