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Orphanage Tourism

Tourism and the Institutionalisation of Orphanages

By Rowena Clark-Hansen
State Director of Tasmania

Let's talk about orphanages.

These were big back in the days of Victorian England, being good fodder for children stories like Peter Pan and the BFG. However, for the welfare of children, institutionalised care is far from the dream. Broadly speaking, children need the individual and personalised care of at least one parent or primary care giver for healthy cognitive development. While residential care still has a minor role to play in the care of disadvantaged young people here in Australia, orphanages are a thing of the past: for good reason.

Globally, there around 8 million children in institutionalised care. The bulk of these are in low-income countries, many in neighbouring Cambodia. In response to this, we have seen a rising trend in what is called orphanage tourism, an industry worth billions of dollars annually.

Orphanage tourism usually involves travellers from wealthy countries travelling to low-income countries in order to do a short-term stint in an orphanage, providing care for children, helping out in infrastructure projects, or simply lodging in the community to experience the culture. The catch: children are exploited as tourist attractions. And around 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. 

When travelling, ensure that you have a positive impact.

Typical overseas trips can set you back a few thousand dollars, so there are some organisations that take advantage of this. Over the past decade, the number of Cambodian children in residential care has risen by over 75%, whilst the number of orphans has significantly decreased. The rising demand of orphanage tourism has seen children taken from their family unit- often from disadvantaged rural communities- with the promise of an education, employment, or simply a better life that an impoverished family cannot provide. The children then end up in ineffective care systems that fail to meet their needs.

Care of this kind can result in attachment disorders, lack of life skills, insufficient support systems upon reaching adulthood (leading to higher rates of crime and prostitution), and crucially leaves children in residential care vulnerable to close encounters with unqualified, unregulated, and sometimes unsavoury characters. This is a stark contrast to Australia, where there are high standards for children services workers.

Even so, the vast majority of people who volunteer in orphanages do so with good intentions. The desire to help vulnerable people and fight poverty drives this industry more often than not. This is why we need to identify ineffective ways of contributing, and thus look at ethical approaches that ensure we are not supporting the perpetual institutionalisation of children.

The reality is that poverty is not a quick fix. Poverty is complex, interrelated, and systemic. A short-term trip to offer your services to an impoverished community may not be the best way of helping out, especially if you’re neither qualified for the role nor properly understand the underlying conditions that cause poverty in that community. In fact, you may even be making a negative impact if you are not sufficiently informed.

Travelling to disadvantaged countries is a great way to educate your self on poverty, and can be an unparalleled experience. Listening and learning from people who live in poverty as a peer or co-worker is essential to the fight for a fairer and more just world. But more often than not, working to create a lasting impact on poverty starts at home.

Education is key to empowering young people in our region.

At Oaktree, we believe that educated and empowered young people are invaluable agents in fighting poverty. The best ways to do this are through social and political campaigning, collaboration between communities and organisations, and through working towards the empowerment of young people across the globe. We live in an interconnected world, and Australia has a major role to play in alleviating extreme poverty. There’s work to be done in the field, but education, awareness, and strong relationships with locals are paramount.

So, do your research before you get stuck in. Identify what role you can play in fighting poverty, and work your way from there. Be informed in your decision-making, and ensure that your actions are contributing to positive change.

Want to learn more? Check out Oaktree’s ­­­­­­Ethical Guide to Tourism for more information!