There has been a growing movement advocating against sending volunteers, especially short term volunteers to work at orphanages in third world countries. Many well meaning individuals support this trend by re-posting and the signing of petitions, but I believe there is more to this than is immediately apparent.
They cite a number of factors as motivation, most of which are right on the money, but I fear that they may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Here is a short summary of the reasons that they give:
- Volunteering is not always in the best interest of the children.
- It can lead to an increase in the risk of abuse.
- Causes attachment and other developmental problems
- A large portion of children in orphanages have at least one living parent.
- Children develop best with their families, and not in orphanages.
- An "Orphanage Industry" is growing in third world countries.
You can find more information on the website www.bettervolunteeringbettercare.org
After many years of weighing up the benefits of orphanage volunteering, my wife and I uprooted ourselves, and our 18 month old son, to go and work at a Children's home in Swaziland. While not all of the problems above are present, some of them were immediately apparent.
I would like to make a counter argument, not because I completely disagree, but because I feel that short term volunteers can contribute in meaningful ways without necessarily having a negative impact on the children.
Let us first look at some of the statements made by the Better Care Network:
"80% of children living in orphanages have one or more living parent"
While this may be true in some places, here in Swaziland and in many other African countries, the prevalence of HIV/Aids has had a devastating impact on the population. The worst affected age group is 18-35 year olds, which in most countries would all be young parents. This means that for many children, the only living caregiver is either an older sibling, a grandparent or a member of their extended family.
"Children develop best when they grow up in families, not in orphanages"
There are also many children living in children's homes that come from dangerous or abusive home environments, children for whom it would most definitely not be better to live with their families.
These two points are obviously a bit generalized, but I feel that it is important to look deeper than the surface to ind the truth of the matter.
The next points are rather more complex:
"Volunteering in orphanages is not in the best interests of children? It can increase the risk of abuse, and cause attachment and other developmental issues."
Children in orphanages are already traumatized and even the ones who have lost nothing more than their parents are desperate for adult affection and attention. It is the reason why visitors to orphanages are swamped with little children trying to get a hug or a photo taken. I believe that removing volunteers from the equation is not the answer. The answer lies with the management of the orphanages. It is their responsibility to safeguard their children, and to protect them from potential harm that could be caused by short term volunteers, not by preventing volunteers from visiting, but by managing their involvement to maximize their benefit to the children.
The home that we work at has had their fair share of experience in dealing with many of the problems listed by Better Care Network. As a result, a number of policies have been formed for the protection of the children.
Protecting the children:
"Short term volunteers are to refrain from physical expressions of affection"
This is perhaps one of the most important rules. Even though the children desperately need physical affection, this is only allowed to come from trusted adults that are committed to long term service. It helps prevent the children from forming deep bonds with people that will only be spending a short time with them.
"Volunteers are not to spend time with any children in a private setting"
All interactions are to be done in groups in common areas. Because the children's homes cannot afford to do a complete background check on all volunteers, steps have to be taken to protect children from potentially harmful or abusive interactions with short term volunteers.
"Volunteers are not allowed to give any gifts to any of the children"
More accurately, any gifts have to be given to the directors, who will then evaluate the gift and make a decision that is in the best interest of the child.
"Volunteers are not allowed to take photographs of or with the children"
Orphan tourism is abhorrent and should be discouraged at all costs. These are real people, with real lives and real problems. They do not exist to give people a feeling of goodwill towards others.
"Primary care for the children is provided by permanent staff of the same cultural background as the children"
The children will eventually need to integrate into society, specifically, their own society. Because of this, the children live in family groups with a house mother that speaks their own language and understands the cultural environment.
The benefit of volunteers:
These are normally visitors that come for a few days, usually less than a week. They could be coming simply for a visit, or to work on a specific project.
Interaction with the children should be kept to a minimum, it is usually just basic exposure to the sort of work that the children's home does. Visitor volunteers are often professionals that are here for a specific purpose, such as medical, construction or educational work.
Short Term Volunteers:
Volunteers that come for a period of less than six months, usually as part of a missions or aid organization.
Short term volunteers can have more access to the children, contributing to things like after school tuition and sports and holiday programmes. Attachment does become a problem, but if the rules are followed, the impact is somewhat lessened.
Long Term Volunteers:
Any volunteer that comes for an extended period, but with a set date for their end of commitment. Also usually as part of a missions or aid programmme.
This is where attachment really becomes a problem. These volunteers are a semi permanent fixture in the children's lives. It is important to help the children deal with the loss when long term volunteers do end up leaving
These are volunteers that have chosen to make the children's home their life's work. They often are individuals that have participated in short or long term volunteering.
It is extremely important that the children should have stability in their lives. This is provided by people who commit their lives to serve at children's homes. Many of the other types of volunteers end up as permanent volunteers due to the impact that their previous experience has had in their lives.
It is clear that we cannot apply the same sort of thinking to all types of volunteers, and if you discourage short term volunteers, you may run into a problem whereby you do not have any people to grow into permanent volunteers. It is however very important to be very careful about how we allow volunteers to interact with the children.
If you are considering any type of volunteering at a children's home, please think long and hard about what you want to achieve, and think about whether or not it is in the best interest of the children.