When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good

Canada-based Ayushi Patel wrote recently in her article “When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good” that:

While volunteering abroad can dramatically change the quality of life in communities in underdeveloped nations for the better; sometimes, these individuals are the target of exploitation and harm.

She attributes the rise of the voluntourism industry to the effects of the Civil War in Cambodia, which took place from 1967 — 1975. 

The Cambodian Genocide carried out by Khmer Rouge party leader “Pol Pot” resulted in the gradual devastation of over 25% of the country’s population.

The worldwide outrage led to an influx of tourists into Cambodia who wanted to help the survivors of the war, especially children.

Most of the local Cambodian organizations did tremendous work, with the best intentions.

Others organizations though, writes Patel, “…resorted to the exploitation of Cambodian children in order to gain sympathy from outsiders for profit-incentive purposes.”

This led to the creation of orphanages, Patel continues, many of which were organized solely to draw foreigners to visit the orphanages and donate cash.

Patel offers no data or research to back up the claims about voluntourism’s origin story. But the point she make in the story is valuable — tourists volunteering at orphanages is a bad thing.

Fortunately, there have been international efforts to close all orphanages in Cambodia. There are also major international institutions collecting data on orphanages and other “residential care institutions”.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health recently conducted the first research of its kind assessing the literacy and health of children living outside of family care in Cambodia.

The study estimated a total of 48,775 children – close to one percent of all children in Cambodia – were living in residential care institutions.

Lindsay Stark, DrPH, associate professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, led the research.

“Our goal was more than a simple head count,” noted Dr. Stark, who is also director of research at the CPC Learning Network. “We also assessed literacy and health and looked at the reasons why children entered residential care, whether or not they had parents, and if they did, whether their parents lived nearby,” she says.

Here is a video from the project:

One of the viable ways to end such institutionalization of children in developing countries is to educate foreigners on the situation, so that they avoid visiting and volunteering at orphanages abroad. 

Journalist like Patel and institutions like Columbia University are certainly doing their part and I applaud them.

I have written recently about the efforts by organizations like Stahili who are working to end orphanage tourism.

The word is spreading globally that no one should volunteer at an orphanage.

As Patel writes:

If you find yourself volunteering in South Africa for one week playing with the children, you are simply not doing meaningful work that will improve the living standards of the community. It is much more meaningful to work on long-term, sustainable projects such as building resources that will provide the community with clean water.

Orphanages no place for infants, Cambodian government says

The Ministry of Social Affairs in Cambodia has just announced that children under the age of three will no longer be accommodated in residential care centres by the end of next year.

Cambodia also announced that the building of new orphanages will be banned.

That last announcement is especially hopeful.

But it’s not the first time a country has made such a promise but did not keep it:

In 2004 Romania government officials promised that by 2007 all its orphanages (which then housed about 35,000 children) would be closed down. But in 2010 there were still over 19,000 at orphanages in Romania.

We at Cosmic Volunteers no longer send volunteers to orphanages.


Over the years, many international organizations including UNICEF have uncovered the often horrible treatment of children in orphanages. Also they estimate that 80 to 90 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent.

The good news:

There are many organizations and individuals who are helping to reunite children with their biological families. And for true orphans, to find caring families who will adopt them.

One such organization is Hope and Homes for Children in the UK.

Hope and Homes for Children works alongside governments and civil society organisations in over 30 countries to dismantle orphanage-based care systems.

As Halya Postliuk, their Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, writes [emphasis mine]:

“[In Ukraine] orphans make up only 9% of all the children confined to orphanages…The remaining children are placed in institutions at their parents’ requests as a result of poverty…because this is the only way they can access education, health and rehabilitation services for their children. Our research also demonstrated that not a single family of a child placed in an institution because of poor living conditions received adequate social support.”

Another NGO, called Next Generation Nepal (NGN), works alongside the Nepali government to rescue children from abusive orphanages and bring them to a transit home. The transit homes provide shelter, protection, health care and education, until the team at Next Generation Nepal can find the child’s parents and reunite them with their family.

Founded in 2006 by Conor Grennan, NGN has linked hundreds of trafficked children in its care to their home communities in Nepal through a careful process of reconnection and reunification.

Conor wrote a best-selling book Little Princes that describes his work with NGN.

As always, we at Cosmic Volunteers will continue monitoring important aspects of voluntourism for you, especially as it relates to the people we try to help through our volunteer programs abroad.