As the market research keeps telling us, millennials are all about experiences. And when it comes to life-enriching experiences, there’s nothing more fulfilling than volunteering in an orphanage in a developing country, right?
Fulfilling for the volunteer, maybe. There’s a mounting pile of evidence which suggests that an influx of affluent but unskilled visitors can stunt long-term economic development. Which, sorry to say, kind of ruins the idea that going to Kenya for a month is the same as being a real-life superhero.
And often, it’s not even about the volunteering itself, but about fleshing out a resume or university application.
There is a “persistent vogue among students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges,” writes Frank Bruni. “It turns developing world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.”
In some cases, this means wealthy parents going so far as to fund or even buy orphanages and AIDS clinics in developing countries, in order to give their child a “cause” for their summer holiday. Which feeds into a bigger problem; orphanages are being run like businesses, and voluntourism from first world do-gooders is actually creating a demand for these institutions, leading to the emergence of the so-called “orphanage industry.”
Save The Children UK published a report earlier this year explaining exactly why the charity doesn’t support orphanage volunteering. Research shows that the institutionalisation of children aged three or under can have a severe impact on their brain development, not to mention that orphanages rarely have the resources to provide optimal care and security that children need, both physically and emotionally.
On average, 80 per cent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, often along with extended family. “They’re incredible care networks,” the report says, “but instead of getting support, they’re being pulled apart and disempowered by the establishment and over-reliance on orphanages — often funded by visitors who just want to help.”
Naïve and well-meaning volunteers often share a single bad habit; they view the communities they are visiting as primitive and in need of civilising — misconceptions that are perpetuated, perhaps accidentally, by the companies which sell “volunteering experiences” to teens seeking to help the less fortunate while traveling the world.
“Part of it is our instant gratification, fast food, everything with a click of the button culture,” says Mark Weber, co-producer of the documentary Poverty, Inc. “We expect everything to be easy so we resist doing our own due diligence.”
But thanks to the internet, this kind of “poverty porn” is more open to criticism than ever before; like when the Telegraph published actress Louise Linton’s account of her gap year in Zambia. Taken from her ghost-written memoir, the outlandish and patronising tale of orphans and warlords was torn to shreds by Zambians online, with many poking holes in the historical and geographical details, and some decrying it as nothing more than a work of fiction.
Linton’s tale is representative of a widespread perception of developing countries as mere backdrops for the humbling adventures of first world teens on their gap years, where the children they are ostensibly there to help are mere pawns in an ‘Eat Pray Love’-style narrative of personal fulfilment. This entitled, self-perceived benevolence is expertly parodied by ‘Saviour Barbie’ on Instagram, which skewers the vanity and outdated colonialism of such a worldview.
“The idea that you, as an unskilled worker, have got anything really useful that you can add is slightly arrogant and sort of imperialistic in some ways — white people going out to Africa to help the Africans,” says Mark Watson, director of the charity Tourism Concern. “What Africa has quite a lot of is unskilled labour; there are a lot of people out there who can dig wells.”
It would be nice if all of the world’s problems could be solved in the space of a single summer abroad. As things are, international development will take a little longer. But the faster we drop the stereotypes and misconceptions about orphanages and developing communities, the sooner we can actually start truly helping.