the ethics of volunteering in orphanages, by Vicky Smith

the ethics of volunteering in orphanages, by Vicky Smith

This blog article reports on a recent debate between Al Jezeera journalist and a large volunteer sending organisation

“Unsurprisingly, there’s a great deal of interest in volunteering abroad from the student community, whether as a constructive way of spending gap year travel abroad, CV-boosting experience or altruistic desire to support others less fortunate. And so The UCLU European Society held a controversial debate to discuss whether such voluntourism is “a modern way of charity, something akin to the annoyance of Gap Yah hipsterism, or a dangerous misconception of what international development is all about.

Reporter Juliana Ruhfus and director Matt Haan’s Al-Jazeera produced short documentary People & Power: Cambodia’s Orphan Business was first shown. Initially displaying a well managed orphanage and school project, The People’s Improvement Organisation (though in challenging conditions), Ruhfus soon discovers how some orphanages not only rely on volunteers to generate income and survive, but how this is becoming big business in Cambodia, fuelling the exploitation of Cambodian children and separation of them from their families.

Juliana Ruhfus Cambodia Orphanage Al Jazeera

With the majority of money going to orphanage owners, and already-traumatised children’s psychological issues, compounded by the emotional attachment and loss of a series of volunteers, often leading to drug-related and psychological problems, the question is posed what responsibility international voluntourism organisations such as Projects Abroad, whose name arose several times during the documentary research, are taking and whether there should be more diligence in their volunteer placements such as in the case study of CUCO (the Childrens Umbrella Centre Organization) in Cambodia’s capital Phnomh Penh.

Joanna Barclay then took to the floor to explain her involvement with Ruhfus and Haan, having been contacted by them whilst the documentary was in post-production editing. With a background in education as an Assistant Head at an inner London school, Barclay had accepted a volunteer position at CUCO to develop the centre for the community in a sustainable manner, but having received concerned feedback from volunteers immediately upon arrival onwards, including abuse and paid-adoptions allegations, and a centre Director seemingly not wanting actual progress, didn’t last more than a few months in her position. Barclay reported the Centre to the relevant authorities and was pleased to report, thanks to the highlight of the documentary, had since been closed. However, a clear question was, with several Projects Abroad volunteers having fed back concerns previously, why did Projects Abroad not do something, and/or report the issues and/or continue to send volunteers there?

To counter the criticism, the Director and Founder of Projects Abroad, Dr Peter Slowe, took his turn to speak. Slowe was keen to defend his position and company from what he saw was incorrect and under-researched journalism. He admitted Projects Abroad are not perfect, but pointed out that Cambodia, as a developing country, does not have the infrastructure and processes that developed Western nationals sometimes expect, where government and business are often corrupt, over whom Projects Abroad have no control or responsibility. Projects Abroad do not run the orphanages and do indeed run Criminal Records Bureau checks for (only) over 30s (one of the previous volunteers mentioned in the film had been convicted of child abuse offences, Slowe was fair to point out the CRB check had been performed and was clear, that the offence and conviction occurred a year after the volunteers return). Projects Abroad also support the projects with lots of investment in material resources such as mattresses, food and construction, and in cross-cultural development, saying the documentary ignored all the benefits of labour and spending by Projects Abroad and their 10,000 volunteers per year: 2,000,000 volunteer hours a year in 30 developing countries, £14,000,000 spend to the developing world and £8,000,000 spent by volunteers locally. In addition, 70% of returning volunteers complete debriefing questionnaires, any particularly concerning ones he reads personally. As an aside to me personally, Dr. Slowe let me know approximately 25% of their placements involve childcare or orphanages, and approximately 5% teaching – though these percentages are reducing.

Dr. Slowe was clearly keen to put over the positive story of voluntourism. However, his defensive stance over admitting its potential negative impacts seemed to do little to appease an audience rousing behind the Al Jazeera documentary and Barclay, helped along by Slowe – as Ruhfus pointed out, Slowe was doing himself no favours. By wanting to prevent Ruhfus further time on the floor; by denying the growth in orphanages, ‘orphans’ and children’s psychological trauma could be in any way related to voluntourism, saying it was”ridiculous”; by accusing Ruhfus of “wilfully misrepresenting” through the reporting of £2,000,000 paid in dividends to Project Abroad directors (as stated on Companies House reports). As members of the audience noted to him, his complete ignorance or absolving of any responsibility that Projects Abroad might have was one of the most scary things, and if the documentary was indeed legally inaccurate, why hadn’t they taken Al Jazeera to court after seeking legal advice?

On the other hand, Dr. Slowe has to be commended for engaging in the debate. He said Projects Abroad carefully vet product development and projects and have high standards – if they did not, market self regulation would put them out of business, and they have to work within the realistic constraints and cultures of developing countries’ cultures and governments which may not always be as effective as we in the Western world might like.

Maybe a better stance would have been more of a humble and hands-up approach. Instead, he came to face the music and perhaps ended up adding flame to the fire – but this can be a good thing too, if it stokes into action those who are willing to take responsibility.

Whilst there appeared no definite conclusions to the debate, big question marks over sending organisations’ responsibility to its projects and volunteers, diligence in placement of volunteers and orphanage voluntourism full stop were certainly left on the audience’s lips.

For more information on Responsible Volunteering, please see:

This article first published by VoluntourisnViews

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