The recent high profile press on the potential issues associated with orphanages, and how volunteering relates to this, is something we welcome where it promotes awareness, encourages transparency and helps eradicate harmful practices.
J.K. Rowling, founder and president of the Lumos Foundation, has turned a powerful spotlight on the topic, most recently on exploitative practices in eastern and southern Europe. We hope that with the help of Lumos and all the stakeholders, new solutions will be found and there will be less cause to raise these points in future.
But what are the key issues? And how does this relate to volunteering? And what does Outreach International do to address them?
The number one issue is the commercialization of an orphanage – when an orphanage is set up and maintained primarily to exploit the income generated from donors.
Donors come in many forms; they may be rich North Americans or Europeans dropping in during a tourist visit, credible NGOs making grants, donations from clubs such as Rotary or the Lions, or income related to volunteers, whether independent individuals, or those organised through a placement organisation.
When an orphanage is exploited it will create behaviours that are not in the interest of the children, including the very worst crime of human trafficking, moving children from family homes, usually under false pretences, into an orphanage in order to make a personal profit.
Clearly when this happens this is wrong. Very wrong.
No, we do not give any money to orphanages – we do not pay them to accept volunteers or incentivise them in any way.
Volunteers are only placed – free of any fees – when there is an agreed need for them, where they can make a difference, usually through teaching (see ‘What is an orphanage?’).
In this way, no orphanage or care home should be seeking to exploit our relationship, using it only to provide volunteer skills and capacity that cannot be sourced locally.
If money is requested from us then this is an alarm. If during a site visit we see evidence that volunteers are being pressed for donations, then this is an alarm. If we see an orphanage is being used to attract tourist visitors, then this is an alarm. Similarly if we see evidence of monies being attracted from other sources but not spent judiciously.
In the past we have rejected offers to supply volunteers in certain establishments and stopped working with others where we cannot support the leadership direction.
Have we bought solar panelling and a classroom computer for a home? Yes. Have we bought crash helmets for children using mopeds to travel outside of school? Yes. Have we bought a photocopier to allow them to copy school materials? Yes. But these are infrequent discreet gifts of goods, managed by our coordinators, and it does not constitute commercialization but the diligent actions of a social enterprise.
Firstly, we use our trusted local coordinators to introduce all of our projects. We do not accept the numerous approaches made to us remotely, asking us to send volunteers to a project, however worthy they may look.
Whether dealing with childcare or conservation, our country coordinators use their personal networks to take informal references locally to understand the background, mission, personalities and funding of each charitable project.
Only if they gain the support of our country coordinator, vetted in a local context, does a project then get visited by a UK Director. As an organisation we visit all the charitable projects we support, something we see as fundamental to the placement service our volunteers are paying us for.
We then further evaluate the project to check that not only does it look like it is being run along ethical lines, fulfilling a purpose validated by our country coordinator, but there is a real role for volunteers.
Unravelling this question is also helpful in understanding the ethical points. Too often the headline picture is of institutions where infants are being constrained against their will to attract sympathetic dollars or sexual predators. Eastern Europe is now heavily in the spotlight on these grounds.
Where this is happening it is a dreadful act and one that must be stopped, but it is not fair or representative to project that picture on all orphanages, in all countries. By doing so you damn all the inspirational, caring people who work to improve the quality of life of children in their care.
What we witness varies by country, and so it is best to summarise by geography:
In central and south America the ‘orphanages’ we support are homes for children who have been referred there by local authorities. A small number may have no parents or family to look after them, but the majority are those who have been removed from a family where the parents are in prison, are sex offenders, addicts, abusers, or just incapable of parenting.
The children are removed to the orphanage where they can be offered care and education, and if they are lucky a degree of counselling. The homes are typically run by inspirational women and a meagre staff trying to do their very best for the children in their care, but with limited resources.
It is certainly an objective of the staff to rehome the children, but often this is not realistic. There is no social services programme and no fostering culture to support this goal, and there are few families capable (financially or culturally) of taking on an abused 14 year old girl, who is also a mother to a child.
The resources they do have usually stretch to delivering (or funding) elementary schooling, food and accommodation – there is little or nothing in the toy cupboard. Spanish speaking volunteers therefore help boost the teaching capacity of the staff, acting as teaching assistants to classes run inside the home, and to run home-work clubs or recreational activities that would otherwise not exist.
In East Africa the orphanages are more often homes that take in children who are not able to be looked after by parents in rural areas, due to reasons of ill-health or poverty. Families might send their children to the homes where they can be looked after, given food and access to schooling either in the orphanage school, or in local state schools. Some may be orphans in the true sense, but most have family connections that they return to during the summer and Christmas holidays.
Our volunteers help provide teaching assistance in the schools, usually working in bright, enthusiastic environments where the students enjoy the company of the volunteers for the energy and colour they bring. In the vibrant and laid back atmosphere of Kenya, the children are fun-loving and determined to milk every volunteer for all the entertainment and attention they can get.
Orphanages in Cambodia are tightly regulated by a government that endeavours to repair the damage caused by years of conflict in the past. A proliferation of private orphanages was clamped down on for the very reasons highlighted by Lumos, and now orphanages are either state run, or act as community schools (without taking in new children).
Outreach volunteers act as teaching assistants in these schools, which represent some of the toughest volunteer assignments. As well as coping with the rigours of living and working in Phnom Penh, volunteers are required to lesson plan and deliver lessons to a high standard, and we think these placements are most suitable for those students thinking of, or qualifying for, a career in teaching.
Nepal is a country that has suffered bad press in the past for the trafficking of rural children into urban orphanages for the purpose of attracting tourist donations.
Outreach do not support orphanages in Nepal, a country that is difficult to navigate in every sense, but we are very supportive of a day centre that provides schooling to some of the most disadvantaged children in Kathmandu, where volunteers act as teaching support.
Given the different types of homes we support, it is hard to generalise on the volunteer skills required and the benefits they bring. Some projects are looking for career social workers on a career break, who can transfer professional best practice to their staff, leaving a lasting legacy.
Most want volunteers for their English-teaching capacity, as speaking English is a means of improving the outlook for many of these children. The local teachers often have limited English and they want native English-speakers to support them in classes, and enable the children to practice with them inside and outside of lessons.
In Kenya this will be extended to include maths, science and education on basic health and hygiene.
We encourage all our volunteers to use any other talents they have in their placement. Whether music, dance, drama, art or sport, a good volunteer can help generate additional activities for the children, maybe not developing the whole class, but perhaps inspiring a few individuals through new ideas and activities.
The issue of short term volunteers (1-2 weeks) being disruptive to the progress of the children is a real one. Certainly volunteers who come and go in less than a month are unlikely to make a positive impact for a number of reasons, and for this reason we request volunteers to work a minimum of 2 months, ideally more, although this can be flexed if the volunteer is bringing professional skills to bear.
It is not ideal that even after 2 or 3 months a volunteer departs, but on balance we believe the positive impact volunteers make is greater than the disappointment felt when they depart. When I have asked the children if they are sad that ‘so-and-so’ has left, the answer is a quick sad ‘yes’, followed rapidly by ‘so please send us another volunteer, one who can play football …. please’
Volunteers are by their nature people with high energy, enthusiasm and a sense of fun, and new talents to share. The fact they are there for just a few months means this enthusiasm can be maintained – perhaps if they were there for a year they would show the same strains as the local staff. It is not surprising that the energy of volunteers brightens up the children’s day, albeit for a few months at a time.
We do our best to match every volunteer to the project that suits their experience and ambition for volunteering, where they are likely to make the biggest difference.
We ask volunteers to submit an online application and then perform as many interviews with them as necessary to assess their suitability and make a recommendation, before a booking is even made. This might mean we recommend a project or destination that is not a volunteer’s first choice, and in rare circumstances we will reject or defer a volunteer.
Using interviews is also an important part of our risk assessment, including the suitability/intentions of a volunteer to work with children; more so we believe than a DBS check, although neither can be completely fool proof. We do DBS checks where we are required to by local legislation, and where we feel it is appropriate to augment an interview. For many of our younger volunteers (the majority in this segment) we will ask for a reference from their school, University or employer, in regard to their suitability.
Once in country our local coordinator assesses them on the ground, to check they are adjusting culturally, and talks to the project leaders to ensure there are no issues arising.
We understand that orphanages are an undesirable outcome of social issues, and we would wish to see the need for them disappear, or for more caring solutions to become realisable.
We recognize that there are some orphanages being used to exploit circumstances that should be condemned, but there are many more being run by inspirational people who improve the lives of the children in their care.
Individual volunteers cannot change the long-term prospects of a child on their own, but their support and engagement can make a positive difference.
Good volunteers acting responsibly make a positive impact, acting as role models, supporting teaching staff and carers, adding capacity and offering a new dimension to the lives of the children. For many children, it will show that ‘other people’ really do care.