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