Visiting Orphans: Voluntourism

Voluntourism combines two distinct activities: volunteering and tourism. Essentially, this entails individuals traveling to other countries to volunteer, typically in deprived or underprivileged communities. The intention is to give something back while also gaining valuable experiences and absorbing the culture of the foreign land. Destinations are often diverse, ranging from densely forested jungles to sprawling urban landscapes, engaging in various projects from teaching English to building infrastructure.

Understanding the Concept of Voluntourism

However, as innocent and noble as these intentions may seem, the voluntourism industry is currently in the throes of debate. Critics argue that the work performed by voluntourists might not always be beneficial. In fact, it may sometimes even cause harm and perpetuate stereotypes. There are considerations of language barriers complicating the effective transmission of education and cultural differences delicately straddled, leading the conversation toward the effectiveness and potential consequence of this growing trend.

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The Growing Trend of Visiting Orphans

In recent years, there has been a marked upsurge in the number of international tourists choosing to volunteer at orphanages. This surge is particularly prominent in developing countries, where poverty is rampant, and orphanages are frequently overcrowded. The desire to give back, to make a positive impact in the lives of the less privileged, often drives these tourists. This trend is attracting not only individual volunteers but also schools and organizations that send groups of students or employees to ‘do good’ during vacation or break periods.

On the surface, this trend paints a picture of empathy and altruism, though essentially, it has its roots in the rise of “voluntourism”. Voluntourism mixes volunteer work with tourism, enabling travellers to combine sightseeing with a sense of social responsibility. Orphanage volunteering offers a poignant experience that fulfills this criteria, pulling at potential volunteers’ heartstrings with the hope of changing lives in desperate need of help. However, this growing trend raises a set of complex issues, some of which are harmful and deeply entangled with child welfare concerns, exploitation, and cultural insensitivity.

Potential Harm to Orphans

While the intentions behind voluntourism may be pure and benevolent, the repercussions might not always foreshadow positive outcomes, especially when concerning children involved. Orphanages worldwide become hotspots for these voluntourism excursions, attracting tourists with a keen interest in contributing to bettering lives of less fortunate children. Unbeknownst to many, this budding trend often ends up causing more harm than doing good.

Children in these orphanages often form emotional attachments to the volunteers who come and go, leaving the kids in a continuous cycle of attachment and abandonment. This inconsistency in their early developmental years can potentially lead to severe emotional and psychological trauma. Further, there is the escalating issue of orphanage trafficking, where children are torn from their families under false pretenses to present a sympathetic scenario to unsuspecting tourists. Therefore, while voluntourism embarks to be an enriching experience, it, unfortunately, leads to the inadvertent compromise of numerous children’s wellbeing.

Cultural Sensitivity and Its Role

Cultural sensitivity plays a significant role in voluntourism as it helps visitors understand and respect host communities and their way of life. It encourages a more meaningful and enriching connection with the locals and their environment. The goal of cultural sensitivity isn’t merely to avoid behaving in ways that might offend the host culture. It also affirms the value of learning and understanding diverse cultures, practices, and values, thereby supporting solidarity between tourists and their host communities.

In the context of voluntourism and visiting orphanages, being sensitive to the host culture can prevent unintentional harm to the children and the community where tourists volunteer. For example, understanding the local customs surrounding child-rearing and discipline can help voluntourists interact effectively and appropriately with the children and their caretakers. Thus, being culturally sensitive is crucial in ensuring that voluntourism contributes positively to the community, rather than becoming another form of cultural imposition or domination.

The Question of Exploitation

The concept of voluntourism has garnered criticism, with skeptics pointing to the looming question of exploitation. Critics argue that while volunteers indeed harbor good intentions, the practice itself may inadvertently exploit the underprivileged communities it aims to serve. This occurs as these communities often take a backseat, their needs, customs, and the long-term impact of volunteer interventions overlooked in favour of creating an enriching experience for the volunteer. The element of voyeurism, where poverty becomes a spectacle for the privileged, is often intertwined with voluntourism, leading to a paradoxical situation where helping can turn into hurting.

Furthermore, it is important to examine how this narrative of help and philanthropy is often framed within a context of cultural superiority. It’s a dynamic that feeds into age-old stereotypes, emphasizing the helplessness of the developing world while positing the developed world as their saviours. This creates an imbalance of power which can have profound psychological impacts on the communities in question and also reduce the ability of these regions to develop their own sustainable solutions. The question, therefore, centres not merely around physical exploitation, but also the deeper, more insidious mental and emotional exploitation that can occur.

The Influence on Local Economies

While voluntourism can have a generous intent, it affects local economies in ways that are often far more complex than visitors realise. Local communities can become economically dependent on the influx of tourists, shaping their economies around these temporary stays. This can turn into a detrimental cycle as self-sustainable enterprises are frequently neglected, affecting the natural course of local economic growth. Insignificant as it might seem to a tourist, buying locally made goods, using local workforce, and promoting local businesses encompass positive measures which one should intentionally adopt.

Additionally, traffic from voluntourism can disrupt local labour markets. As volunteers often work for free or minimal expenses, local people might find themselves unable to compete. This could lead to unemployment, underemployment and wage reduction among locals, especially in vulnerable sectors. The influx of foreign money aimed towards local services and tourism also often leads to an increase in prices, making goods and services less affordable for local inhabitants further disadvantaging them. Thus, recognizing the economic impact that voluntourism can have is a step towards understanding the greater picture associated with this trend.

Impact of Voluntourism

Negative ImpactsPositive Impacts
Economic Dependency: Local communities may become reliant on the revenue generated by tourists. This can lead to a lack of diversity in their economy and make them vulnerable if tourism numbers decrease.Boosting Local Businesses: Tourists’ demand for food, accommodation, transport etc., provides an income source for these sectors.
Disruption of Local Labour Markets: As volunteers often work for free or minimal expenses, locals may find it difficult to compete. This could result in increased unemployment and wage reduction.Promoting Cultural Exchange: Voluntourism allows cultural exchange between visitors and locals which helps promote understanding and respect among different cultures.
Neglecting Self-sustainable Enterprises: The focus on catering to tourists’ needs might cause local businesses that are not directly linked with tourism to be overlooked, stunting economic growth.
Inflation: The influx of foreign money into local services and tourism can cause an increase in prices, making goods and services less affordable for locals.

In conclusion, while voluntourism has its benefits such as promoting cultural exchanges or supporting certain sectors within the local economy; it is crucial that we consider its potentially detrimental effects too like fostering economic dependency or disrupting labour markets. It’s important that steps are taken towards ensuring that this form of travel is done responsibly so as not to harm but rather support these communities.

Click here, if you would like to support our lovely orphans in Uganda. We don’t ask for much, every dollar can have a huge impact!


What is the concept of voluntourism?

Voluntourism is a combination of tourism and volunteering. It refers to a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity or non-profit organization in the country they are visiting.

Can you elaborate on the growing trend of visiting orphanages?

The trend of visiting orphanages as part of a travel experience has seen a significant increase in recent years. This involves tourists visiting orphanages to interact with and often provide support to the children residing there.

How can voluntourism potentially harm children?

There are concerns that voluntourism can potentially harm children. This can happen when orphanages or similar establishments are run poorly or unethically, exploiting the children for financial gain. Additionally, developing attachments to short-term volunteers can lead to emotional distress for the children when those volunteers leave.

Can you explain the role of cultural sensitivity in voluntourism?

Cultural sensitivity plays a crucial role in voluntourism. It’s important for volunteers to respect and understand the cultural norms and values of the country they are visiting. Failing to do so can lead to misunderstandings and can potentially harm the local communities.

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