In “A Rocket Made of Ice,” a memoir published on Aug. 12, author Gail Gutradt chronicles her trips to the Wat Opot Children’s Community, an orphanage in rural Cambodia. Early reviewers have hailed the book, whose back cover features a picture of Gutradt hugging Cambodian children, as “offering a universal lesson in compassion.”
Gutradt’s account is a great example of the knotty mess of the orphanage industry built around Western volunteerism. In recent years, donors and volunteers’ willingness to save orphans around the world has led to the proliferation of orphanage-based tourism. For example, in Cambodia alone, the number of children in orphanages increased by 75 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to UNICEF. In fact, nearly 77 percent of these “orphans” have at least one living parent – that is, they are not orphans – according to UNICEF.
Wat Opot’s story illustrates the conundrums surrounding orphanages (or community and children centers, as they are sometimes called). In order to volunteer at Wat Opot, candidates are required only to demonstrate “a desire to work, teach and play with our children” and make a minimum of one-month commitment. No skills are required, but volunteers must pay a monthly fee of $250 to cover their room and board. To attract volunteers and donors, Wat Opot’s website is peppered with previous volunteers’ testimonials of deeply fulfilling times spent there and pictures of brown-skinned children hugging beaming Westerners. Gutradt’s account augments this narrative. She calls Wat Opot “a workshop for souls,” where volunteers are drawn together by their “loneliness and need for touch” – both of which are assuaged by the constant hugging and kissing of the resident orphans.
Built on the plinth of saving the most neglected and housing the homeless and funded through the goodwill of global donors, questioning the ethics of its operation seems off base. But the easy access to children they offer to people without background checks or any experience in child care runs contrary to accepted international standards for child protection. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the U.N. Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children mandate institutional care to be used only as a last, temporary resort for children when all efforts to place them with relatives or foster families have failed. In other words, institutional sites such as Wat Opot should never be places where children live permanently.
It is the underlying moral mechanism of orphanage tourism that is deeply flawed. Volunteers and donors – including drop-ins who commit for a few hours and leave after photo ops and even volunteers for months or longer – base their actions on the premise of leveling the vast disparity they see between their lives and the living conditions of children in their tourist or volunteer destinations. As a result, most of these do-gooders, including students, retirees and church groups, imagine their actions as a form of absolution.
However, the orphanage tourism industry essentially exists because of global inequality, with the uneven power dynamic between the untrained Western volunteers and the children in orphanages dictating rather than eliminating this inequity. In the case of HIV-infected children in Cambodia, the emphasis on unskilled volunteering as a form of assistance obfuscates the larger global reality: Many Cambodians cannot afford antiretroviral drugs because patents held by Western pharmaceutical companies make domestic production of medicines impossible and hence cost-prohibitive.
Western donors buy into the narrative of a suffering child who has no one in the world and could be saved by the action and affection of a single donor. Donations are less forthcoming when the promise of immediate saviordom – singlehandedly delivering children from a loveless existence – is replaced by the more diffuse, less dramatic idea of helping families provide for their children. As in Gutradt’s case, that deliverance also helps in the transformation of the Westerner into a more loving, compassionate person. The plight of unseen, unavailable children who cannot be photographed or hugged or presented as totems of the donor’s altruism does not elicit the same feelings of empathy as a visibly miserable orphan.
Similarly, even if donations to charities such as Save the Children provide school supplies and clothes to boys and girls, the donors’ return on investment is less concrete. The orphanage tourism industry fills this gap by making the experience of Western giving donor-centric – availing the children in orphanages to be loved and played with until the volunteers leave or turn to the indulgent portion of a vacation.
Restoring the dignity of the children in those other places requires a rational commitment to global equality, one not poised on the visible miseries and emotional objectification of the world’s poor.
Against this backdrop, a few organizations have come forward to speak out against this donor-centric norm and are acting to promote child-centric solutions such as reunifying children and parents or placing children with foster families. For example, in a recent report on the subject, the Faith to Action Initiative, a resource hub for Christian groups working with orphanages around the world, emphasized the need for family-based care and has called for an end to orphanages as permanent places to house children.
“Children raised in biological, foster and adoptive families demonstrate better physical, intellectual and developmental outcomes than children in institutional care,” the report said. The study showed that even orphanages with low child-to-caregiver ratios fail to prevent development delays and attachment problems.
Those orphanages that emphasize child welfare still contribute to the problem. Next Generation Nepal, a nongovernmental organization that was founded by a former orphanage volunteer in Nepal, points out in its materials how even the “good” orphanages can end up displacing children from their families. For instance, traffickers who take children to orphanages often lie and insist they are destitute and have no parents. Since there is little or no way of verifying these claims, the orphanages accept the children.
Despite these moral and operational flaws and thanks to obscurantist accounts such as Gutradt’s, orphanage tourism continues to be one of the most popular forms of global volunteer tourism. While orphans and child destitution are phenomena found not only in Cambodia, Nepal and Uganda, a different standard of dignity applies to the children in poorer lands who are deemed deserving of unskilled care and a lower standard of privacy.
No similar parading of children’s faces and stories occurs in materials for foster care agencies in the United States and other Western countries, which also have sizable numbers of orphans. Nor are these children made available to any and all volunteers seeking to salve their loneliness and need for touch. Restoring the dignity of the children in those other places requires a rational and meaningful commitment to global equality, one not poised on the visible miseries and emotional objectification of the world’s poor.