Caring for children as a way to make money is a profession as old as prostitution. The hands that grab the cash are usually not the hands that so desperately need it. Hands that give are sometimes thanked, but in the more hardened cases the givers are treated with casual contempt. Giving is secured by the sight of dirty, ragged, sick, and skinny children, ensuring that a frozen heart soon melts.
Real times of need do exist, but it’s not the needy that are being shown the money. Daily the money goes into pockets that hold onto it. Daily those sensitive to things like that see it happening and say nothing and the hardening begins. Daily those donations sent in are treated with nonchalance, and the attention of those who first looked on in disgust is eroded, until they too eventually look on with a sense of “reasonable theft is acceptable theft.”
Sure, some relief is given where it was meant to go, but the bulk of it goes to lining creatively-opened pockets.
Children are used as bait on the donation hook. Reasoning holds—if shelter isn’t given, the children will starve. The truth is more disturbing—they’re being starved anyway. The open mouth is not being filled, the raging thirst is not being quenched, the tears are not being dried, the hurts and illnesses are not being attended to. The children’s very breath is being stifled by the savage greed of those who use children for their own gain.
Many of us want to help. Many want to go spend time with children in orphanages. But why do we wish to do this? Is it to bring relief to the children, to see how we can assist them, and make them smile? Or is it to give ourselves the warm fuzzy feeling, the photo opportunity of one section of our travels—a “look what I did while I was in…” pat-on-the-back?
We do the quick-fix day trip, but who’s it “fixing”—the taxi driver, management and caregivers whose pockets are being nicely lined? Or is it ourselves—our own emotional quick-fix—and are we actually helping the children in any way?
To spend a day, or a few hours with children in orphanages—after having purchased a highly overpriced bag of rice from a vendor the tuk-tuk driver stopped at on the way (they’re all in cahoots)—isn’t only disruptive, it’s destructive and only lines the pockets of the middlemen. This same bag of rice is often either resold at a great discount to nearby villagers, or repacked into smaller bags and sold at huge profit at the market.
Those little songs we believe we’re teaching the children for the first time—“heads and shoulders knees and toes”—they know the words better than we do, having been taught them by countless tourists before. However, they’re expected to smile, to act as if this is something new—it’s their smiles that ensure the dollars keep coming.
We spend the time, then leave and, if we could morph into flies on the wall, we would see what our visit actually achieved: the children return to their normal state of apathy and misery, while the management and staff begin to sort and repackage the goods for resale and distribution, usually calling in the same warm-hearted, caring tuk-tuk driver to transport them.
Where the money goes
Before I started Who Will in Cambodia—a children’s home now operating under the caring eyes of The Cambodian Children’s Charity (Camkids) in the U.K.—I spent four months volunteering at a well-known orphanage. One day I received a phone call from a friend asking where one of the children was. He happened to be standing right next to me. “He’s here, why?” One of the directors had been soliciting funds on the Internet to pay for an operation the child had to have as, “he was in a grave state of health and would die without it.”
True, he had been in a grave state of health; in fact a number of volunteers and I had gone to donate blood for him. However, he had already had the operation and it had been done free of charge. He was right next to me laughing and lively, after having been released from hospital the previous week and was doing very well thank you. But the director was using this to extort money from the unknowing.
I was called by another one-day tourist asking if he could purchase school uniforms for the children as he had seen the state of those they were wearing—many of the smaller children walked around without a stitch of clothing. My response was a resounding “no.” There were two cupboards full of brand new uniforms, a cupboard full of books and stationery, another full of play clothes—they were not going to the children, they were being sold.
A volunteer arrived to teach English for a few months. She had paid a vast sum of money to an international volunteer placement organization to send her to this orphanage. We spent a lot of time together discussing the plight of the children and where the money she had spent was going. As far as could be seen, if any was being given to the orphanage, it was definitely not reaching the children.
I managed to gain insight into the accounting books of the orphanage and, having been a financial consultant, knew what to look for and started doing some calculations. Yes, money was coming in, but it went to pay for the manager’s laundry, his breakfast at a nearby restaurant (he told me he couldn’t eat the food the children ate!), a bicycle for a caregiver’s grandchild, or for the fuel for the motorbike to go and pick up the volunteer and return her home in the evening—her payment going straight into the manager’s pocket. The list was endless.
I put all my findings in writing, had it translated and called a meeting with the directors, giving each of them a copy in both languages. They voiced their concern, thanked me for bringing this to their attention and ignored me. I decided to make an attempt at rescuing 73 children. I wasn’t able to as, once the directors realized what I was doing, they refused me access to the children.
Why this happens
It’s necessary to realize and accept—as hard as this is—that using children to improve the financial state of others rakes in, first of all sympathy, and then millions of dollars. Since time immemorial, individuals, organizations and even parents have used children to wrest money from sympathetic ears.
Who can refuse the child with hand outstretched? Willingly people give up their funds and their time to ensure children eat—seasoned killers would not be able to refuse them. And yet, what more are the Orphan Lords but serial killers? They kill hope, they kill dreams, they kill respect for self and others.
Great organizations stand on the foundations built by orphans. The awaiting hands are those of the founders and the open hungry mouths remain unfed. Time relinquishes more children into these callous hands, giving the world the impression that the organization is one that successfully cares for children.
We all see those “for just over a dollar a day you can feed a child” campaigns on TV that wring the heart and wrestle the money from the pocket. Those of us who have insider knowledge look on deeply disturbed, as only about four percent of that donation reaches the children. The rest goes into administration fees—marketing, housing for directors, flashy four-wheel-drives, dinners and security guards.
Those children in need? Often they have been willingly or forcefully removed from their homes, from those who, though poverty-stricken and needy, truly emotionally care, but do not have the means to do the physical caring that the world at large believes is more important than the shoulder to cry on, the heart to be held against, the arms to enfold and the hand to wipe away the tears. Hungry and ill they may have been, uneducated according to the urban belief structures, but they were children filling their days with laughter, love and lore.
Often the parents pay the orphanages to take their children as they believe they will be given a better life. However, even more often the parents are paid to take the children to “places of care” to be used as money traps.
Yes, there is a right way
- Do not fall into big organization’s “for a little more than a dollar a day” media trap. Yes, it does take only a little more than a dollar day to feed, clothe, educate and care for the health of a child in third world countries. However, donating to admin heavy organizations means that most of the money is staying there—in the large organization, and once the overheads have been covered, it’s going to take many of “you” to care for one of “them.” There are many small trustworthy organizations where almost, if not all, of your donation will go to the child. Below is a list of personally known and trusted organizations you can contact—some are the organizations themselves, others are organizations and individuals who operate globally. The latter not only raise funds for various organizations they personally know; they are actual volunteers themselves, so will be able to steer you in the right direction. It’s the little people that desperately need your help—not the big institutions.
- Do not sponsor a child in any orphanage or children’s home unless you personally know the home, or know someone that knows. It’s extremely difficult to know whether your sponsorship is actually reaching the child you are supposedly sponsoring, but there are ways to do this. Some more extreme than others. For example, ceramic artist Sana Musasama sponsors a young girl in an orphanage in Cambodia. However, Sana spends most of the year working with her art, using it to raise awareness and through exhibitions, workshops and sales, manages to save enough money to visit Cambodia. Once a year she travels there to work with another organization that cares for women and children, and also spends time at the orphanage visiting the girl, personally bringing things to her and making sure that the child still actually has in her own possession whatever else she was given on previous occasions. Being able to contact the organizations personally to get a “feel” for them would be a great help, and if they are prepared to give you contact details of other sponsors, you are “onto a good thing.” Again, the list below will be an excellent place to start and the voices of these organizations will give you an idea of how the right thing sounds.
- If you really want to spend time volunteering, do not use volunteer placement organizations to do this. They take your money, or have you raising funds to pay for the privilege of helping others. Very little of this money—if any—gets to the orphanage where you will be volunteering. There are many websites that offer free or low cost volunteer opportunities. Google “free volunteer opportunities” or “volunteer for free.” Here are two that I have personally used: http://www.freevolunteering.co.uk/ and http://www.truetravellers.org/. They give the organization’s website details and you can contact them directly.
Things to check when visiting the websites—do your research
- Do the organizations ask for references?
- Do the organizations ask for police checks from the country of origin of the volunteer?
- Do they want payment and if so, for what? If it’s for accommodation and food, depending on the country, this should not be more than $100-$150 per week.
- Do they offer any assistance with visas or permits?
- Are they prepared to give you contact details of previous volunteers—and not just one, a number of them?
- Do they state a minimum duration of stay? This is important when dealing with children; anything less than three weeks to one month is only disruptive.
- Are they prepared to give you insight into their financial statements?
- Are they legally registered with their local or international governments and are they prepared to send you proof of this?
Whenever I hear the words, “I want to visit an orphanage,” or “There’s a place offering tours of orphanages,” I have to restrain myself from going ballistic.
To those who use orphans as a tourist attraction, and there are many, look to your merchandise. No animal is looking out at the world from behind emotional bars of confinement. No animal is being gawked at, or patted on the head, or photographed to become part of the holiday album.
These are children—real, alive, displaced, broken children. They are not to be used to satisfy some selfish need, whether it’s to alleviate guilt, create an impression of caring, or used as a down payment on the latest luxury.
To “do a tour” of an orphanage is to put the plight of children into the same category as a tour of ruins, a zoo or some other sight-seeing attraction; and the Orphan Industry flourishes.
There is a correct way to care for children, and one of the most important things to ensure they’re protected is to control access of strangers to the children. As a potential volunteer or visitor, awareness of this will ensure that whatever you choose to do will be for the good—of both you and the children.
We need to be aware of what we are doing, where our money is going and who or what is actually being funded. Yes, it is one of the most wonderful things to do, but it must be done correctly.
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List of reputable volunteer organizations
Mith Samlanh (“Friends” in English) is a local organization working with Cambodian street children, their families and the community to develop creative projects that effectively support children to become independent and productive members of the community.
Mlop Children’s Home helps young children and babies who are in need of care in Cambodia, a country that’s still suffering from the aftermath of one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
Safe Haven Children’s Trust has very low overheads. Their aim is to always keep administrative costs as low as possible so that money raised goes directly to the cause.
The Wat Opot Community currently houses about 60 children and 25 adults, many of whom are infected with HIV and AIDS. Many children who are not physically affected by the virus are living here because their primary caregiver was or is HIV Positive and has either died or is unable to take care of them. Some are orphans who are not HIV+ but who have lost their parents altogether to AIDS.
This organization’s main purpose is to help children in Cambodia who are either poor or whose parents are not there for them: orphans, street children, children living in poor rural areas and children affected by natural disasters, such as flood or famine. In a country with a high rate of child abandonment, they also support programs that strengthen vulnerable families and keep them together.
Dr. Cary Rasof, a Family Practice Physician, pursued a career in medicine to serve the poor in developing countries. His committed service to humanity includes medical missions for indigenous people around the world with Doctors Without Borders and with Hearts and Hands, a grassroots humanitarian organization that he and Anne Jones started to help people help themselves and others through sustainable development. His mission is to bring love to the world.
“We are Aaron, Bryan, Vaishali, and Patrick. “Who?” is what you’re probably asking, and that’s entirely the point. We’re just two twenty-something buddies from L.A., a random girl from Georgia, and a dude from Missouri who realized one day that we had the resolve and ability (even if we did not yet have the know-how) to get out there and help others in any way possible. We have no doctorates in anthropology or sociology, no entrepreneurial backgrounds. We’re just four young people who one day decided that we didn’t want to sit on our butts anymore. And we’ve been not sitting on our butts in any way possible ever since.
If you know any reputable volunteer organizations or individuals that you could personally vouch for, feel free to add them to the comments list. Give a description of what they do, where they operate and a link to their website or contact information.
More organizations – with thanks to our readers:
Anna and Bonnie: I can add to the list this small French organization which helps the Franco-Hungarian-Khmer orphanage in Kandal province. I know personally the association and the orphanage and can assure that all money goes to children. Here is the website (in French) : http://marellewochicam.org and the blog http://marellewochicam.blogspot.fr/