J.K. Rowling is right – children deserve better than orphanage “voluntourism”

Almost as famous for her campaigning as she is for Harry, Ron and Hermione, J.K. Rowling took to Twitter this week to speak out against the practice of volunteering in orphanages and against poorly managed “voluntourism” placements – and I’m really glad she did, writes VSO CEO, Philip Goodwin

Rowling founded the charity Lumos in 2004, which works to reduce the use of orphanages or other institutional care homes for children, and has since been a staunch campaigner against the institutionalisation of children.

Researching the impact

Considerable academic research into the impact of volunteering in children’s homes and orphanages has found that the practice can have a detrimental psychological and emotional impact on children who come into contact with volunteers. 

A growing demand for voluntary placements in children’s homes and orphanages has also led to more children ending up in orphanages and other institutional care homes despite having families at home that are likely to be able to care for them. It is estimated that of the two million plus children who live in institutional care, a shocking four out of five have at least one living parent. 

Of the two million plus children who live in institutional care, a shocking four out of five have at least one living parent.

Making money

Institutions keen to meet the demand for volunteering opportunities (and to make money by doing so) could be encouraging vulnerable families to place their children in care in exchange for financial reimbursement, separating the child from the support of their family and leaving them open to serious harm.

In this stark account, Stephen Ucembe, who grew up in an “orphanage” in Kenya, explains: “So long as volunteers are funding or bringing donations, doors are always wide open in institutions, and there are few adequate child protection measures and systems in place.”

Better volunteering, better care

Volunteers who lack the proper skills, experience and background checks to work with young children add further to the risk for already incredibly vulnerable children. This is why VSO backs the Better Volunteering, Better Care  campaign to end international volunteering in residential care centres for children, including orphanages, and promotes ethical volunteering alternatives supporting children and families. If you haven’t already read it, here’s our commitment to the campaign that we put on the public record back in June:

“VSO has been working with volunteers for nearly 60 years to help address poverty and social exclusion across the globe. We recognise the valuable and compelling academic research that demonstrates the detrimental impacts that volunteer contact can have on institutionalised children, which is why VSO does not support such placements.

“VSO strongly welcome Better Volunteering, Better Care campaign on this issue and we are ready to work with all organisations to ensure that orphanage trips are consigned to history.”

Ending volunteering in orphanages

We’re proud to have made this commitment and to support ending volunteering in orphanages. International volunteering can be an incredibly powerful way to fight poverty and inequality, but as the sector continues to grow we must work together to ensure volunteering opportunities are ethical, sustainable and only ever in the interests of the communities we work in.

Simply put, if you are considering volunteering, just don’t work with orphanages, you may unintentionally be supporting vulnerable children being taken away from their families.

Find out more about volunteering with VSO

Latest posts

Community and VSO volunteers setting up the disaster risk management committee
VSO/Nyan Zay Htet

Setting the standard in global volunteering

Until now, although good practices and methodologies have existed across the volunteering sector, there has been no globally agreed set of standards. Together with the International Forum for Volunteering in Development, VSO has launched the Global Standard for Volunteering.

Community volunteers in the field to conduct surveys after Cyclone Idai.
©VSO/Peter Caton

The power of us - The state of the world's volunteerism

Volunteering is too often badly misunderstood. Too often, it is seen as a “worthy” activity undertaken by people with time on their hands. However, it really is a fundamental part of any country’s development journey and when done properly, it can be a powerful tool.

Mike Barnes

How tech is helping improve learning outcomes: Mike Barnes’ story

In 2017 Mike Barnes, an ex-primary school headteacher, joined VSO’s Unlocking Talent project in Malawi, providing students with tablet computers loaded with local language courses in numeracy and literacy. Read how he helped improve learning outcomes for thousands of children.