Experts in autocracies have pointed out that it is, unfortunately, easy to slip into normalizing the tyrant, hence it is important to hang on to outrage. These incidents which seem to call for the efforts of the Greek Furies (Erinyes) to come and deal with them will, I hope, help with that. As a reminder, though no one really knows how many there were supposed to be, the three names we have are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These roughly translate as “unceasing,” “grudging,” and “vengeful destruction.”
OK, I admit it – I’m a fan of Harry Potter, and even a bigger fan of his creator (and proud to share a first name with her.) I’m proud of her when I read her political tweets – not as many as some people’s but always witty and telling. I’m a proud of her when I read that she makes sure to give enough to charity to prevent her from becoming a billionaire. But I’ve never been prouder of her than when I read about this campaign she is launching against one aspect of human trafficking I never considered – “voluntourism.”
Sure, there’s a need for child care in the world. Stuff happens. But it turns out that 8 out of every 10 children in orphanages have parents (and in some countries, the percentage is even higher – 9 to 9.5 out of 10.) And when those parents are living in poverty, someone who has started an orphanage in order to exploit the good will of volunteers (and foundations, and universities, and travel arrangers) who will pour money and services into them, can make those parents some tempting offers. And that leads to trafficking. Not necessarily the kind you probably were expecting, but trafficking nonetheless.
Here’s the hype – the website of “Projects Abroad,” one of the companies which will set up anyone 16 or over with a project, for a fee – shows lots of opportunities … starting at $1,770 for a week (there are a couple which are less expensive per week, but you have to do a minimum of two weeks to get them.) Looks like fun and a way to do something good, right? And some may be (but more about that below). But here’s where it gets glaringly problematic: some of these projects involve orphanages.
According to a report by Lumos, a London-based group founded by JK Rowling that seeks to end institutionalisation of children, one orphanage in Haiti, established by a US religious organisation after the earthquake in 2010, kept children malnourished and living in filth, with no stimulation. Yet it collected donations averaging $10,000 (£7,700) a year per child – much of which ended up in the director’s bank account, a former staff member alleged. That institution, which Lumos believes was engaged in trafficking and selling children for adoption to families in wealthy countries, recruited children using a baby-finder, who convinced poor parents their children would be better off in the institution. “We’ve seen it in Kenya, Uganda, Cambodia – eerily similar patterns,” says Alex Christopolous, deputy chief executive of Lumos. “Child-finders go into communities. They are paid $50 to $100 to identify [needy] families.”
so what does it feel like to be a child living in one of these orphanages?
You can imagine how many people came to Africa to see the giraffes. So they would go the giraffe centre [adjacent to the orphanage] and take photos of the giraffes; come to the orphanage and take photos of me. We should never let children look like tourist attractions.
said one young woman who grew up in one of these orphanages.
Certainly there is poverty world wide, and needs that are real. But in wealthy countries, orphanages have all but disappeared, because in these countries, resources go to families and communities. Child development experts will tell you that there is “no such thing” as a “good orphanage.”
If that money and that energy was repurposed into charities and projects that are supporting community services, or families, we could solve this problem within decades.
Her campaign, hashtag #HelpingNotHelping, is addressing the problem on two fronts. Her organization (named “Lumos,” because of course it is) is calling on businesses, schools, and universities to stop donating to orphanages and ensure they do not promote or take part in orphanage trips.
On the other end of the problem the effort is aimed at steering young travelers who want to make a difference to look for projects which tackle poverty, and/or support communities – communities of real families.
Even aside from orphanages, voluntourism can be problematic.
Voluntourism may be fuelled by noble feelings, but it is built on perverse economics. Many organisations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in poor villages. It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money.
And, of course, another thing that voluntourism does to some degree not only in orphanages, is that it gives the voluntourists the impression that poorer countries are filled with people who are too incompetent to do anything for themselves without help from “the West” – including people from “the West” who are pretty incompetent themselves. That is a stereotype believed by far too many people – of course, many who believe that have never in their lives given a dime or an hour to help someone else. The last thing the world needs is for people who really want to help make a difference thinking that way too.
Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, please help young people, and their parents, and for that matter, their grandparents, realize that not everything is always as it seems, and that it pays to look for the deeper stories.
The Furies and I will be back.