There Are Better More Sustainable Ways

by Yung Fierens, adopted from South Korea to Belgium.

Years ago, I was one of those lucky guys who could pull through Asia with the backpack on her own for almost half a year. It was a magical time when I got to meet many exciting, cool people, saw the sun take off in a temple in Angkor Wat and between the Akha Tribes in Laos. Hong Kong, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Bhutan, Singapore and Cambodia.

In the last country (Cambodia) I visited, one of the many orphanages where there were dozens of children waiting for adoptive parents, I was considering staying in the area for a while and volunteering there. I gave language lessons in english, art lessons, helped prepare meals. I would have to throw a pack of euros on the table to provide living and living because of course you can’t live on the wages of such an NGO. They need their money for those kids.

That was what I thought was going to happen, that was how I thought the situation was. Until friends who lived and worked on the scene in development aid and the experiences of others backpackers opened my eyes.

“These are not orphanages but straight tourist traps. The parents of those children are getting money to bring their offspring during the day to the so called orphanage where they are exhibited as monkeys, so that the owners can knock money out of the pockets of naive tourists.

The children are not being taught in the meantime and therefore learn nothing that can ever come in handy in a human life. When they get too big and the cuteness is over, then they get banned from those homes and end up back on the street as a beggar.

And yes, whoever wants can adopt a child if enough money is put on the table. Since Angelina Jolie’s oldest son came to be adopted / purchased here during Tomb Raider’s filming, the orphanage tourism has been booming.”

I therefore abandoned the plan and with two other backpackers, I chose to support a boy from a poor family so that he could go to school and get a diploma. He was the first in his village to learn english. The result is that not only did we help 1 young person with it, but he took the whole village out of misery. Thanks to him, other children are able to go to school, the local economy has started and … most importantly, no mother has to let her child leave for a faraway country to give it a better life.

I don’t feel like a benefactor, I have told few this story and won’t come out with it to reap admiration for it. I’m telling it to show that there are other and better, more sustainable and previously used ways to give children a better life without having to remove them from their surroundings.

Original in Dutch

Jaren geleden was ik één van die gelukzakken die bijna een half jaar in haar eentje met de rugzak door Azië kon trekken.

Een magische tijd waarin ik veel boeiende, toffe mensen heb mogen ontmoeten, de zon heb mogen zien opstijgen in een tempel in Angkor Wat en tussen de Akha Tribes in Laos hebben kunnen vertoeven. Hong Kong, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesië, Buthan, Signapore en Cambodia.

In dat laatste land heb ik één van de vele weeshuizen bezocht waar tientallen kinderen zaten te wachten op adoptieouders.

Ik overwoog om een tijdje in de streek te blijven en er vrijwilligerswerk te doen. Taallessen Engels, tekenles, helpen met het bereiden van maaltijden…ik zou er wel een pak euro’s voor op tafel moeten smijten om in kost en inwoon te voorzien. Want natuurlijk kan je niet op kap van zo’n NGO gaan leven. Die hebben hun centen nodig voor die kindjes.

Dat was wat ik dacht dat er zou gebeuren, dat was hoe ik dacht dat de situatie was.

Tot vrienden die ter plaatse woonden en werkten in de ontwikkelingshulp én de ervaringen van anderen backpackers me de ogen openden.

“Dit zijn geen weeshuizen maar regelrechte tourist traps. De ouders van die kinderen krijgen geld om hun kroost overdag naar dat zogenaamde weeshuis te brengen waar ze als aapjes in de zoo tentoongesteld worden zodat de eigenaars geld uit de zakken van naïeve toeristen kunnen kloppen. Ze krijgen intussen geen les en leren bijgevolg niets wat ooit van pas kan komen in een mensenleven. Als ze te groot worden en de schattigheid eraf is dan worden ze verbannen uit die tehuizen en belanden ze terug op straat als bedelaar. En ja, wie dat wil kan zo’n kind adopteren als er maar genoeg geld voor op tafel gelegd wordt. Sinds Angelina Jolie haar oudste zoon hier is komen adopteren/ kopen tijdens de filmopnames van Tomb Raider is het weeshuis toerisme geboomd.”

Ik heb het plan dan ook laten varen en heb ervoor gekozen om samen met nog twee andere backpackers waarmee ik in Laos terecht gekomen ben, een jongen uit een arm gezin financieel te ondersteunen zodat die naar school kon gaan en een diploma kon behalen. Hij was de eerste van zijn dorp die Engels zou leren. Het resultaat is dat we er niet alleen 1 jongen mee hebben geholpen maar dat die op zijn beurt het hele dorp uit de misérie heeft gehaald. Dankzij hem zijn er later andere kinderen naar school kunnen gaan, is er locale economie ontstaan en…hoeft er geen enkele moeder meer haar kind te laten vertrekken naar een ver land om het een beter leven te geven.

Ik voel me geen weldoener, ik heb weinigen dit verhaal verteld en kom er nu niet mee naar buiten om er bewondering mee te oogsten. Ik vertel het om te tonen dat er andere en betere, duurzamere en eerbaardere manieren zijn om kinderen een beter leven te geven zonder ze te moeten weghalen uit hun omgeving.

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

Not a Tourist Attraction

Can you imagine if a stranger came into your home and started taking selfies with your child, gave them gifts, hugged and kissed them, then left? The following day a new stranger came into your home and did this exact same thing.

This is a reality for the majority of children living in orphanages throughout the world. We don’t think twice when we see people post these types of pictures, matter of fact we often praise each other when we partake in such activities. For as long as I can remember, visiting orphanages, posing with “orphans”, loving and giving them gifts has been seen as a good and acceptable thing but I believe it’s time to reevaluate! Matter of fact, it’s long past when we should have realised how careless we can sometimes be with the safety and well-being of these children.

How is that when it’s our own children we see things so differently? When it’s our own child, no one needs to tell us the negative effects such situations could bring about, yet when it’s not our child, but a child in an orphanage, we strip them so easily of their individuality and value. The parental instincts that keep our children out of harm’s way should be extended to all children, not just those within our own home. We must work to protect ALL children equally. 

While there is certainly much to be understood as to why this discrepancy in value exists that is not what this post is about.

What I would like to discuss is why volunteering in orphanages can be problematic and at times cause harm. 

  1. Most children in orphanages are not orphans. In the past, donating to and volunteering within orphanages has been seen as a good and noble thing, but with the understanding that 4 out of 5 children living within those institutions are not orphans it’s our responsibility to ensure we are not contributing to the problem. The act of visiting and volunteering in orphanages has become more and more popular over the years, and as a result there has been a direct increase in the number of orphanages across the world. The desire for donations can incite orphanages to go looking for children to fill their walls, preying on vulnerable families that are desperate for help. As a result, children are removed from families that could’ve been invested in to keep together (which is truly in the child’s best interest). Because of this, children are often being held within these institutions in order to incur ongoing donations from volunteers and religious organisations that have developed a personal relationship with that particular orphanage. 
  2. There is no such thing as a good orphanage. While i’m not saying that there aren’t orphanages being managed by good people doing their absolute best at providing a safe and nurturing environment, the institutionalisation of children has never been considered “good” for them. Children do not thrive in institutional care, even within the best of conditions. The rate of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within orphanages is high. If we know our contributions to orphanages can potentially promote the creation of orphans and we also know how harmful institutional care is to a child, then why in the world would we consider contributing to a system that is unnecessarily institutionalising children 4 out of 5 times? Just as it is for our own children, it is best for all children to stay with their biological families where possible. It would be better to support programs that focus on keeping families together or reintegrate children back to their families instead of putting that money into systems that are separating families.
  3. Only properly vetted and trained volunteers and professionals should be working with children in institutional care. Allowing groups of improperly screened and trained volunteers to have access to vulnerable children in orphanages promotes an unsafe environment for the children. 
  4. When volunteers visit orphanages, even for a short period of time, they create a bond that will be broken once the volunteer goes home. Children that find themselves in the unfortunate position of being placed in an orphanage have been exposed to trauma. First, there is the trauma that brought about the need for assistance. This could be anything from abuse, neglect, a death in the family, poverty, mental health of a parent, loss of a job, corruption or a multitude of other reasons. Secondly, there is the deep trauma of being separated from everything and everyone they are familiar with. Losing that bond and daily connection to their family members is extremely traumatising. More often than not, orphanages become a revolving door of people coming in, bonding with children, then leaving, thus exposing children to the trauma of abandonment over and over again. 
  5. Visiting, volunteering in and donating to orphanages creates a supply and demand market which can lead to the trafficking of children. In many developing countries where the government infrastructure is weak there is often a lack of proper oversight within orphanages. Hence, it is nearly impossible to ensure the majority of these orphanages are being managed legally and ethically. In many countries where the orphanage growth has boomed over the past few years it has become an overwhelming problem to address. With over 500 unlicensed orphanages in Uganda alone, it is near impossible for one to properly donate to or volunteer within these institutions while ensuring things are being run ethically and that children aren’t being exploited in order to receive income from donations.

While I’m not saying that there is absolutely no way to volunteer safely and ethically in an orphanage, I think it’s important to humble ourselves and ensure that in our attempt to “do good” we haven’t somehow participated in a system that may be exploiting children. It can be easy to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good the results of our actions are inconsequential. Good intentions are useless if they are causing harm. For many years I unwittingly undervalued the lives of children in institutional care all in the name of goodwill. I am embarrassed for my lack of better judgement and ignorance. But recognising and admitting where I have gotten it wrong is part of becoming the change I want to see in this world.

May we all do better and be better for these children and their families.

About Jessica Davis