Why J.K. Rowling Is Right To Discourage Orphanage Voluntourism

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J.K. Rowling hit the headlines recently not because of a new book, but because of a bold declaration: volunteering in orphanages is harmful. She tweeted: “#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses.”

The charity Rowling founded, Lumos, has just launched a campaign called #HelpingNotHelping calling for an end to this kind of volunteering. At the campaign launch Rowling urged people to turn away from orphanages:

“The reason we don’t have orphanages in the developed world is we know they do often irreparable harm. We understand that institutionalisation is one of the worst things that you can possibly do to a child. We understand it renders children very vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, it has huge effects on their normal development, and it massively impacts their life chances.

One of the facts that most stunned me when I started listening to this seriously is that eight out of 10 children living in so-called orphanages – and this statistic applies globally – are not orphans. Eight out of 10 will have one living parent at least, and overwhelmingly the family did not want to give up the child.”

A substantial amount of research backs up these points. Where orphanages exist, the behavior of sending kids to orphanages is normalized. Parents send their kids to institutions, or kids head to these institutions, due to poverty, disability, discrimination, misunderstandings, or sometimes outright deception on the part of unscrupulous orphanage directors.

Overall, orphanages are the main cause of the unnecessary separation of children from their families. Some parents are attracted to orphanages because moving their children is the only way to access certain services, such as education in Zambia. Shoring up these services for all would be a fairer and more sustainable response than simply institutionalizing more kids.

Delia Pop of the NGO Hope and Homes for Children, which campaigns for alternatives to the institutionalization of children, estimates that over 8 million children live in children’s institutions worldwide. Hotspots of orphanage voluntourism include Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Cambodia, Tanzania, South Africa, India, and Peru. Pop, who has worked as both a doctor and a child protection director, says that research on Romanian children institutionalized early in life shows that they have a host of health and developmental problems, including:

-       premature mortality

-       lower IQ

-       significantly smaller size

-       compromised cognitive capacity for decision-making and self-regulation

-       difficulty differentiating between friend and foe

While orphanage visitors may love it when children run up to them and shower them with affection, this is actually a sign of an attachment disorder. Developmentally normal children aren’t loving toward strangers.

Jana Hainsworth, from the child-focused network Eurochild, understands the appeal of supporting orphanages. A personal connection or emotional tie “is extremely compelling and can override more rational assessment,” she notes, giving the example of a national charity director in Greece whose young son had died. Even without such a personal experience of tragedy, for a company or individual in a rich country, supporting an orphanage is the “easiest point of giving.”

Yet “child protection is a responsibility of the state,” Hainsworth argues, compared to a patchwork system of privately run institutions. Children and families are ultimately helped the most when governmental structures are strengthened, although of course this is harder and more expensive than a visit or donation to a single private orphanage. While many children’s homes are run with compassion and high standards, this ultimately isn’t a replacement for bolstering the social care system.

After all, local NGOs may be driven by getting money to help children, rather than building capacity to demand child protection infrastructure and holding governments to account. And a foreign-run institution that relies on private donations from other foreigners can perpetuate power imbalance and dependence in low- and middle-income countries. Hainsworth points to the need to empower local civil society in the longer term, versus the instant gratification of working with an orphan.

I admit I’ve been guilty. I’ve visited children’s homes in Romania and Tanzania, and seen the hard work and good intentions of the staff who keep these going. Yet I’ve come to realize that this was unfair to the children living there. My childhood home didn’t have a revolving door for curious foreigners who passed swiftly out of my life. My home wasn’t treated like a petting zoo.

So how can these good intentions be redirected? For one thing, we should drop the neocolonial language of “saving” foreign children. Instead the savings should be of energy and money, which are better invested in community programs and transitions to family care. As journalist Tina Rosenberg has written of orphanage volunteering, “The money spent on a single team for a one- to two-week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year.” In richer and poorer countries alike, it would be useful to change child protection policies so that family carers are eligible for the same financial and other support that unrelated foster carers receive.

And we should rethink the utility of propping up orphanages. ReThink Orphanages has started an initiative where universities pledge to not promote orphanage tourism. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office now warns against volunteering in orphanages. In Kenya, as in other nations, orphanages exist mainly because of poverty, not because of a lack of family. Kenya is now among the countries moving away from children’s institutions and toward family-based care.

With more measures like this, a future without orphanage tourism is likely to be a future where more children can thrive.

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