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Why We Support Orphanage Volunteering

Daniel Radcliffe - IVHQ Executive Director

I’m a big believer in taking action. When I first volunteered in Kenya in 2006, I chose to go for many of the same reasons that our volunteers choose to head abroad today; to make a difference, to get outside my comfort zone, and to learn something new. I didn’t know a lot about Kenya but I did know that I wanted to immerse myself as much as I could in hands-on work that would genuinely make a difference. I enjoyed my time in Kenya, but was disappointed with the cost and the lack of engagement with the local community. As a result I started IVHQ with the vision of making volunteering abroad community-led and accessible to more people by placing volunteers into local organizations.

In the last 9 years we’ve maintained a focus on placing volunteers with local organizations in each of the 35 countries where we operate - I can’t stress the importance of working at a local community level enough. Every country, community and culture is different and it’s only by working at this level that you can truly see how volunteering makes an important and lasting contribution. This is true for every type of volunteering project, regardless of whether you’re working with a school, with an NGO, with wildlife, or with an orphanage.

One of the recurring critiques of the international volunteering movement is that volunteering with children, especially those in residential care, can be harmful. There is no shortage of people who are quick to offer damning advice to anyone considering a volunteer project working with children. These critics make sweeping generalizations of poor practice across all volunteer travel providers based on the unethical behavior of a small few, or by making assumptions on the needs of a community based on their own western culture or beliefs.

As one of the world’s most popular volunteer placement organizations, we’ve been on the receiving end of this critique and have always been happy to talk openly about it. Anyone who asks, gets an insight into how we work, and how the local teams we work with carefully choose every childcare placement. Some of these local teams do place volunteers at orphanages and residential child care centers and it’s important their voice is heard.

I recognize the issues that have arisen as orphanage volunteering has grown, and some of the incidents that have occurred are downright disgusting. However, I do have a big problem with individuals and campaigning organizations applying the blanket logic of “never volunteer in an orphanage” to a sector and an issue that requires a far more nuanced narrative. In most cases, volunteers in orphanages provide a vital source of hands-on support, energy and skill that makes a huge difference to the lives of children, and has a positive flow-on effect in the wider community. Not all orphanages are run by bogeymen out to exploit children or volunteers.

The role of a well-run orphanage is to provide an important social service that is otherwise not being provided by other parts of society. The critics will tell us that children should always be placed with family members and never in a residential care facility, and where this is appropriate, we completely agree. In a perfect world, children would grow up with their parents in a loving family home. In many cases this simply isn’t possible and residential care centers fill a gap as best they can. The demand on these centers is often greater than the resources they have access to and international volunteers therefore provide an important source of additional support. At the very least, volunteers pick up some basic workload that frees up other staff to focus more important educational and developmental outcomes for the children, and in many cases the contribution of time made by volunteers helps to ensure a greater number of children in need can have better access to this education and care. Because volunteers live locally, they also help to strengthen the community through their personal spending, and through the jobs created to supervise and direct them.

I recognize that some volunteering in orphanages is managed poorly, and there have been well publicized cases where social or political conditions have allowed poor practices to occur. But does that mean that orphanage volunteering as a practice should be stopped on a global scale? Absolutely not. It is critical to remember that the needs of a community will vary hugely depending on where you are in the world. On a recent visit to Kenya, I sat down with the host mothers of the orphanages our local team works with in Nairobi, and they were absolutely baffled when I explained to them some of the criticisms around orphanage volunteering. They were concerned when I explained how some people had exploited orphanage volunteering and the impact this would have on the children involved, but they were equally concerned that people who had never been to their orphanages and didn’t understand the challenges they faced, were campaigning for volunteers not to help them.

We’ve spent the last nine years observing individual children and communities change and develop as result of local organizations we work with placing volunteers in orphanages. We’ve heard first-hand from adults who have benefitted from growing up in residential care centers and they openly praise the role of international volunteers. We’re proud of the impact we’ve made and it’s clear that simply stopping orphanage volunteering outright would do more harm than good.

The problem I have with organizations who advocate for this practice to be stopped on a global scale is that they do not have the grassroots understanding about what would happen in each unique community, if all international volunteers stopped assisting orphanages. Their position suits their academic narrative and the perspectives of their backers, but I fear that following their logic would leave a huge gap, because I am yet to see a viable alternative for the thousands of children who currently benefit from the contribution that volunteers make to the organizations that house, feed and educate them. I strongly believe it is time for wider recognition that orphanages cannot be grouped into a “global bunch”, regardless of where they are in the world. It’s time for recognition that different communities have different challenges and needs, that every orphanage and every community is different and unfortunately family-care is not always a viable option for every child in the world.

In contrast to this approach of a blanket rule of criticism that is currently being applied, my hope is that good practice will increasingly be acknowledged and recognized, and that in collaboration we can help to lift orphanage volunteering standards around the word. Working with our local teams, IVHQ has developed a set of guidelines designed to help every team hosting IVHQ volunteers to make smart and ethical choices about the childcare organizations they choose to work with, and that could be applied globally. We share these guidelines openly and hope that other volunteer travel providers will adopt and implement similar standards.

We believe in doing what is right, and we strongly believe that volunteer travel done right, can change the world. Our challenge to critics of orphanage volunteering is this - if you don’t think orphanage volunteering is right - then provide the solution. Not by applying a broad, sweeping theory which isn’t practical for every orphanage or every community, but by looking at each orphanage on a case by case basis and understanding the real challenges they face. Some organizations are taking this approach but not enough.

This would be an easy fight for us to walk away from. It’s important to understand the orphanages our local teams work with are carefully selected, and make up only a tiny percentage - less than 5% - of our total volunteer contribution each year. We could ask the local organizations we work with to no longer place volunteers in orphanage placements, but that’s not right. It would be punishing the good orphanages out there who genuinely need the help, for the actions of a few bad others - it’s running away from the issue.

At the end of the day, local communities come first - we’re passionate about making a difference and we strive for continuous improvement in everything we do. When it comes to volunteering with children, their rights, needs and wellbeing need to come first. If better solutions can be established with the support of the local communities, then we will back them 100% - it’s time to become solutions focused.

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