Stop “AIDS orphan” tourism

Good intentions may end up harming them

Today’s contribution is from Professor Linda Richter of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, based on a paper she has just published with Amy Norman of Queen Mary, University of London

The global perception that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a burgeoning AIDS orphan crisis, coupled with growing trends in volunteer tourism has produced a potentially high-risk situation for already vulnerable young children.  “AIDS orphan” tourism is one aspect of the global “voluntourism” industry selling an emotional connection with needy young children.

Programmes which encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary care-giving roles for very young children are misguided for a number of reasons.

Voluntourist contributions are often brief, so the work they can do is usually low-skilled. As a result there is a real danger of crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay to volunteer. These opportunities should be given to local youth, many of whom would be grateful for regular meals, some training and a testimonial to their work experience.

Further, volunteer work is costly to host organisations because of the large overheads needed to host voluntourists. Institutions frequently provide accommodation and meals, and staff are allocated to guide volunteers around and organise their activities.

Non-family residential group care (“orphanages”) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds, and the glamour that media personalities bring to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – as seen in the case of David Banda in Malawi, adopted by Madonna.

Aside from economic and employment questions, there are serious concerns about the impacts of short-term caregivers on the emotional and psychological health of very young children in residential care facilities. The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk of psychosocial problems that could affect their long-term well-being.

Institutionalised children tend to manifest the same indiscriminate affection towards volunteers. After a few days or weeks, this attachment is broken when the volunteer leaves and a new attachment forms when the next volunteer arrives. Although there is little empirical evidence on children’s reactions to very short-term, repeat attachments over time, evidence from children in temporary or unstable foster care indicates that repeated disruptions in attachment are extremely disturbing for children, especially very young children.

Every available resource should be utilised to support families and extended kin to enable them to provide high quality care for their children. Out-of-home residential care should not be an option when support can be given to families to take care of their own children.

Children out of parental care have a right to protection, including against experiences that are harmful for them. In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments as a result of rapid staff turnover in orphanages, exacerbated by care provided by short-term volunteers.

Welfare authorities must act against voluntourism companies and residential homes that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits at the expense of children’s well-being.

Lastly, well-meaning young people should be made aware of the potential consequences of their own involvement in these care settings, be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions, and be given guidelines on how to manage relationships to minimise negative outcomes for young children.

Useful links

Statistics on aid in support of HIV/Aids control from OECD

Tourism Concern “fights exploitation in tourism and campaigns for more ethical, fairly traded forms of tourism” and is currently promoting a code of practice for international volunteering organisations.

OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2010

Meta-Analysis of Development Cooperation on HIV/AIDS

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3 comments to “Stop “AIDS orphan” tourism”

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  1. Chloe - 10/11/2010 Reply

    An excellent article by Linda Richter. The main points of the essay chime with the work of EveryChild ( around the world.

    In particular the expansion of so-called ‘orphanages’ which are funded from abroad as an answer to HIV/AIDS crisis and is concerning for numerous reasons. As Richter mentions, many are unregulated and privately-funded which means that children are not officially registered and particularly vulnerable to abuse. As has been widely documented in Former Soviet Union countries, large-scale institutions are damaging for children- they physically stunt their growth, affect their cognitive and social development because of lack of interaction with a prime care giver and can lead to depression in adulthood. Such ‘orphanages’ are not the answer in Africa and Asia either.

    And as for well-meaning volunteers who spend a short spell of time caring for the children, do they not even begin to think about the impact it has everytime a child is abandoned all over again?

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