Living the Little Dream[35] – Orphanage Tourism?

As someone working in the social impact industry, I often struggle with the idea of “tour groups” and short-term volunteers visiting orphanages in developing country. My short trip to Watoto in Uganda has reverberated this mental debate.

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We had spent 2 days with a group of 7 people (a mixed group with various backgrounds and age) visiting the Watoto Children Village from Hong Kong. Similar to many tour groups visiting the work of non-profit organisations, Watoto participants are required to pay a fee which covers both the tour expense and administrative cost relating to tour operation. Whilst it is reasonable to cover expenses incurred by the “volunteers” visiting the organisation, it is often surprising to find that the price for such tours to be comparable to a commercial safari tour (which presumably generate profits for operators). In principle, not-for-profit organisations operate such “tours” only to show those outside of their organisation of their work. If profit is generated through volunteer tourism, is it in theory providing distorted incentives and mixed motives behind managing these tours?

During my short experience of the tour, I often find myself mentally challenging the sincerity of the children and supporting staff inside the village. This is not to question each of the smile behind the face. Rather, with children understanding that their potential donors visiting, is it not just natural to “put on a good show” for the assisting organisation? I was told further by others in the tour group that families involved in hosting visitors will receive a rather generous “income” for sharing their experience of the not-for-profit organisation. Is financial incentive really required for those supporting the organisation to spread the word in what they believe in?

Although travellers who visit and volunteer in orphanages may genuinely have good intentions, yet their efforts in certain extreme cases are in fact separating children from their families.Research by UNICEF says that up to 75% of children kept in orphanages in Cambodia and Nepal are not even orphans. Many children are from poor rural families and are trafficked into orphanages because their parents feel this will give them the best chance at life. Others might be hired for the day to create the appearance of poverty. We cannot attack all organisations assisting orphans in the developing countries because of some bad examples. However, as volunteers in orphanages, we do have the responsibility of researching on the volunteering organisation and the validity of their work. Moreover, rethink about your own motives, if you would not do this volunteering work at home, why are you doing it overseas?

**Founded more than 30 years ago by a Canadian missionary couple, Watoto is a holistic care programme that was initiated to look after the overwhelming number of orphaned children and vulnerable women in Uganda. For many in the developed world, Watoto Children’s Choir and their lively singing is likely ring a bell. Since 1994, the Children’s Choir have travelled all around the world as advocates for the child of Africa spreading the hope and joy they have found through Jesus Christ.