FREE THE CHILDREN: The catch-22 of institutionalization and orphanage tourism

FREE THE CHILDREN: The catch-22 of institutionalization and orphanage tourismWho are we doing this for?

Nobody doubts the good intention of the donors, travellers, and volunteers who give time or money to orphanages. It is natural and right to care about poor and vulnerable children, wherever they are in the world. But what if this support was actually part of the problem, not the solution? What if orphanage tourism, voluntourism and donations were fuelling the demand for “orphans“, and so driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families? In Cambodia, as in much of the developing world, orphanages are a problem, not a solution.

More than ¾ of children living in orphanages are not orphans

Most of these “orphans” should not be in orphanages, and instead should be with their families and communities. So why are these children being institutionalized? And why are we, as tourists or potential donors and volunteers, being asked to support their institutionalization? Perhaps we should start by looking at what an orphanage actually is.

What do we mean by institutional care of “orphanages?”

Institutional care can be defined as a group living arrangement for children, in which remunerated adults, who would not be regarded as traditional guardians within the wider society, provide care. This definition implies an organized and deliberate structure to the living arrangements for children, and describes a professional (rather than parental) relationship between the adult and child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, and the Cambodian Government’s policy on Alternative Child Care, all state clearly that the institutionalization of vulnerable children should be a last resort, and not a final solution.

Why are orphanages a suboptimal solution?

When placing children in institutional or residential care, there is the risk of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and other internationally recognized human rights being violated. These conventions state that parents or, when applicable, the extended family or legal guardians have the primary responsibility to take care of, support and guide the child in the child’s best interest. When a child is institutionalized, often without any legal contract or documentation, the parents or guardians forgo their rights and responsibility.

Many institutions are wholly inadequate to meet the complex needs and demands of childhood care and development, with untrained or unqualified staff, poor conditions, or a lack of child protection policies. In such institutions children are at risk of neglect, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Child rights may be further violated, and child safety jeopardized, by orphanages that allow visitors or un-vetted volunteers to spend time with children, or that send orphans out onto the streets to canvas for donations, often late at night.

Despite this, there is still a long way to go before orphanages will be “certified” and before bogus orphanages, which are either scams or abusing children, are identified and shut down.

What are the effects of institutionalization?

Orphanages are financially unviable as a long-term solution, costing far more per child than alternative, community-based care. A recent study in sub-Saharan Africa showed that institutional care can cost up to six times as much as alternative child care mechanisms. Yet many donors would rather donate to orphanages, where they can see an actual child, build an emotional “relationship,” and feel that they know exactly where their donation is going.

Better, more appropriate community-based alternatives that are more child focused, rather than donor focused, are all too often overlooked. These could include family preservation activities, placement with relatives, and community-based family foster care, with either community or NGO support. Furthermore, these are interventions that should be implemented only while the child awaits reunification with their family, or is integrated into another, more permanent, family setting.

These mechanisms need to be explored and developed as the primary de facto options for alternative child care. Orphanages need to become the last resort that they were always meant to be. Every time a new orphanage is opened in Cambodia, it is in direct contravention of the guidelines and policies of the Royal Government of Cambodia. The government fully supports the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and expressly states that long-term institutionalization of children should be a last resort. The government is currently making moves towards developing stronger monitoring systems in response to the proliferation of orphanages.

The biggest changes will likely come through government enactment of policies that are in the best interest of the children

Progress has already been made in this area with the Royal Cambodian Government’s support of the UNICEF report, as well as crackdowns on some harmful programs such as the 2010 arrest of a British man accused of child molestation while working with orphanages in Siem Reap. In addition to this, a law (prakas) on alternative childcare is pending as of 2011. The policies and laws in Cambodia already state that the growth of more orphanages is not in line with what they see as positive development.

One problem is that families in rural areas, from where many of these “orphans” are pulled, are not always aware of the dangers of sending their children to live in these institutions. Donors/travellers have an opportunity to be part of developing more positive alternatives for vulnerable and abused children by supporting projects and organizations working in line with the development goals of the government.

There have been many examples of countries successfully moving away from institutional care for children, such as Bulgaria. Most “developed” countries retired orphanage-based systems long ago, in response to research which shows that it is not in the best interest of the child and his/her development to grow up in an institution.

The orphanage sector in Cambodia is growing BECAUSE of funding growth. Let’s grow solutions that ARE PROVEN to be less harmful!

So what are the options?


Alternatives to orphanages are community- and family-based care and support systems, which can be either formal or informal, government or NGO supported. If you are visiting a “developing” country like Cambodia, find out what those alternative support mechanisms are. Some of the options include family preservation activities, placement with relatives, and community-based family foster care, with either community or NGO support.

Search online, or ask around, to see if there is a community-based program which you could donate to, or support, rather than an orphanage. Is there an NGO (charity) promoting or developing any of these initiatives? If so, and they are doing good work, spread the word. If you or your organization is considering opening yet another orphanage, seek out alternative options. Look to partner with, grow, or support family-based care options or programs reintegrating “orphans” with their families or communities, and if you have the skills, passion, drive, and long-term commitment to the project development, only then consider starting one on your own. Just take the time to seek out programs and interventions in which children return to their homes at the end of the day.

If you want to help vulnerable children the best way is to support organizations that work to keep families together. Community support is support in the form of income generation, education, social support, and food security; all targeting children and their families in their communities, and not removing children from their homes. The roots of child and family poverty in the “developing world” are complex and multi-dimensional, requiring a range of social and livelihood based interventions and support systems to create long-term, sustainable solutions.

Community-based support looks to strengthen and empower families and communities, providing them with the necessary resources and skills to build a permanent route out of poverty. Contrary to what orphanages and their advocates may tell you, breaking up families and institutionalizing poor children is not the solution to child poverty.


From the website Orphanages.No Please visit this informative site and learn before giving.
Posted by × December 21, 2012 at 7:49 AM


  1. Jessica Bell says:

    I see the point they are making and can totally understand how orphanages are used as a tool to make money, but their suggestions point to reintegrating with the family. In many cases they have no family or have gotten lost or separated from their family so that’s not an option.

    • Having worked in the child care “industry” both as volunteer and as a children’s home creator – in Cambodia – I absolutely agree with this article. Very, very few of the children are true orphans. In fact, they are categorized as “single orphans’ – one parent only, “double orphans” – both parents died, “poverty orphans.” Probably only 10% of the children brought to me were “double orphans.” The rest had one parent, or parents that were too poor to take care of the children. And, even in the case of “double orphans” there was usually a loving grandmother or aunt or uncle who were struggling to look after their own brood and simply didn’t have the money to take care of one more.

      This is what needs addressing. Removing children from their families, their villages, the loving environment they know where they receive personal attention from people who have a personal interest in them should be a last resort. We need to stabilize the family unit, keep the children in their families and care for the needs of the families. Taking them away should be an option of last resort and only in the cases of abuse.

      It is not “in many cases,” it is in very few cases that children are completely bereft of family.

  2. I can see this being the case as far as Cambodia goes. Every country is different I suppose. India for example has a high rate of female infanticide, so to force parents to keep a child only leads to murder.

    Janeolivier, did your experience working in Cambodia cause you to leave that line of work? Or did you do something different than the others?

    • Surely if there were a way to educate and help the families, the female infanticide rate would drop? I haven’t studied India in any depth, so I cannot comment. However, as I said, there are definitely cases where children have to be removed to a place of safety, but it should be the last resort not the norm.

      No, I left that line of work because it was time to do so. What we did was as much as possible to look at each case brought to us, go and interview the families and neighbours and once we were satisfied, get the village chief to give us a signed letter giving us permission to care for the child, stating that this child needed care. This is actually a government requirement that very few institutions follow. It’s a difficult – very difficult – area of work. But I found the same things happening in other countries in Africa and in Asia, not just Cambodia.

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