Wildlife conservation and community volunteer projects and internships worldwide

As the volunteer industry has grown, so has the scale and types of projects offered. Along with this trend, the quality and sustainability of the projects were often not questioned, but merely started based on demand from people abroad wanting to volunteer. This has indeed been the case when it comes to volunteering with children abroad.

Here in the UK, safeguarding principles for children are defined* as:

  • protecting children from maltreatment
  • preventing impairment of children’s health and development
  • ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care
  • taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes

In most (Western) countries, if you want to teach children in schools, look after children in day-care facilities or even just volunteer for charities that involve being with children, there are certain requirements and procedures. Firstly, for most parts you need to have the qualifications or you would not be suitable for the work. You would also have to go through an interview (or several) for the place in question to be able to assess you and your skills. How can you teach children English at a project abroad, if you wouldn’t be qualified to do it in your home country – and in many cases, aren’t able to speak the local language creating a barrier for proper learning.

Secondly, you need to have a clean criminal background, as you would not want to have someone with a questionable background (child related offenses) looking after your child. Then why should this be allowed abroad? In short, it should not!

Another is safeguarding training. This is provided to staff and volunteers, so they know what to do in certain situations always having the child’s welfare in mind. This is rarely ever a part of the training that volunteers receive abroad, yet would you leave your child with someone who doesn’t know how to keep your child safe? The main give away from any volunteer project would be this: If you are not qualified or capable of doing this type of work in your home country, then why would this be the case abroad?

For many other types of volunteer projects, such as wildlife or marine conservation, the local staff can train you to do certain tasks properly in a short time period. However, when it comes to children, often from vulnerable backgrounds, how to approach and deal with their physical or mental health or capabilities cannot be taught in a few days.

*Source: UK Government Charity Commission 

Orphanage Tourism

Another aspect and complete industry of itself is orphanage tourism. Volunteering abroad in orphanages is not in the best interests of children. Decades of research has shown that orphanages are not conducive to child development. This is the reason that most Western countries no longer use this model to care for children, especially under the age of three. One study found that for every month that a child was in an orphanage, they lost one month of development (physical, emotional, social).

While orphanages are outdated, people still continue to export them. The presence of volunteers in orphanages can increase the risk of abuse, and cause attachment issues and other developmental problems. Orphanages are often not what you think – 80% of children living in orphanages in Cambodia have one or more living parent.

The orphanage industry – Did you Know?

… that in some cases, volunteers and tourists are creating a demand for orphanages? This is resulting in the growth of what’s known as the ‘orphanage industry’.” (Reference: ReThink Orphanages – formerly Better Volunteering Better Care)

In the past decades, unscrupulous operators in developing countries have started orphanage volunteer projects in their countries. However, the children are not actual orphans, but taken from their parent(s) to live at the orphanage for the sole purpose of earning money from well-intentioned volunteers. This has particularly been the case in countries like Cambodia, where the industry has reached a much larger scale than other countries. In Nepal, the increase of this tendency appeared after the Earthquake in 2015 when many families didn’t see another way out after the disaster, which was exploited by human traffickers.

Where can I find more information?

The following pages are worth reviewing to further your understanding on the industry and volunteering with children abroad whether this is at orphanages, day-care facilities or similar.

ReThink Orphanages (formerly Better Volunteering Better Care Network) is a global, cross-sectoral coalition working to prevent family separation and the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.

Next Generation Nepal prevents children from being trafficked into abusive children’s homes, and helps reconnect and rebuild family connections that have been torn asunder by traffickers.

Responsible Volunteering is a single platform bringing together a broad range of relevant information, data, discussions and analysis of interest. The aim is to promote and share learning in order to enhance a common understanding of the situation across the voluntourism market and research.

Watch ‘The Love You Give’ film that brings needed attention on the orphanage volunteer industry in Kenya and around the World.

What is WorkingAbroad's stance on volunteering with children?

WorkingAbroad is working with the “ReThink Orphanages” network and decided to remove all Orphanage Volunteering Projects from our online database in 2017. The Working Abroad Projects volunteer database includes more than 1,000 volunteer projects with partner organisations from around the world and all projects with any reference to orphanage volunteering have been banned from our website.

As of June 2018, we ended our own volunteer projects that were related to children. This included child care, teaching, special needs and other community related volunteer projects. While we have visited the majority of these projects to experience first-hand, and know the project partners that we work with, it was for us not possible to be there in person to make sure that safeguarding principles and child welfare policies were upheld. We therefore decided to gradually phase out our own child related projects and remove similar projects from our volunteer database which were being offered by third party volunteer operators as well.

In the few countries where volunteers or interns will get into regular contact with children as part of their work, we have stricter requirements to whom can join and their background. This is typically on the community or medical volunteering programmes, where children can be among the patients or linked to the conservation efforts.

Below you can find a quote from WorkingAbroad founder Vicky McNeil on our stance to volunteering with children and what we’ve done thus far.

“In 2017, we decided to remove all unethical animal welfare volunteer projects from our website. Now, I am pleased that we have removed all orphanage and child-related volunteering projects and that we are working alongside ReThink Orphanages (formerly known as Better Volunteering Better Care Network) which was co-founded by the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK.  We will ensure that no orphanage volunteering programmes are listed on our website from now on, and we will also do our utmost to try and get other volunteer organisations to adopt the same stance.  We will continue to focus our community development volunteer programmes on educating young people in schools, re-integrating families back into the community and women’s empowerment, in line with ReThink Orphanages’ guidelines.  It feels very positive to have taken this stance with regards to ethical volunteering for wildlife and children and I sincerely hope that other organisations will follow in our steps.”