people & power - cambodia''s ophan business - orphanage screengrab
The system of voluntourism creates a situation in which children in orphanages form and then grieve the loss of bonds with a repeatedly revolving range of carers
People & Power

Voluntourism: ‘A misguided industry’

Do those volunteering in orphanages inadvertently harm the very children they are trying to help?

By Susan Rosas

We already know from volumes of research around the world that orphanage care is associated with long-term psychological concerns.

Some of the most cited problems related to orphanage care have to do with attachment – a person’s inner system for negotiating carer and partner relationships. When we place children in institutions that have many children and few caregivers, we are denying children the opportunity to see what healthy relationships look like.

Long-term, hard-wired bonds with individual adults also help children to develop coping skills when distressed. When children are living with caregivers-for-hire, who may not feel affection toward the children or who work on a temporary basis, we are placing the children at both psychological and physical risk. This is particularly true when there are repeatedly revolving caregivers and volunteers; children constantly build and grieve the losses of these bonds built with dozens of carers, and the children develop long-term, problematic attachment patterns that reflect it.

While many orphanages draw the distinction between short- and long-term voluntourism, the reality is that either form of volunteering places the children at risk of abuse and perpetuates the notion that everyone who loves these children will go away. This is not a lesson that the children – nor the unconscious relationship-forming mechanisms in their brains – will forget.

‘Outside of society’

Further, orphanages can be incredibly dangerous for the children who live in them. Orphanage staff are almost always inadequately trained in childcare, child rights, and in addressing grief and trauma. Staff violence and sexual abuse are endemic in orphanages, and peer-on-peer violence among children is a constant risk where there is inadequate supervision of, and services for, traumatised children.

“Orphanages with a heavy Western involvement inadvertently create a Western-infused cultural oasis that is separate from the child’s birth culture.

Orphanages go to great lengths to keep this violence secret from outsiders, and sometimes well-meaning orphanage management is unaware of the violence perpetuated by the staff or children. The complex trauma endured by children in violent institutions can cause life-long distress. There has also been a recent uprising in child performances as a source of orphanage income here in Cambodia, and in these institutions, children are often intentionally kept in impoverished conditions to evoke pity from visitors. To perform, children frequently miss school or are denied the opportunity to visit their families.

It is also important to remember that orphanages with a heavy Western involvement inadvertently create a Western-infused cultural oasis that is separate from the child’s birth culture, though institutionalised children from any orphanage feel that they are very different from community-based children. When children do leave orphanage care, they commonly report that they feel “outside of society”, and like their communities hate them.

Every culture involves some dependency on familial and other social connections for economic success, and as humans we rely on social supports for our own well-being. Children in orphanages typically see their families two times or fewer per year, and the frequency of those visits tend to diminish over time. When we sever family connections and isolate children from society, regardless of the education we provide, we are setting these children up for failure.

Within an orphanage, there can be many signs of distress among the children. For example, children who crave affection from new volunteers may demonstrate attachment-related concerns and the development of unsafe, culturally-inappropriate interactions with adults. You might see kids who rock, who hurt themselves, who are easily angered, who want to be held but push away, or who describe persistent tummy aches.

Crippling fear

Directors who describe the teens in their care as “lazy”, may be noticing delayed emotional development, depression, or a stunted sense of identity – children treated as one of the masses struggle to develop a healthy self-esteem and personal goals. Some children choose to never leave the orphanage and become caregivers, often a symptom of a crippling fear of the outside world.

When children do eventually leave orphanage care, the outcomes are often dire. Even highly-educated care-leavers cite extreme poverty, homelessness, depression, addictions, suicidal tendencies, constant anger, and incredible fear. They almost always say they miss the families from whom they have been permanently separated, and when they are older they report that they do not know how to love their children. They often find themselves in abusive relationships and struggling to hold down a job. They frequently report feeling they lack direction or goals. Not coincidentally, these are the same experiences we heard from orphanage care-leavers in the West before those orphanages closed.

Critically, here in Cambodia, the vast majority of children in orphanages have living parents, and nearly all orphaned children do have aunts, uncles and cousins. Families place their children into orphanages because of educational and poverty-related issues, not because they do not love their children.

Orphanage volunteering supports a misguided industry aimed at collecting children from families to either make a profit or to provide them with “a better life”, without the understanding that the most important thing a child needs is parental love. If even a small fraction of the funds that support orphanages would be redirected toward basic family preservation, these children would have much brighter futures.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Susan Rosas is a social worker specialising in alternative care. She is currently the technical adviser for ICC-Project SKY, a pilot initiative with the Cambodian government on orphanage case management and family reunification. The Phnom Penh-based project assists the safe reintegration and social inclusion of young adults out of orphanages into communities.