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Orphanage Voluntourism: Helping or Hurting?

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While tour providers may be at fault in this realm, the orphanages themselves are not blameless either. “These institutions cannot obtain institutional funding since they operate outside of the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children,” explained Andy Hill, an NGO consultant based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “They have to rely on tourists – or volunteers – to keep their doors open. The best way to do this is to create an ‘empathic bond’ between the children and the tourist.”

He explains that some tactics include having orphans perform traditional Apsara dances for tourists (a recent trend in Cambodia), parading the orphans in front of visitors, and deliberately keeping the children in substandard living conditions to highlight the “need” for continued donations all intended to prey on the genuine sincerity of the most of the foreign visitors.

Perhaps one of the most damaging and hard-to-spot effects of short-term orphanage visits are attachment issues. These children, many of whom have undergone a major loss already in their lives, develop bonds with volunteers who then leave after a couple of weeks – or even a few days.

“Have you ever read tourist accounts of children in orphanages giving them the biggest hugs and not wanting to let go?” asked Andy Hill. “There’s a reason and it’s not good.” He says this perpetual cycle of short-term attachment followed by repeat abandonment is potentially very damaging to these impressionable children. And many tourists or volunteers are not likely to recognize this. How many times have you heard someone come back from a developing country and say, “It changed my life!”? But little thought is given to the children left in the wake of such travels.

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