Arriving in the crush of Kathmandu, Lucy Frankenburg wanted to do something worthwhile with her month in Nepal's capital. Her husband Guy Selby had booked onto a course for four weeks, during their round-the-world trip, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to do something valuable, so she decided to volunteer at an orphanage.
Frankenberg, now a programme manager for charity Encompass Trust, says she felt confident the orphanage was legitimate when she did her research, finding the place on a couch-surfing website. And, unlike most, she was qualified and experienced, a trained English teacher.
Cambodian orphans gather beside many books donated by foreign volunteers in a non-government orphanage in Siem Reap
"It’s hard to know where to begin with the story," Frankenburg, now 26, said. "From the moment we arrived I was uncomfortable; Maya, who ran the place with her husband Jaya and Gaumati, his other wife, clearly wanted our money, and we agreed a modest sum, about £5 per day, for board and food.
"It soon became clear that the 'orphans' weren’t really orphans – just kids from the countryside who were in Kathmandu to get a better education. They were very sweet and we helped them with their homework and played with them, which we enjoyed, and that’s maybe why we stayed as long as we did."
Her concerns about the children in the home are ones shared by international development experts worldwide.
This week, pressure group Tourism Concern, begun a concerted campaign to stop "for-profit" companies sending unqualified, un-vetted travellers into orphanages, and creating a "demand" for orphaned children as a tourist attraction.
More than 400 people have signed the charity's petition to call on organisations to re-think their orphanage volunteer programmes.
"In Ghana 90% of children in orphanages have at least one parent.
"People don't realise that. They have a misguided, imperialistic view of the developing world," said Mark Watson, director of Tourism Concern.
Orphaned children at the Pouponniere of Mbour, Senegal
For Tourism Concern, even volunteering at legitimate orphanages can be problematic, and the pressure group has written to all UK tour operators involved with orphanages setting out their concerns.
WHAT IS TOURISM CONCERN WORRIED ABOUT?
- Volunteer tourism is fuelling the demand for "orphans", and so driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families
- It is turning orphanages into a tourist attraction and a ‘bucket list’ volunteering opportunity
- It is potentially dangerous if volunteers are not properly vetted
- It is inappropriate for highly vulnerable children, who can only form short-term attachments to visitors
Tourism Concern's campaign has pin-pointed 50 companies in the UK alone who offer expensive trips to orphanages, and Watson has written to them this week asking them to stop.
One company, Responsible Travel, has announced recently that it will stop its orphanage programmes.
Luke Gracie, Alternative Care Manager at the charity's office in Cambodia said: “These are highly vulnerable kids, irrespective of whether they are actually orphans, and some people see no problem visiting their place of residence, hugging them, taking photos of them, and playing with them. It is literally placing children as a tourist attraction, a commodity that is viewed and enjoyed like a temple, market, or zoo animal.
"Every piece of research out there says that children are far better off being cared for by family, or within their own community, than in institutions.
"A large majority of kids in Cambodia for example do at least have adoption possibilities, if not at least one parent living. But the income from tourism incentivises orphanages, and children remaining in institutions. This is highly damaging.
"So thousands of children who should be with families are living in orphanages. The social impact is hard to quantify."
Despite her doubts, Frankenburg and her husband agreed to stay at the institution in Nepal, and even to help with fundraising, but although the orphanage was keen to get them to raise money, they refused to have them look at the school's accounts.
But the real horror was to come. "One of the 13-year-old boys, Suman, electrocuted himself in the toilet. All month my husband had been going round with a penknife trying to fix broken plug sockets, because he could see that it was an accident waiting to happen. It was still a horrible, terrible shock when it did.
"Suman was in hospital for a few days, but by the time his family arrived in Kathmandu - including his mother because he wasn’t an orphan - he was dead. It was awful."
Some international development activists say short-term Western volunteers can be damaging to vulnerable children
Bekka Ross Russell had a similarly traumatic experience of corruption and neglect when she volunteered in Tanzania after finishing her undergraduate degree.
Dismayed with the situation, she set up her own charity The Small Things, Inc, with local orphanage Nkoaranga. She is a firm believer that volunteers can still do good, if the programme is run properly.
"I found volunteers turning up, coming to cuddle the children for an hour and then leaving again. Most of them simply want a holiday, they do not want to do hard work," she recalled.
She does not doubt the good intentions of many, she said, but orphanages in the region are often so desperate for money, they allow volunteers to come, even if they are more of hinderance that help. "We found when volunteers came for a very short amount of time, the children get so worked up and excited, and when the tourists leave again, the children crash.
"It is not like there are no good volunteers who come through for-profit companies - there are, and we have had many dedicated and hard working people come through them. But in general I think the for-profit organisations don't have the incentives to make the programs as effective as possible for the placements, whereas we do - so I strongly recommend people try to volunteer directly rather than via an intermediary."
Ross Russell does not agree the programmes should be stopped, and disputes that children have other places to go, other than orphanages. "Where we can, we do help children go back to families, but over half of families in Tanzania look after children who are not their own. 90% of the children who live with us have mothers who are dead, the other 10% either have mothers who have abandoned them or who have serious mental health problems."
Tourism Concern's Watson said even many commercial companies he has written to "are concerned about doing the right thing. But more still are not interested, they only care about profit."
Gracie says he does not doubt the good intentions of young travellers. But the experience is "using children as a tourist attraction", he quipped.
"They're slotted in as one more activity between temples and markets. These kids are used as a prop for Western tourists, it's a kind of Dickensian notion of the poor."
Tides are changing, he says, particularly in the country where he works, and pressure will mean other governments of developing nations follow suit. "In Cambodia, the government is beginning to change the system, to crack down on unregulated orphanages. It's definitely moving in the right direction. There was a UN resolution in 2010 which stated clearly that the best place for a child is with a family, or in their community, and an orphanage should be a last resort."
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