Working with children – our mistake!

Working with children – our mistake!

There has been much debate recently about the ethics of volunteer programmes that engage with orphanages and vulnerable children. We at people and places welcome this and are particularly keen to do all we can to  bring the debate to potential volunteers – child protection is one of the most important issues we in volunteer travel have to address.

I was recently asked to write a piece for Progress in Responsible Tourism a new bi annual publication by The International  Centre for Responsible Tourism. Learn more here

Here is a short synopsis

“working with children” – our mistake!

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….

…During this preparation, we explain and emphasise that no volunteer will be on their own while teaching or tending children. 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….

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…

… At people and places, we do send volunteers to work in 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………….

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……….

……….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”

Fortuitously our Michael Horton founder of ConCert Cambodia ( and by the way one of our local partners who guide us in this work!) had also contributed a piece – he wrote pretty strongly about “orphanage tourism”.( He also spoke at WTM this year on the subject ) He went as far as to suggest that some tourism trips contribute to trafficing!

Here are some excerpts

“Unfortunately, whilst the tourism industry is generally doing well in meeting the demands of its customers by providing activities that are very rewarding, indeed in many cases, life changing; it is doing less well in ensuring that those activities are meeting the real needs of the people they are purporting to help.  This is hardly surprising as the industry’s primary expertise is tourism; it is still poorly equipped to truly understand the issues and the projects that is becoming involved with, which are extremely complex, often harrowing, and invariably rife with difficulties.

Nowhere is this more true than in projects involving children.  Emotions run high when visitors are faced with children living in difficult conditions and many people, both independent travellers, and those on organised tours, are willing to give their support in some way.  In Siem Reap, this phenomenon has become an industry, and one in which the very people visitors are trying to help, tragically often end up worse off because of those interventions.Through supporting the rising number of private residential care centres, many of which refer to themselves as orphanages, in popular tourist destinations such as Siem Reap, well-meaning visitors are unwittingly promoting and perpetuating the needless break up of poor families in the misguided belief that they are helping.  At the same time, this practice is diverting funds and attention away from more appropriate, and cost effective, community support based solutions.  Extremely vulnerable children are removed from their families and communities, sometimes being moved to different provinces, thereby losing their natural first line of defence.  If these children are used to make money for orphanage owners, their movement is quite simply internal human trafficking.”

His excellent article closes with

ConCERT firmly believes that tourism has the potential to bring real benefits to its local communities, but that to do this successfully, the community’s needs have to be understood as a first step.  Visitor activities then have to be designed and managed so that they bring real benefits to the most needy and not just provide a satisfying experience for the paying guest. It is extremely distressing for those active on the ground and aware of the massive needs to see people’s time, money, and good intentions often making the situation worse.

It’s time for Responsible Tourism to move into the next phase so it can truly deliver what it promises, both to the communities it purports to help, and to those of its paying customers who are led to believe they are truly “making a difference”.

To access the full articles go to

And please post your comments – what can we do to widen this campaign and better serve vulnerable children and well meaning travellers?

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