The truth about orphanage tourism

It's the Western desire "to help abandoned children" that is fostering a "grotesque market that capitalises on their concerns".

It's the Western desire "to help abandoned children" that is fostering a "grotesque market that capitalises on their concerns". Photo: AFP

Having travelled through much of south-east Asia my husband and I are serious about showing our sons that life abroad isn't all waterslides and funfairs.

So when the opportunity arose to visit an orphanage in Vietnam we didn't think too hard about it. A day there would provide a starkly different reality from the one we were enjoying at our resort. We knew that being on-site would be another thing entirely, but contributing something of value was meant to take us out of our comfort zone, right?

What I didn't account for was coming face-to-face with the guarded smiles of the children, or fellow tourists clutching their own oversized presents.

Within minutes I had a young boy, maybe aged two, in my arms, and we were all directed to a room with iron cots and a dearth of wall fans. The room housed 10 or 12 disabled children. In my six-year-old's grip I could feel the pull of my own resistance. We were shepherded towards the courtyard where we waited for the birthday celebrations to begin. With several of the younger children clinging steadfastly to our necks it wasn't just the intense humidity that had us in its hold.


Several hours later my husband and I couldn't shake off our growing unease. Had we become so full of our own good intentions that we'd failed to heed something far more profound? Could it be that the only life lesson here was ours?

Google gave us our answer. In 2011, Britain's Daily Mail reported that it was the Western desire ''to help abandoned children'' that was fostering a ''grotesque market that capitalises on their concerns". With the number of orphanages matching the rising levels of tourism it's no surprise that ''voluntourism'', and its inauspicious offshoot ''orphanage tourism'', are growing at a rate of knots.

Cambodia, whose orphanage numbers have nearly doubled in five years, is but one example of this. As Fairfax Media reported in April, "72 per cent of about 10,000 children in Cambodia's estimated 600 orphanages have a parent, though most are portrayed as orphans''. Similarly, there had been disturbing reports by a British non-profit organisation regarding the orphanage we'd visited. The foundation, which had worked on-site from 2002 until 2010, wrote that conditions there had deteriorated rapidly since it ended its involvement.

Last year the Hoi An Orphanage - Quang Nam province's largest government-run orphanage, and home to more than 90 orphaned or abandoned children - became the beneficiary of a partnership with our resort. The program's aim, the resort's general manager told me, was to create a sustainable and progressive environment by offering "man hours and manpower, equipment and supplies, care and compassion through awareness". 

What I'd heard of his commitment and what we saw of the level of care at the orphanage seemed to me to be genuine. But the problem lay not so much in the institution as with our accidental involvement. A number of studies by non-profit organisations have found that even in the legitimate and well-run orphanages, short-term volunteer initiatives, which encourage visitors to bond with the children, leave behind a trail of devastation.

Regardless of our best intentions we'd made a poor decision based on nothing more concrete than that mercurial fuzzy feeling one gets from "doing good". While we cuddled and played with the children and handed out presents, the only thing truly being conciliated was our conscience. We weren't so much a distraction as a nuisance - not the kind of message I was hoping to impart to my children.

I hadn't stepped out of my comfort zone; just hopelessly out of my depth. I can only hope that the books and pencils we left behind offer more lasting value.