Tina Wu

Despite the fact that many Australians are taking part in volunteering overseas, it is becoming increasingly more risky to do so ethically. Known as “voluntourism”, this particular activity has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly for Australian students.

Approximately 15 per cent of high schools provide volunteer trips overseas in Victoria and the ACT. Research by ReThink Orphanages also found that 14 per cent of Australian schools were associated with an orphanage program in 2016.

Although voluntourism isn’t new, this phenomenon has grown exponentially in recent years for young people wanting to take gap years abroad and using the opportunity to volunteer. The industry itself is estimated to be worth $2.6 billion per year, according to a 2008 study on the practice by Tourism Research and Marketing.

Volunteer organisations often cite that voluntourism is highly beneficial to the country’s economy, providing jobs for locals and increasing tourism revenue when the volunteer tourists go sightseeing.

However, voluntourism has also become a lucrative business for locals, with many exploiting children or “orphans” for financial gain. Many parents sell or lease their children in the hopes of giving them a better life, unaware that they are part of an elaborate scam.

Due to the short-length of many volunteer trips, there is a growing concern that children in these orphanages can develop attachment issues. Many of the students that are taking part in the industry are also unqualified for the roles they are undertaking, such as teaching or construction.

Volunteer tourism has been further criticised for its tokenism, in the notion that Western tourists are only volunteering for the sake of feeling like they have done something worthwhile, fulfilling a colonialist mentality of “saving” developing countries.

In fact, an Australian parliamentary committee in July has discussed the potential of outlawing this kind of orphanage tourism completely, receiving submissions from charities such as Save the Children calling for responsible and ethical volunteer efforts to be made instead.

Other organisations have taken it one step further by withdrawing their volunteer tourism partnerships altogether. World Challenge, one of the largest organisations for school-based volunteering in the world, has decided to shut down its orphanage packages in light of these discoveries of child exploitation.

However, alternatives to volunteer opportunities in orphanages are being fostered to ensure that those volunteering are doing so ethically. This would focus on a more holistic and educational development to empower children and their families to escape the cycle of poverty.