Good intentions gone wrong

The dark side of Voluntourism and Adoption

by Kristopher Hinz adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia.

In the five year period between 2008 and 2013, struggling Peruvian and Bolivian farmers were plunged even deeper into poverty. Western demand for the world’s latest “superfood” meant that the median price of their staple food, quinoa, skyrocketed dramatically, and suddenly it was even harder for these subsistence farmers to put food on the table (1,2).

Wealthy, middle class and vegan, it was well intentioned white hipsters (who often think of themselves as the most ethical consumers in the market) that were the main drivers of this catastrophe with their insatiable taste for the healthy grain.

This, it seems, was a case of supply and demand gone wrong- a wealthy segment of the market having a disproportionate share of control over capitalism’s puppet strings, which they then unwittingly used to widen the disparity between the developed and developing world.

This is not a new phenomenon, however. The “Quinoa crisis” was merely the latest Western craze to shake the foundations of the third world. Another industry full to the brim of young people’s good intentions has also recently been the cause of much disruption in the poorer corners of the world.

Voluntourism provides the opportunity for university students or high school leavers on their gap year to travel abroad and volunteer at orphanages in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They fly home with smiles on their faces and happy hearts, but there is a dark side to their activism.

Those children they think are so gorgeous on their numerous selfies, who are already vulnerable and emotionally volatile, are left with even greater attachment issues as they watch yet another role model walk in and out of their life after a few weeks of cuddles and a couple of extra toys.

It has been demonstrably shown that many of these children are not indeed orphans at all, and are merely products of “baby farms” that exist solely for voluntourists and prospective white adoptive parents (3,4, 5, 6).

Young mothers mired deep into poverty and desperate for a way out, send their children away to orphanages for a chance at an institutionalised education. This heartbreaking decision is made all the more tantilising by the offer of a much-needed financial incentive. 

What of the lucky ones then? Whose bright smiles and eager hugs are enough to sway their altruistic and lonely white guests to become their adoptive parents?

There are many who are indeed fortunate when they finally make their way to their shiny new developed nation, with it’s big skyscrapers (or neat suburban lawns) and fridges full of foods they’d never dreamed of.

But like the quinoa trade, there simply isn’t enough protection for those where the original point of sale was made. As a result of being able to simply “buy” a child without being checked for their ability to be fit parents (as is the case in the West with a stringent foster care system) many of these adoptive parents make mistakes that cause long term identity issues for their beloved children.

Swept up in the joy of having the family they wanted at last, they neglect to allow their children to fully express all of their feelings about their adoption, requiring only to hear positive thoughts such as gratitude. Many adoptions end in tears for the child, their new family or both. Many abusive adoptive parents are grossly unfit to adopt and do so for intentions related to social status, or simply are not the type of people who should have been parents to begin with.

But even in the best cases, no adoption, no matter how idyllic, is ever perfect for a child’s mental state. The best of parents will still chastise their adoptive children or feel hurt when they express feelings of loneliness or disconnection with their new culture and longing for understanding of their birth culture. Adoptive parents (including in my own experience) will also take it as a personal affront when their child expresses frustration with racist elements of their adopted culture.

Of course, like the vegans, these good parents made a “purchase” in good faith and most of them were full of nothing but positive intentions. But also much like the vegans, the fact the market was skewed so heavily in their favour meant that they were able to do what they wanted without needing to consider how their actions may impact those who are less fortunate.

Across both East and West, prospective white parents’ demands for an adoptive child is seen as an unquestioned right, while parents of colour who have adopted white children are regularly and rudely accosted when in public with them (7).

The skewed market must be balanced back in favour of the developing world. This will allow for greater scrutiny to be placed on prospective adoptive parents seeking children from the third world and will ensure that such parents are adequately informed about the challenges that their child will face as an interracial, intercountry adoptee.

References:

  1. Blythman, Joanna“Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”, The Guardian, 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa
  1. Long, Yu. “Superfoods Dark Side: Increasing Vulnerability of Quinoa Farmers in Bolivia” 2018:http://web.colby.edu/st297-global18/2019/01/22/superfoods-dark-side-increasing-vulnerability-of-quinoa-farmers-in-bolivia/#:~:text=The%20rise%20in%20quinoa’s%20market,2011%3B%20Hall%2C%202016)
  1. Journeyman Pictures: “Paper Orphans”, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhIMw0ZT8mc
  1.  Al Jazeera: “Cambodia’s Orphan Business: People and Power”, 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hf_snNO9X8
  1. Winkler, Tara. Why We Need To End The Era of Orphanages”,  TedXTalks,2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3nPMWkhbMI&t=2s
  1. Zembla, “Adoption Fraud at Baby Farms” 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSsbRcobbUA
  1. BBC World Service, “I was accused of kidnapping my adopted son” 2020:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOL9MAsx8lM

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