Orphanage Voluntourism – Trafficking On Good Intentions

Each year, people from across the globe decide they want to do good in the world, so they grab their backpacks and head off to other parts of the world – often to much poorer places than where they come from – and volunteer their time to charitable causes. They’re called ‘voluntourists’ and they comprise a fast-growing part of the adventure travel market. But it turns out that many voluntourists are causing harm to those they are trying to help.

Weh Yeoh, CEO & Co-Founder, Umbo; Founder, OIC Cambodia

When Weh Yeoh set off from his home in Australia to travel in Vietnam, he soon found himself volunteering at an orphanage. “I really had no place being there,” Yeoh tells us. “I hadn’t had a child protection check, didn’t have a social work degree. I wasn’t introduced and vetted. And I was a mid-20’s male, left alone with vulnerable children all the time,” he recalls. “And what I realized was that as good as my intentions were, I wasn’t actually able to affect these people’s lives all that well.”

In this podcast we explore the reasons why the surge in orphanage volunteers may lead to child trafficking, and we ask who is benefitting from these experiences: vulnerable children or foreign volunteers? We also seek to discover better alternatives for those who want to do good in the world through short-term volunteer opportunities.

Anti-trafficking advocate Sophie Otiende

Plenty of voluntourists have crossed Sophie Otiende’s path in Kenya, where she works with young people who have been trafficked. You might think she would be happy to have volunteers help out at the rehabilitation center she runs for young victims of trafficking but she isn’t. “You have volunteers coming and thinking that they can rescue or they can save or they can assist by offering short-term help,” she explains. “And for the longest time there’s never been a professional critique of that system as to what skills are you bringing to the table, as to the fact that you are coming here to work with vulnerable people who need very specific help and essentially just being there is not enough,” she says.

Matthew Maury, CEO TEAR Australia

Despite their dubious skills and impact, voluntourists are actually causing harm by volunteering at orphanages. “It’s become an industry,” says Matthew Maury, CEO of the Christian international relief and development organization TEAR Australia. “The problem is the money.” Maury says there has been an increase in the demand among voluntourists for orphanage opportunities. “You’ve obviously got this demand that needs to be filled: we need more children,” he explains.

Maury asserts that the demand among voluntourists has led to child trafficking. “These children are being sent to institutions where they’re effectively being used to generate profits from the tourists who are looking to have an experience and are looking to, at the end of the day, feel good about how they’ve used their holiday and feel good about themselves and feel like they’ve contributed to a better world.”

Additional Resources

The Ethics of Nonprofit Storytelling: Survivor Porn and Parading Trauma, a Tiny Spark podcast with Sophie Otiende

BBC: Australia says orphanage trafficking is modern-day slavery

Reuters: Calls Mount To Stop Orphanages Exploiting Poor Children To Lure Money, Tourists

Sophie Otiende on Twitter

HAART Kenya’s website

Weh Yeoh’s website

Weh Yeoh on Twitter

Matthew Maury on Twitter

TEAR Australia’s website

ReThink Orphanages website

Matthew Maury’s insights on orphanages and ‘voluntourism’

Politifact on fact checking number of children in orphanages worldwide

Photo Credit: iStock













  1. Jo Hilton

    I can appreciate the points made in this podcast. As my husband and I are a therapist and social worker respectively, we understand that we come into our volunteer experiences with a great deal of education and experiences. We have traveled to several countries and have worked with local organizations and certainly realize that this topic is complicated.
    In my opinion, this podcast and article paints this issue with a broad brush and doesn’t reflect what we have experienced. When we travel and work at an orphanage, we have no illusions of “making a difference”. Our experience has been that we are more help to the staff than the children. My background as a social worker makes me particularly sensitive to situations where I might feel that children are being treated poorly and I have not experienced that. While there, we haven’t done anything more than help feed those young people who cannot feed themselves, change diapers, and assist the children in going outside for some sunshine.
    We have experienced staff members who care deeply for the children. In addition, the orphanage that we have worked with does not allow us in some areas because of their responsibility to those children and young people in their care.
    I would also argue that the US does continue to have orphanages, we have just re-named them as group homes or residential facilities. It’s misleading to say otherwise.
    With this being said, you have reminded me to be cognizant of the organizations we volunteer with, to do our research and to make sure we vet them appropriately. I do believe there is good work to be done across the globe and I hope that stories like these don’t deter people who have the capacity to help from doing so.

  2. Emily M.

    I once worked with an NGO in Central America leading medical students and doctors on “service-learning trips” where we would set up temporary clinics in rural villages without regular access to care.

    On one hand, it allowed patients to receive care and medication in areas that did not have health professionals and stocked pharmacies. Without a plan for the continuum of care, however, drop-in visits were less likely to have lasting impact on patient and community health. Furthermore, our presence undermined confidence in the local health system; I was told by many community members that, rather than visiting the nearest local clinic, they would wait for the next batch of “gringo doctors” to come because the quality of care was perceived as superior. (That being said, the nearest local clinic could sometimes be a 12 hour walk away, which of course was also a factor.)

    As the trip leader, I took great importance in facilitating discussions each evening after clinic to ask tough questions to the volunteers about global health, voluntourism and international development and whether our presence in these communities was beneficial or not.

    I did and do believe that there are ways that people can use volunteer experiences to gain a new perspective about how to effectively create and maximize impact in under-served communities, but the greatest potential most often lies within the quotidian actions and choices made within your own communities.

  3. Ktee

    Great episode!

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