Knowledge, Power and Inequality: Why I Wrote The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering

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Part 1: Knowledge is Power

"You will be working on voluntourism", a knowledgeable friend said to me when I told her I had applied for the position of Country Director for Next Generation Nepal.

"What is voluntourism?" I thought to myself, although I had a fairly good idea what it might be. I had no idea though how it could be connected to child trafficking.

That was over three years ago, and today I find myself writing the word 'voluntourism' hundreds of times each week in articles and emails.  I have become hooked on the concept. Fascinated.  Intrigued.

For those who do not know much about the work of Next Generation Nepal, let me say a few words about orphanage voluntourism[1].  What most volunteers who work in orphanages in countries like Nepal do not realise is that they are actually fuelling the unnecessary displacement and trafficking of children.  They are creating an incentive for children to be removed from their families deceitfully and be placed in profit making orphanages.  The children are deliberately misrepresented as 'orphans' and 'destitute' to the fee-paying volunteers and NGOs that support the orphanages, and thus used as poverty commodities and fundraising tools.  As well as it being unnecessary for the children to be in these orphanages, it deprives them of a childhood spent growing up with their mothers and fathers.  It exposes them to a revolving roster of foreign volunteers who come and go like visitors to a zoo.  Each time a volunteer forms a bond with a child, and then leaves three weeks later, it causes the child to feel grief which results in long-term psychological attachment disorders as an adult.  In many scenarios the children are deliberately starved, beaten, abused and forced to change their names and identities to make them more appealing 'causes' for the philanthropic foreigners.  In the worst cases it even leaves children vulnerable to abuse by paedophiles.  Orphanage voluntourism is a great paradox of our times: whilst the foreign volunteers have good intentions, the impact of their actions is devastating.

When I began my new job in Next Generation Nepal I saw what amazing work the organisation was doing in rescuing, rehabilitating and reunifying these children with their families.  But for every child we took home, the traffickers were bringing another hundred back again to the orphanages.  It was depressing.  It was like bailing out water with a bucket instead of closing the flood gates.

What I did realise however was that we had a surprisingly large amount of information about this unusual and little-documented problem.  We knew who the traffickers were, how they operated, how they tricked the foreigners and – from having been volunteers ourselves – we knew a fair bit about volunteering too.  Knowledge is power, and in this sense we were more powerful than the traffickers.  All I had to do was to get this information out of my colleagues’ heads and onto paper so others could understand it.  We had to make sure that the link between trafficking and volunteering was clearly documented, and we had to propose ethical alternatives for volunteers.  This would make the volunteers and donors stop funding the corrupt institutions that exploit children, and in turn, this would stop the demand for trafficked children to fill the orphanages.

It wasn't going to be easy though.  For an organisation that had traditionally only done 'real' hands-on work with 'real' children, I knew there would be some internal influencing to do.  I was concerned that a high-brow research report might not fit so easily with the cool and young grassroots approach of Next Generation Nepal, as illustrated so brilliantly by Conor Grennan in his book, Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.  There was also virtually no money for this far-fetched idea of mine.

But I was not alone in wanting to share this story.  Some 'ethical' volunteers found their way to Next Generation Nepal in the United States to help us to document the information.  First there was Rachel Krulewich, then Jessica O’Neill and Romeo Teyssier Dumont, and finally Katie Feit, who ended up writing lots of the final report and becoming my co-author.  They all worked for free because they shared my vision to get this information into the public arena.

Then my friend, Jason Squire – the Country Director of Terre des hommes in Nepal – took an interest in what we were doing.  He encouraged the Swiss Ambassador to squeeze me into a private briefing to the diplomatic community at Dwarikas Hotel in Kathmandu.  Over an exquisite lunch I told the story of a girl being murdered in Mukti Nepal Orphanage which had been established to raise money from voluntourists.  The Ambassadors and Consuls looked visibly shaken as they placed their wine glasses down on the tables in front of them, having somewhat lost their appetites.  Within a few months the Swiss, Americans, French and British embassies had all changed their travel advice so that it warned their citizens not to volunteer in profit-making orphanages.

Then the media got interested and began to interview me.  Small articles and blogs appeared in places like Australia and Slovakia, and then in the British newspaper, The Guardian.  The Guardian article was widely read and got re-published in other newspapers around the world.  People were starting to listen.

Then I got an email from someone carrying out research into orphanage voluntourism for Save the Children and the Better Care Network.  Lo and behold it seemed that we were not the only people interested in this issue; the movers and shakers of the development world wanted to know who we were and what we were doing.  I sat in room with Claire Bennett – who I quickly learned was as passionate about this subject as I was – and we talked late into the evening.  It was not long after this that an all-expenses-paid invitation came from Save the Children to speak at a workshop in London.

In a Euston conference room I relayed my well-rehearsed speech of tragic stories, inter-played with rays of hope, to a group of sympathetic Americans and Europeans from the media, universities, the tourism industry and international NGOs.  I was told afterwards by someone: "We knew it was bad, but we had no idea it was this bad".  Real stories about real children told by real people are more powerful than statistics and charts.

By now the donors were very interested, and my Australian friends in ADRA Nepal and Forget Me Not came through for me and committed funds.  One of the best editors in Nepal, Susan Sellars-Shrestha, agreed to reduce her usual rate to help me.  Another ex-volunteer, Erik Wilson, let me use his iconic photograph of a backpacker girl with her arm around a Nepali girl.  Conor Grennan himself agreed to write a Forward for the report, and my boss in America, Anna Howe, gave me the time I needed to complete it.  Everyone in Next Generation Nepal was now fully behind me and we simply had to ride the wave we had created.

My UNICEF colleagues were the last to come on board, but when they did, I knew that this would be the tipping point.  They organised a joint Next Generation Nepal and UNICEF ‘Conference on Orphanage Volunteering’ at the Hotel Himalaya in Kupondole.  They flew over Anna McKeon from Cambodia – the Coordinator of the Save the Children / Better Care Network project – and enrolled the Honourable Constitutional Assembly Member, Ms Ranju Thakur, and the UNICEF Representative to Nepal, Mr Tomoo Hozumi, as speakers.  The media arrived along with over 120 guests, and we launched The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering.

I began my speech by saying that seventeen years ago I had been an unskilled orphanage volunteer in Peru, and today I was the lead author of a report telling people not to do the same as me.  My Nepali staff received a spontaneous round of applause for being the "real heroes" for rescuing and reunifying trafficked children with their families.

The launch received coverage on Nepali television, it was reported in over sixteen newspapers and blogs around the world, and over sixteen organizations shared it on their websites or news bulletins. I lost track of all the people who tweeted it or shared it on Facebook.  One of the hidden tragedies of Nepal was no longer hidden.

Of course nothing will change overnight, but the facts are undeniably out there now in the public domain for all to see.  Already I am being contacted by PhD students that want to research it further and universities that want me to talk to their students.  One of the biggest children's homes in Nepal has used it as an incentive to stop using orphanage volunteers.  A friend of mine who runs a trekking business now sends it to clients who ask her to arrange an orphanage volunteering placement.  "It's not just me saying it’s a bad idea now", she tells me, "we have the proof!".  UNICEF wants to establish a multi-agency working group to tackle the problem.  There have been many more ripples, and there will continue to be so.

It will not just be Next Generation Nepal involved in the next steps, there will be many of us working together.  But, for me personally, I feel I have fulfilled my personal ethical responsibility to share Next Generation Nepal’s knowledge for the benefit of others, and most of all for the children of Nepal.  It means that the girl who was murdered in Mukti Nepal Orphanage need not have died in vain.


Part 2: Understanding Structures of Power and Inequality

I am one of those people who goes through life moving from one obsession to the next, and recently I have found myself wondering why orphanage voluntourism so captured my imagination.  In fact, I know the reason why.  It was because I recognised myself in what I was writing about.

For all my bragging to my friends about my philanthropic ideals in giving up a well-paid job in London in 2008 to work on a local salary for a grassroots Indian social movement, I know that a big part of my motives were egotistical.   Although I sincerely believe that my intentions were largely altruistic, I would be lying if I said I did not get a kick out of the praise I received from others for my 'good work'.  On a more subtle level, my intentions to 'do good' were paradoxically self-centred in so far as they were about 'me' and 'my' impact on the world, rather than simply being concerned that the impact happened regardless of whether or not 'I' was a part of it.

I still meet foreigners in Nepal who – like I once was – are driven to do social work, to volunteer and to perhaps even set up their own charities to 'make the world a better place'.  These actions are as much about making themselves feel valued as 'good people' as they are about helping others.  Having been there myself it is easy for me to spot the same traits in other people.

Voluntourism and other forms of philanthropy can trap people in relationships of unequal power[2].  Voluntourists need poverty to exist in the world in the same way as an artist needs to suffer for their inspiration.  Voluntourists need there to be orphanages to support in the same way as an artist needs a canvas to paint on.  But rather than changing the structures of inequality associated with poverty – which on the surface voluntourism professes to do – in reality it can too easily reinforce these same structures.  It can reaffirm the voluntourist's superior position as an ethically sound and materially powerful individual that has the inclination and ability to solve the problems of others; in contrast to the inferior beneficiary who can too easily be imagined as a powerless and weak recipient, unable to resolve his or her own problems.

Most voluntourists, like me, are from powerful and wealthy countries.  Our philanthropy can inadvertently reinforce our own countries' status as more powerful and ethically superior to others.  It can recycle a colonial and racial hierarchy which we were supposed to have discarded many decades ago.

I am not saying this is a justification not to help people in need, and it is definitely not a reason to stay at home in our wealthy countries, disengaged from the problems affecting poorer parts of the world.  As rich and privileged Westerners we have high-levels of resources and skills that can help alleviate the suffering of others, and it would be deeply unethical not to use these.  However, in using these resources and skills we should do so with more awareness of the implications of our actions. Not just in terms of how they may cause more trafficking or abuse, but also in terms of the global and local relationships of inequality they may reinforce.

This is why we need 'ethical voluntourism'.  Voluntourists and philanthropists first need to recognise the inherent risks in their work becoming a one-way passage of intellectually and morally superior charity work.  Once this is recognised they can shift their focus towards a more equal and honest cultural exchange of ideas and learning between the so called 'giver' and 'receiver' [4].  In doing so the old notions of 'giving' and 'receiving' disappear - or at least they continually revolve between the foreign volunteer and the local community.  The exchange between the foreigner and the local community then becomes about mutual learning, respect and development for everyone.  In this sense everyone is a beneficiary, and therefore everyone is a winner.

As I approach the four year mark of living in Nepal, I recognise increasingly my naivety and arrogance in some of the ideas I had about 'changing Nepal' when I first came here (and four years from now I will probably look back at what I am saying here and think the same thing!).  But I also recognise how much I have learned from Nepali friends and colleagues about the inadequacies of my own society and my own limited world views.  Each time I go on a field trip with my Nepali colleagues and my bag is ten times bigger than theirs, I am reminded of my excessive materialism.  Each time a valuable electrical appliance breaks in our house and we get it repaired, rather than throwing it away, I am reminded of my own society's unnecessary consumption.  Each time I am faced with an unsolvable problem and a Nepali friend laughs and says "ke garne?" (meaning "what can we do?", to infer that there is nothing we can do) I am reminded of my own impatience and inflexibility, and how this fuels my stress levels when I should be practicing graceful acceptance.  It begs the question - why is Nepal not sending thousands of young voluntourist Nepalis over to Britain and America to teach us about these things?

I have by no means resolved all these conflicts within myself yet. I still have a large ego and I still need to feel that I am 'making a difference' for my own satisfaction.   But in writing The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering, it has helped me to process my own experiences and reassess them in light of what I am saying to my audience.

The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating Child Trafficking Through Ethical Voluntourism was aimed at me as much as it was at others.


More Information

For more information about Next Generation Nepal’s position on ethical volunteering, as well as to download a copy of The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering, see here:

To read the UNICEF and Next Generation Nepal press release after the Conference on Orphanage Volunteering, see here:

If you do not have time to read the whole report but want a summary, see here:



[1] Punaks, M & Feit, K. 2014. The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating child trafficking through ethical voluntourism. NGN: Lalitpur.

[2] Zakaria, R. 2014.  ‘The Travel Book Gives This Orphanage Four Stars: Donor-centric orphanage tourism in developing countries oversteps international standards on child protection’. Al Jazeera America [blog], 14th August 2014. Available at: (Accessed 19th January 2015).

[3] Bennett, C.; Papi, D. 2014. ‘From service learning to learning service.’ Stanford Social Innovation Review [online], April 8, 2014. Available at: (accessed 21st January 2015)

Position: Country Director, Next Generation Nepal


Vouluntourism and Adoption

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