East African children in an orphanage.

East African children in an orphanage. Photo: Getty

There is a scene early in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona where the dry, male narrator remarks that the young American tourists (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall), ‘photographed everything from silly-looking dogs to grim-faced children.’

I immediately snorted with recognition, recalling my small collection of similar photographs from my own youthful backpacking odysseys in Mexico, Colombia and other non-English speaking countries. In fact, I’ve barely come across any holiday snapshots that didn’t contain a variation on this theme of sage, wise-beyond-their-years-looking foreign kids.

But how many of us would take random, surprise snaps of Aussie kids walking down Sydney’s Pitt St Mall? Probably about as many who would want pictures of their own children adorning a complete stranger’s photo album.

On a similar note, how many people reading this would consider an impromptu visit to a local orphanage in Melbourne or Adelaide, simply to witness children going about their daily lives?

I’d wager not very many. Treating kids as curiosities or exhibits in a zoo is something us westerners seem to reserve for countries in which we are tourists.

In fact, so beguiled are we by these ‘grim-faced children’ that ‘orphanage tourism’ (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like), in countries including Cambodia and Vietnam is now big business. And like all big businesses, it is highly exploitative.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 65 percent from 2008 to 2013. This is not, as you may assume, because the number of orphans has risen. In fact, the Herald reports, ‘the number of orphans has reduced dramatically as Cambodia recovered from genocide, invasion and an AIDS epidemic.’

What this means is that many of the children living there are not orphans at all. The Guardian Australia reports that up to 70 percent of Cambodia’s orphanage population have at least one surviving parent who has been pressured into releasing their child amid promises of an education and a western-style upbringing. 

They get neither. The children simply serve as drawcards for well-meaning but hopelessly ill-informed tourists to visit the ‘orphanage’ and throw foreign dollars at it. Like the child beggars of India, many of whom are kidnapped and deliberately maimed in order to milk the sympathy of foreigners, these kids are kept in squalid conditions. They are underfed, uneducated, and abused because the more terrible state in which they live, the more money in donations they will attract. 

Of course, these donations don’t reach them. 

To be clear, not all orphanages are disreputable. Friends International, a UNICEF and Cambodian government-backed charity, aims at educating tourists on the orphanage problem via an initiative titled Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.   

The website encourages research into the orphanages, for example, placing the onus on tourists to investigate whether the orphanage is registered with the government, has a child protection policy, and whether children are allowed unsupervised visits with strangers, or even permitted to leave the shelter with them, which of course places them in great danger.

Interestingly, Friends International does not let well-meaning tourists off the hook. The website cover photo is an image of western-looking tourists obsessively photographing local children. The children sit on a pedestal but are also trapped in glass box, as though on display in a museum. 

The implication is clear: children - even poor foreign children - are not mere fodder for our entertainment or photo album.  We may think we are regarding them highly in our desire to help them but our interest merely cements their imprisonment. The website pulls no punches in openly asking tourists why they would even want to visit an overseas orphanage. 

I have no doubt that most people genuinely want to help and it is counter-intuitive that a desire to help children can actually harm them. However, like giving money to child beggars, visiting - or even worse, volunteering at - at an overseas orphanage actually perpetuates the cycle of poverty and places more children in danger.

For this reason, tourists must question their own motives for treating children in foreign countries in a way they would never treat them at home. The truth is, we don’t visit local orphanages for the same reason we generally don’t shove cameras in the faces of local kids: because we don’t see Aussie kids as one-dimensional ‘exotic others’ whose photos serve as a reminder of that really-poor-but-totally-spiritual-place we once visited. 

All of which speaks to an unconscious dehumanisation of people of different cultures. Perhaps it is a legacy of colonialism that permits the western mindset to believe we are welcome everywhere. And so, we treat witnessing poverty firsthand as simply part of the experience of visiting a ‘poor’ country.

In Brazil, ‘favela tours’ to the notoriously violent slums are now a thing. Yes, tourists can pay money to gawk at the extreme poverty of others. And they do. One South American tour company, called (naturally), Exotic Tours, claims the favela is its ‘most requested’ tour

If this isn’t poverty porn, I don’t know what is.

Favelas, orphanage tours, maimed child beggars; all serve to confirm our preconceived notions about non-western countries. The western saviour complex that lets us believe we can alleviate poverty simply by throwing a few tourist dollars at it has spawned an entire industry that exploits, kidnaps, and maims children, keeping them in enforced squalor so that we can feel good about ourselves by ‘helping them.’

Again, I know that people generally mean well, but good intentions are just not enough. A little online research could reveal the truth about these orphanages. But that few people actually do this research is all in keeping with the western perspective that sees people in developing countries are not quite like us. We perceive their suffering as such an immutable fact of life that it never occurs to us that sometimes it is actually a deadly performance, staged for our benefit.

To be clear, I am not saying there is no poverty, of course there is. And foreign aid transmitted through the right channels (e.g. invested in education), plays a large part in overcoming it. But what the Children Are Not Tourist Attractions campaign is asking us is this: Do we visit these orphanages for the sake of the children…or for our own?