Expert Calls for End to 'Voluntourism' Programs Involving Africa's Orphans

Volunteers from different countries at an orphanage in South Africa. Voluntourism programs at institutions for HIV/AIDS orphans should be stopped, according to Linda Ritcher of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Photo by: khym54 / CC BY khym54CC BY

Programs encouraging foreign volunteers to travel to sub-Saharan Africa for short-term stints at institutions caring for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS should be stopped, a health expert has urged.

Linda Ritcher, who is associated with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, argues that such short-term “voluntourism” could have adverse effects to the development of orphaned children. Funds spent to support these programs should instead be invested in developing the local roster of health workers or used to help relatives of orphaned children care for them.

“Programs 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,” Ritcher writes in the OECD Insights blog.

Ritcher explains that people who engage in these programs are usually low-skilled and that their engagement crowds out local workers. She adds that most orphanages that run these programs are not registered with local welfare authorities and face various employment challenges that make them unstable environments for children.

“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,” Ritcher notes. “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.”

She adds: “Every available resource should be utilized 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.”

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  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.