Standing back, watching personalities emerge with glee, I studied each child. Under the humid August summer in Lagos, Nigeria, we were playing a pickup game of soccer in the little dusty yard of their compound. I remembered a few faces – older and leaner – and spotted a couple new ones, eagerly trying to fit in yet with trepidation.

I was at an orphanage in Nigeria which I try to visit every time I’m back home, and over the years, I’ve seen the kids morph into teenagers and pre-teens.

But I always feel that burden of momentary detachment from the children when I leave. I read it in their eyes and I always promise I’ll come back.

That I wasn’t abandoning them…

Oftentimes, I think of Jorge in Ecuador and Sthephany in the Dominic Republic. They are two kids whose families I support through small donations. I often wonder what their daily lives entail, and have dreams of going to visit them someday.

While those orphans in Nigeria are being cared for by a trusted Anglican-affiliated residential care center because they truly are all alone and are orphans, Jorge and Sthephany get to stay with their own families and aren’t pooled into “orphanages” as a way to get funding out of willful volunteers.

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In a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket in every sense of the word, we’re all grasping for ways to leave a humanitarian mark. To do good work and change people’s lives in our own small ways.  One of the easiest ways of giving back seems to be by volunteering at orphanages, hugging kids who normally don’t receive hugs, and giving them attention only to disappear a few hours later.

But the truth is that most of the children in orphanages are often not orphans and have been separated from their families, oftentimes, through child trafficking.

Approximately 80% of all children in “orphanages” or “residential care centers” worldwide have one or more living parent and so the term itself, orphanage, can be misleading. Children often end up in these centres due to poverty, physical/intellectual disability, neglect, abuse, or abandonment. Oftentimes, they are the last resort for family who don’t want their children to starve. They leave them at these centres with access to basic education food, and healthcare.

That is why major organizations such as  UNICEF, Child Safe Movement, Better Care Network  and Save the Children UK have been actively campaigning against orphanage volunteerism for years.

To raise awareness to stop this type of volunteer work, I’m one of several participating bloggers in a month-long #StopOrphanTrips campaign to raise awareness that volunteering and visiting orphanages can do more harm than good despite our good intentions. The campaign is organized under the Better Volunteering, Better Care initiative founded by the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK with “the sole purpose of discouraging international ‘orphanage’ volunteering.”

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Here’s why volunteering at orphanages can be a disaster if not done properly and respectfully.

  • It provides access to vulnerable children – Without adequate background checks, when travel companies offer orphanage visits as part of a travel itinerary, they are opening up vulnerable children to people with bad intentions.
  • It creates disruptive attachment – Because children form bonds quickly, swooping in and out of their lives for a few hours just to make yourself feel better has adverse effects on them. They learn not to trust and love because of constant detachment from people they care about.
  • It welcomes unqualified volunteers – Many volunteers who work with the children are not qualified to do so and their attitudes and behaviors can have negative impacts on their emotional stability.

So… you’re probably wondering how you’d go about helping orphans in more meaningful ways, right?

First things first, you need to learn about the country you’re visiting and other ways of contributing and volunteering that doesn’t directly tie in with orphanages. This isn’t a Southeast Asia-specific problem but one that spans over 20 countries worldwide.

Avoid voluntourism travel itineraries that include stops at local orphanages. Diving in and out of their lives is extremely disruptive.

Look for programs that strengthen and support families and at-risk communities. Programs that focus on community empowerment, economic development, family-based care, and other socioeconomic initiatives. It is often best to sponsor children who haven’t been ripped away from their families.

You can contact the Better Volunteering Better Care global working group, and they can connect you to a wide list of resources.

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I feel blessed to have been able to connect with the orphanage in Nigeria where I have witnessed the kids grow into teens over the years, and I often send food supplies through my mother when I’m not around. It’s a country and culture whose nuances I know and understand deeply.

And as much as I’ve traveled, including as a photojournalist on an anti-sex trafficking team in Cambodia, I’ve been intuitively cognizant about volunteering in orphanages.

This campaign is a stark reminder of just how damaging those good intentions can be if we don’t properly educate ourselves.


This post was voluntarily written as part of the month-long Stop Orphanage Volunteering campaign organized by Better Volunteering Better Care. You can raise awareness about the negative sides of orphanage volunteering by using the hashtag: #StopOrphanTrips across social media or by signing the Avaaz petition to stop travel companies offering orphanage volunteering as travel options.