A word about orphan tourism

"I’m visiting an orphanage in Cambodia.”

It’s a cringe-worthy statement, and for good reason. Many visitors to Cambodia see the plight of the poor, and their hearts are touched to do something, especially for abandoned, orphaned children. It’s a noble cause, for sure. But sadly, as in so many other areas where corruption is rampant, the big hearts and fat wallets of well-meaning Westerners open a door for evil and exploitation.

The sad reality is that many Cambodian institutional orphanages are not about the children at all, but rather are for-profit businesses capitalizing on the donations of the would-be difference makers. Living conditions are sometimes deliberately kept poor, so visitors are compelled to give more generously to improve them. It’s a game of supply and demand – as more people want to visit orphanages, a need for more orphans is created, and the owners will often exploit impoverished families, whisking their children away under the pretense of a better future. This promise, of course, is never delivered. They are essentially purchasing inventory to stock their businesses. In the meantime, the tourists breeze through, hug a few orphans, snap a few photos, open their wallets and leave feeling good about the positive impact they have made on the world.

There is no doubt that these traditional institutional orphanages do far more harm than good. I would encourage you to read more at some of these links:

Knowing of these issues, I have been somewhat hesitant to talk about the purpose of my trip to Cambodia unless I had time to explain that I wasn’t visiting just any old orphanage here. It's not that anyone else voiced any objections; I was defensive all on my own, as though I needed to answer my own concerns. It’s important to me to show how Asia’s Hope and their family-style care model is, quite simply, different. It’s an organization built on long-term relationships, both within their family units and with their supporting churches and businesses. I can’t even call the buildings where these kids live "orphanages." They are homes. With moms and dads, aunties and grandmas, brothers and sisters all living together, eating together, studying together, playing together, praying together. House parents raise their own biological children alongside the other kids. Sibling groups are preserved. These kids don’t receive just food, shelter and medical care to provide for their physical needs. Their mental, emotional and spiritual needs are met, too. And it’s easy to see the fruit of this model in the joyful laughter, genuine smiles and loving hearts of these children.

Part of what allows this to work so effectively is the partnership model – each home is paired with a church, business or community organization. The partnership goes beyond the funding of operating expenses. These groups also build real, lasting relationships with their homes and become part of their extended family, like extra aunts and uncles. They send a team to visit just once or twice a year, unlike the constant revolving door of “volunteers” seen at other orphanages. The visits are carefully controlled, and the best interests of the children are always the primary consideration. Asia’s Hope has a strict child protection policy in place, and any visitor must go through an application process and background check. Team members also pay only their own expenses in connection with their travel – no part of the trip cost goes to Asia’s Hope. By separating their visits from their income stream, Asia’s Hope ensures that they will never depend on visitors to meet their budget and can thereby limit trips any time they deem it necessary to ensure the well-being of the children.

John McCollum, the Executive Director of Asia’s Hope, has a wonderful article on the topic of orphanage visits, and again, I encourage you to check it out for further information: Orphanage Tourism: Is it Ever Okay to Visit an Orphanage in the Developing World?

Certainly, any time we open our wallets to give to charity, we should do our research to be sure our funds are going to organizations that are truly doing good. But it’s even more important when the lives of children are at stake.

If you, like me, have a heart for children and orphan care, I’d encourage you to educate yourself further on this issue. Opponents to orphanages are absolutely right about one thing: children need families, not institutions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should always go back to their family of origin. In many cases, living with relatives is simply not a viable option. But that doesn’t mean these children are destined to live without a family. Amidst the sea of exploitative orphanage organizations, there are some, like Asia’s Hope, that are doing orphan care right. Let’s help create a world where this family-style care model is the standard rather than the exception.

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