Thursday, April 18, 2013

Commodified Children: Globalization and the Growth of Voluntourism

by Caitlin Cocilova
It was 6 AM. We had woken up early enough to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat and waited patiently along the edge of the water, cameras in hand, to snap that one perfect shot of the majestic temple. I took a break from the view to find the nearest outhouse and was met by a young child asking for the bathroom fee. Being that I was in no position to negotiate at the moment, I quickly handed over the money and passed the child into the restroom. When I left, he was gone, and I knew I had been tricked.

At the beginning of our weeklong educational trip to Cambodia, our PEPY tour guides warned us not to give money to child beggars, explaining how the majority of begging children do not receive the benefits of their efforts and are instead exploited by adults seeking to collect additional wages. Naturally, tourists are attracted to performing charitable deeds while vacationing in developing countries and tend to do so through direct donations to children. What vacationers often fail to realize, however, is the negative implications of their seemingly helpful actions. In recent years, these harmful charitable practices have become especially prevalent within orphanages, which are increasingly common travel destinations for kind-hearted visitors. The conditions children are subjected to in such orphanages, however, frequently defy the provisions set forth in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which 193 countries are parties, including all of those cited in this post with the exception of Bali. By encouraging mandatory security checks for volunteers working with vulnerable populations, promoting governmental action, and educating well-intentioned travelers on the negative effects of “voluntourism,” children will hopefully be seen less as commodities and more as dignified members of a future generation, members who must be afforded their fundamental rights.

The Expanding Orphanage Industry
Entrepreneurs have jumped on the opportunity to participate in a business model supported by travelers’ desires to “do good” while vacationing, specifically by opening orphanages that ultimately induce tourist support. Over the past decade, the number of orphanages not registered with their respective governments has more than doubled in several developing countries, including Cambodia, Bali, Ghana, Haiti, South Africa and Afghanistan. As reported by Mail Online, this rise in institutions is not the result of an influx of orphaned children, but is rather in response to the recognition of orphanages as profit-building mechanisms. In many instances, orphanage directors withhold donations instead of providing additional services and better living conditions for children so as to gain higher profits; by making children look especially impoverished, malnourished, and deserted, directors are able to attract more sympathetic tourists and increase personal monetary gains. In order to sustain these businesses, the demand for children has increased, as well. Children become pawns in the strategic tourist market, dangled in front of visitors by orphanage directors as if they were colorful silk scarves waiting to catch the eye of the next passing tourist.

Feeding the Fire
The increased demand for voluntourism excursions further perpetuates the moneymaking scheme of orphanages. However, the problem goes beyond the use of vulnerable children for financial gain. Not only do tourists serve as sources of income for orphanage directors; visiting travelers working with NGOs also provide social and educational support services to children. Volunteers are encouraged to formulate global connections and meaningful relationships with those they encounter, disregarding the emotional and psychological effects of such temporary attachment and subsequent abandonment on the children. Additionally, volunteers unintentionally incentivize governmental inaction by serving as temporary English teachers and caretakers, often despite a lack of technical training. Though working directly with at-risk populations, volunteers are typically not required to undergo comprehensive background checks – by voluntourism agencies or through governmental regulations – prior to entering the temporary homes of children. This has resulted in children being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by individuals traveling to developing countries in order to take advantage of vulnerable situations. Although the Cambodian government, for example, has recently charged pedophiles with committing such crimes, greater measures need to be taken to ensure the protection of youth in accordance with the CRC.
Well-intentioned travelers are not the only entities fueling the orphanage business model. Parents attempting to provide their families with better education, healthcare, and wealth are also likely to send their children into residential facilities, especially families living in impoverished rural areas. Studies have shown that as many as 92% of children living in orphanages still have at least one living parent (Bali: 66%; Ghana: 80%, Afghanistan: 90%; Sri Lanka: 92%). Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of orphanages as safe havens for children is regularly the product of deceptive businessmen trying to increase their supply of children and expand their industry. In reality, conditions at residential care facilities are often desolate, unsafe, and abusive. As stated by UNICEF officials, child welfare repeatedly takes a backseat to profit margins, resulting in decreased care for the young residents of such facilities. This lack of protection for children raises concerns under CRC Articles 19 (protection from violence and abuse), 20 (special protection while deprived of family environment), and 35 (prevention of abduction, sale, and trafficking) and should be monitored with great consideration by the human rights community.
Recent Interventions
One of the leading ways to reduce the amount of unregistered orphanages is through governmental policy changes. Rwanda, with the assistance of UNICEF, is currently in the process of a complete deinstitutionalization of its residential system for children in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of child abandonment and to encourage familial solidarity. In 2010, UNICEF partnered with the Ghanaian Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare to create a two-year National Plan of Action for Orphans and Vulnerable Children that outlined similar goals for supporting family development and that built upon a 2005 report regarding protections for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. While these endeavors indicate positive steps in the direction of increased child protections, the manner in which they are implemented ultimately determines their practical effectiveness and is not always sufficient. Recently, UNICEF has taken constructive efforts to expose these inconsistencies in hopes of instigating a strict adherence to the policies, such as its 2011 report recommending that the Cambodian government take further steps to comply with its 2006 Policy on Alternative Care for Children.
How We Can Help: Personal Accountability and Awareness
Visit the national heritage site: check. Buy cultural presents for family at the flea market: check. Work with poor orphaned children. Check into flight: check.
In the age of globalization, travelers need to recognize the economic, social, and cultural impact of their stays in foreign nations and cultivate a heightened sense of responsibility for their actions. Rather than maintaining the mindset that volunteering with orphaned children is an essential part of visiting a developing country, individuals should be asking themselves of the most effective way to make a sustainable difference in the lives of others, both domestically and when traveling abroad.
In addition to self-assessments prior to choosing a specific destination, travelers should anticipate the consequences of any volunteer actions and become familiarized with the warning signs of volunteer activities that are likely to be detrimental to the rights and dignities of others. outlines a useful series of questions travelers should review before participating in any volunteer endeavor. Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY and PEPY Tours, ChildSafe Network, and the Child Rights International Network also provide valuable suggestions for spreading the word about responsible tourism, specifically in regards to removing orphanages from the list of tourist attractions. By increasing education on the implications of voluntourism, individuals have the ability to serve as effective human rights advocates at all times and to thwart the unintended consequences of well-intentioned humanitarian efforts.

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