2023 Sound Stories

Asia’s orphans: who are volunteers really helping?

Image of a hand pinning a thumbtack to a map

Intrigued by colourful pamphlets and motivated by the chance to change the world for the better, many Australians are fond of jetting off to Asian countries to help children in need. Most people who choose to volunteer do so with only the best intentions in mind, wanting to give back to vulnerable communities who are in desperate need of help.

Tourists are often met with sights of ragged children living in cramped and crumbling homes. Generous monetary donations almost always follow.

However, these tragic sights may not always be what they seem.

There are an estimated eight million children living in institutional care worldwide, but the vast majority are not real orphans. UNICEF estimates 80% of these children have a living parent or relative but are often given to institutions with the promise of receiving a good education and a better life.

Australians are some of the largest supporters of this industry, sending volunteers and donations through charities, churches, high schools and universities.

CEO of Forget Me Not, Andrea Nave, works with the Nepalese government to promote family-based care as an alternative to institutionalisation, and says that children are often intentionally kept in squalid conditions to attract sympathy from volunteers.

“Children are often kept in a poverty kind of ‘look’ despite the money that may be flowing in from western sponsorships. Because when children are kept in a fine state…no one donates.”

“It’s a business model,” she says.

This exploitation has been well known to children’s rights organisations for decades, but it often takes first-hand experience to understand what is really going on.

Olivia Canning worked at a Balinese orphanage for years, and now advocates for would-be-volunteers to redirect their donations to organisations like her own that support family-based care.

Olivia established The Keys to Freedom after the orphanage she worked at was shut down by authorities and says that volunteers were being misled.

“Doing family-based care, it costs me no more than 400 dollars a year to put a child through school. But orphanages will charge 5,000 US dollars a year…[the kids] teeth are falling out…and they’re going to a public school. Where’s the rest of the money?”

For volunteers like Olivia, finding out that they had been supporting an industry that profits off the exploitation of children is a jagged pill to swallow. However, it’s a necessary step to shutting down an industry that puts on a theatre show for wealthy foreigners with vulnerable children as its cast.