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Orphanage Voluntourism: Helping or Hurting?

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These troubling accusations raise important questions about one type of voluntourism that has grown into quite an industry. And while the recent Al Jazeera report is perhaps the most visible criticism of “orphanage tourism” to date, it is certainly not the only one. Many voluntourism insiders are trying to raise awareness about the potentially harmful effects of the practice.

Alexia Nestora is one. Nestora is a voluntourism industry consultant, has volunteered in countries the world over and runs a blog entitled Voluntourism Gal which she calls “a neutral outlet where topics important to voluntourism can be discussed.”

Nestora identifies what she sees as one of the main problems with orphanage volunteering. “It becomes the ‘pet the children’ project,” she said. “Everyone wants a picture with an African orphan for their Facebook page. It’s all about the volunteer and not the local community.”

This seems to be the case based on Nestora’s claim that only 10 percent of tour providers that offer these types of trips conduct background checks on potential volunteers. Ease of access seems to be paramount. And from a purely pragmatic business perspective, who can fault them? If companies insisted on background checks, they would potentially be shutting themselves off from a large and ever-growing market – vacationers who want to spend perhaps only half a day out of their cruise or other vacation volunteering with children.

“They’re not going to shut down their highest grossing product,” Nestora said, regarding companies that provide volunteer opportunities with children. “The industry is going to have to take a stand [in order for change to take place].” Because right now, these unvetted “volunteers” continue to pose a potentially huge threat to unprotected children especially in Southeast Asia, one of the world hotspots for child sex tourism.

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