Swinging The Pendulum on Orphanage Voluntourism

06_AIDS orphan tourism-1Saludos a Todos from Cochabamba, Bolivia, and that will be all of the Spanish I send in your direction for this post… perhaps not.


It seems that orphanages and voluntourism have once again moved the social media needle sufficiently to the point of making it politically chic to throw orphanage voluntourism under the proverbial bus. Congratulations! Victory is assured for those who distance themselves from the controversial.

We’ve been writing about this subject for nearly three years now (never one to avoid controversy, quite obviously, as birthing VolunTourism has seen its share of controversy), yet I am still mystified as to how ill-informed the voluntourism community is on the subject of “orphanages.” As examples, I am going to tell you a couple of stories from the road – one of [“Sir”] William Wallace in San Javier and Profesora Ana Maria at the Instituto Tecnologico Superior “Charcas” in Torotoro.

William Wallace (“Corazon Valiente” to you movie buffs out there) used to walk 25km to school on Monday mornings. He would stay in San Javier until Friday and then walk the 25km home. He stayed with a family friend during the week in order to continue his education – the family could not afford to get him to school any other way. In some ways, therefore, William was an “orphan” during the week, and a son to two parents on the weekend. Were it not for the kindness of a family friend, he could never have continued his education.

Profesora Ana Maria told me a similar story as we sat at the dinner table earlier this week. For four years, she would spend her week in a Hogar – an orphanage by any other name in Latin America. Her family lived so far from the secondary school (high school) that she had only one choice – either live in the Hogar during the week or not go to school – some choice.

The reason I bring up these stories is that the voluntourism sector, the folks throwing the stones at the voluntourism sector, voluntourists, and even the researchers out there conducting research on the intersection of voluntourism and orphanages have done little to paint a comprehensive picture of an incredibly complex social structure that creates the need for “orphanages.”

Here in some of the rural parts of Bolivia we are spending our days in now, the choice to live in an “orphanage” is made because schools are constructed in some communities and not in others. Accessibility is incredibly difficult due to lack of public transportation routes and it is damn expensive otherwise. So, hogars (read as “orphanages”) are made available to facilitate and ensure the education of those in outlying areas. Without them, many young girls and boys, would not receive an education.

Could it be the same case in Cambodia? In other parts of the world?

Before you start swinging the pendulum and barring voluntourists from orphanages, get a more complete story of the reality. Know what the situation truly is in every community. Educate yourselves and discover what is the best approach for YOU moving forward. But stop generalizing. You may cost a young child his/her education because you thought voluntourists couldn’t make a short-term contribution, and because you thought all children and all conditions were created and generated equally. EVERY situation is different. Treat it as such.

Discovering synergistic, compostable practices (compostable practices is a term we have created here at VolunTourism.org to represent ALL practices related to voluntourism as our work continually proves to us that what we know today is only meant to be used to grow the next crop of our understanding) for orphanage voluntourism is a good starting point, of course. But make sure they are just that – compostable. You should be creating them with the knowledge that new knowledge and understanding will be generated in short order and the structure will need to be sent to the compost bin to fertilize the future crop of compostable practices – NO MORE BEST PRACTICES!

And for those who are going to be making decisions, get out there to a hogar or an orphanage yourself. Interview some folks, discuss with them what you want to do, how you want to make sure that everyone is benefiting. But LISTEN! And be prepared to throw out all the crap, doubtless intermingled with wisdom, that is being produced in the blogosphere and in the media on orphanage voluntourism. And let us know how you do. We will be working on some compostable approaches here in Bolivia and will definitely keep you posted.

Buena Suerte desde Cochabamba!


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