In 2013 The Better Care Network and Save the Children UK began an inter-agency initiative involving Better Care Network Netherlands, ECPAT, Faith to Action Initiative, Friends International, Hope and Homes for Children, SOS Children’s Villages, and UNICEF. The purpose of this initiative was to review and share existing knowledge on international volunteerism as related to the alternative care of children in developing countries. Supported by The Oak Foundation, this initiative - known as “Better Volunteering, Better Care” – was created in response to a growing concern from child protection specialists and other stakeholders about the negative impact of volunteerism within this setting.
The project consulted with over 120 experts from across the child protection, education, media, tourism, corporate sectors, and Christian faith communities and conducted literature reviews and surveys. Informed by the findings and a convening of 40 experts from across these sectors, the development of a global strategy and was finalized.
A positive finding from the planning phase of the Better Volunteering, Better Care Initiative was the high level of motivation from actors involved to continue their own efforts to advocate against international volunteering in residential care as well as collaborate on joint efforts as part of the larger strategy and global campaign. Stakeholders across these different sectors expressed a strong willingness and commitment to continue collaborating beyond the consultation and form a more formal channel through which to do so. As a result, supported by funding from the Human Dignity Foundation, Better Care Network and Save the Children UK launched the Better Volunteering, Better Care Global Working Group to continue this collaboration, and to develop further advocacy efforts as outlined in the global engagement strategy.
In 2015, in response to strategy discussions that greater impact could be achieved if the coalition focused at a country level, BVBC members in Australia adapted the cross-sectoral model employed by BVBC to develop the first of the country-hub concepts and called it ReThink Orphanages. The Hub broadened its remit to focus on funding support for orphanages as well as volunteering, recognizing that these two streams were frequently aligned. Since it was established, ReThink Orphanages has made significant inroads in effecting change across various sectors and succeeded in bringing the issue of the link between orphanage tourism and orphanage trafficking to the attention of Australian Parliamentarians. This led to orphanage trafficking being recognized in Australia as a form of modern slavery.
Building on the success of the first country-hub, two further hubs – in the USA and Europe – were established at the end of 2017, both adopting a broader remit of focus, to include funding as well as volunteering. In light of this broader global remit, with the agreement of the founders of ReThink Orphanages in Australia, BVBC and the country-hubs were renamed ReThink Orphanages in June 2018.
The global coalition continues to serve as a platform for sharing knowledge and best practice; the focus of the country-hubs is on advocacy and engagement.
With growing interest in volunteer-tourism around the world, there is an increasing trend of volunteering within residential child-care facilities such as orphanages and children’s homes. In sub-Saharan Africa the increased global discourse on HIV/ AIDS-affected children can create the misleading perception that children have no family or kin to take care of them, and contributes to an increasing trend of volunteering to care for “AIDS orphans."1 It is estimated that more than 2 million children live in institutional care2 and that four out of five of children in institutional care have parents3. Volunteers themselves come from a broad range of backgrounds – foreign and national – and include students during their gap year, faith-based groups, and employees from corporations and governments which in some instance have specific policies for their employees to conduct volunteer work.
A growing evidence base has consistently highlighted the negative impact on children of living in institutional care such as orphanages4 – especially when a parents or close family members are still living nearby. The increasing trend in volunteering in these facilities compounds the issue and the impact on children. Not only does it encourage the expansion of orphanages, but it also makes children vulnerable to abuse in those areas where regulation is lax, creates attachment problems in children who become attached to short-term visitors, and can heighten the risk for unregulated inter-country adoption by well-intentioned volunteers who form a bond with a child and want to take them home.
There is a critical need to raise awareness of the risks of harm involved in these volunteering practices through informing all actors involved of the negative impact on children’s well-being, development, and rights. It is also critical to be able to positively and respectfully suggest ethical volunteering alternatives that are in line with the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children welcomed by the United Nations in 20095.
1 Richter, L M and Norman, A. (2010). AIDS orphan tourism: a threat to young children in residential care. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies. 5:3. p217-219.
2 UNICEF. (2009). Child Protection Report Card.
3 Browne, K. (2009). The Risks of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care. Better Care Network.
4 Browne, K. (2009). Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care. Accessed on 21 May 2013 at: http://bettercarenetwork.org/docs/The_Risk_of_Harm.pdf ; Williamson, J., Greenberg, A. (2010). Families not Orphanages. Accessed on 21 May 2013 at: http://bettercarenetwork.org/docs/Families%20Not%20Orphanages.pdf; McCall, R. (2012). The Development and Care of Institutionally Reared Children. Child Development Perspectives. Volume 6, Issue 2. pages 174–180
5 United Nations. (2009). Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. United Nations. Retrieved on 3 December 2013 from: http://bettercarenetwork.org/docs/Guidelines-English.pdf.