Working with children – our mistake

Working with children – our mistake

I wrote this article at the end of last year but copyright meant i couldnt publish it all – now big thanks to Goodfellows I can – they have waived copyright in support of our campaign

One of people and places core values is that volunteers will work with local people, not instead of them – nowhere is this more important than in projects where childcare is the primary focus.

Vulnerable children need care and nurture that is both consistent and culturally appropriate.

We prepare all volunteers for their placements as thoroughly as we can (some volunteers even say we over-prepare!)

During this preparation, we explain and emphasise that no volunteer will be on their own while teaching or tending children (and if they do find themselves in that position, we will support their stopping work.) Teachers, social workers, counselors, nursery nurses, teaching assistants – all need to be working with local professionals and staff – otherwise, where is the skills transfer? Where is the sustainability and is it ever ethical?  Volunteers will not be working alone with the children.

So why has it taken us 5 years to realise that the category “working with children” on our site was misleading?

Not one of our volunteer programmes is designed for the volunteers simply to “work with children”.

Teachers and teaching assistants work with local teachers; healthcare professionals work with local carers and professionals.

This team-work approach is abundantly clear when people read the project details and are matched and prepared for their work – but the search options for ‘type of project’ on our site were most definitely misleading!

So we have changed the option to read “childcare projects” not “working with children”.

‘Oh for goodness sake’, I can hear you cry – ‘that’s just semantics!’

NO – IT’S NOT!!!

The vast majority of volunteers appear to want “work with children”. A search in October for the specific phrase “volunteer with children” brought up 341,000 links – and a quick scan of the first 50 showed that over 70% were links to voluntourism recruitment organisations – i.e. opportunities to “work with children” in orphanages or childcare centres.

This is an appeal to the reader’s heart. After all, who wouldn’t want to ease a child’s suffering?

But, it can never be appropriate, responsible or ethical for short term volunteers to replace long term care and nurture – it is irresponsible and fraught with danger to support or create such environments.

Orphanage / childcare tourism has huge potential for negative – indeed, harmful – results. There has been plenty of recent discussion about the harm that can be done, even by well-meaning people who want to volunteer to do good but are ill-informed: people who have not thought through that their short visit to hug and play with gorgeous kids has real potential for damage; people who wouldn’t dream that the “orphanage” they are helping could be guilty of child trafficking and abusive relationships.

The burgeoning “orphanage industry” in countries such as Cambodia and Thailand is a huge scandal that we have a responsibility to halt NOW!

The scandal is exacerbated by members of the media suggesting that travelers can volunteer for free, or for very little cost, by searching out orphanages when they are already in country! How on earth are travelers – especially young travelers – meant to check the credentials of an organization at such short notice?

I am not campaigning here for sending organizations’ exclusivity  – I am simply pointing out that young travelers are especially easy prey.

So what can we do to ensure that volunteers do more good than harm, rather than the other way around?

FACT – there is real demand for short term volunteer travel with the opportunity to engage with children. If those of us who are trying to be responsible and ethical simply pull out and say we will not manage such volunteer programmes, we will create a vacuum – a vacuum that will quickly be filled by the unethical (or at best willfully ignorant) – and believe me, there are already way too many of them out there: organisations that offer opportunities to hug children for a few days or a couple of weeks;  even worse, opportunities  to counsel them!; organisations that do no checks on  volunteers; organisations that allow schools to sack local teachers because they know a volunteer will teach for free –  perhaps, worst of all, are the organisations that fail to carry out due diligence on the orphanages they work with, enabling local charlatans to  purchase and exhibit children who are not orphans

YES – all of the above is really happening.

At people and places, we do send volunteers to work in orphanages.( update since end 2012 we have not sent volunteers – even skilled volunteers to orphanages) BUT we only place skilled and experienced volunteers to work alongside local people, NOT instead of them, and only with the informed consent of the excellent local staff and trustees of the orphanages – who have their own very strict guidelines about how volunteers may engage with the children.

Volunteer recruitment organisations need to do everything possible to ensure that both sides are fully informed and can thus make informed decisions.

The following is the bare minimum responsibility we believe sending organization should undertake – and the minimum assurances that should be made to potential volunteers:

  • Due diligence on the project – are the beneficiaries safe, will the volunteers be safe, is there any exploitation of purported beneficiaries, does the project operate within local law
  • Due diligence on volunteers – will the community be safe, is the volunteer who they say they are, do they have the skills and experience the project needs
  • Preparation  of both the project and the volunteer, including clear codes of conduct for the volunteers

people and places has had codes of conduct since our launch. Many of the projects where we work already have their own child protection policies; some, particularly the smaller community projects we work with, did not – we have worked with them to develop an appropriate policy. (You can read the people and places responsible tourism policy, including our child protection policy, here ) All our volunteers are asked to accept the terms of the policy before they can work on the project. The child protection policy is not simply a list of rules  and commitments to protect the children – it also educates and protects the volunteer.

When recruitment organizations take responsibility to undertake due diligence and ensure that all stakeholders are well  informed of the potential for good and bad , there will be less operational opportunities for the unscrupulous, money-grubbing and downright wicked – as well as the naive, uninformed, unskilled and untrained.

On-the-job skills share by example – the very foundation of our programmes – means that volunteers working in “childcare projects” will indeed be engaging with children. We are duty-bound to protect those children and the volunteers who seek to “make a difference”.

This is hugely challenging work and we are by no means perfect – we question the ethics of our childcare projects daily – and without the support of our local partners who are in and off their communities we would make many more mistakes.

So there are no opportunities on a people and places programme to  “work with children”

If only this could be said of the volunteer travel voluntourism industry as a whole.

You should also read a viewpoint from Cambodia here

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