The Reality of Orphanage Tourism

Ugandan Children

Written By: Nyasia Bussie | Program Officer for Uganda & South Africa

Voluntourism and mission trips are often promoted as opportunities for Westerners to positively impact the lives of children while immersing themselves in a new culture. However, the reality of these trips is far different from the charitable activism they portray. The trips are often rooted in the idea of the white savior complex, which is operating from a place of believing your whiteness makes you more capable and knowledgeable about the needs of BIPOC, based on the belief that BIPOC are inferior and lack willpower. These ideas and practices expose children to exploitative business practices with detrimental effects on their well-being. 

Orphanages are a business first and foremost

Uganda’s orphanages have become a lucrative business model which draws millions of dollars. Due to the attraction of that money, orphanages seek to recruit as many children as possible. Shockingly, 4 out of 5 children in an orphanage still have one or both parents alive. Parents who lack resources to care for their children are enticed by the promise of education, proper nutrition, and new clothes for their children. In many cases, only children with the highest amount of sponsorships receive this treatment. Uganda is home to over 300 unlicensed and unregulated orphanages funded by unregulated donors overseas. 

The business of orphanage tourism has also been expanded to social impact cruises. Cruise businesses prioritize catering to the egos of foreigners who want to feel like they are making a positive impact in the world, even if it means putting the psychological and physical safety of children at risk.

Children are neglected and abused

To sell the spectacle of poverty, directors of orphanages often neglect the children in their care. Projects to improve living conditions in orphanages are deliberately slowed, and children are strategically placed to create an emotional appeal for visitors. Consequently, the funds raised for improvement projects are being misappropriated, and the children who live in the orphanage are then vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation.

During orphanage tours, children are exposed to a revolving door of foreigners who have not received a background check, have little-to-no experience in childcare, or have training in trauma-informed care. With no measures in place to protect their physical and emotional health, the children are susceptible to trafficking, as well as psychological and physical harm. The orphanage tourism business model does not support a child’s socioemotional needs. For example, the children who live in the orphanages may appear hyper-affectionate because they must constantly form new bonds with adults who ultimately abandon them. 

Efforts to address the issue

The Ugandan government has responded to this injustice by approving the 2016 Children Act Amendment Bill. Expanding the Children’s Act included changes to guardianship and adoption laws and enhancing the protection of children in institutional settings. To crack down on the number of unlicensed and unregulated orphanages, the Ugandan Government sent probation officers to ensure proper licensure is obtained and procedures are followed. Unfortunately, some probation officers are known to take bribes from the orphanages in return for looking the other way. Thankfully, organizations and community leaders in Uganda have recognized the need to rectify this injustice. In response, community organizations, such as the Abide Family Center and Cherish Uganda, empower families to stay together through offering various services. Historically, Ugandans have embraced a communal approach to parenthood, emphasizing extended family and friends providing support and care to children. Community leaders also urge foreigners who want to help to direct their support to the community-led organizations that aim to shift the offers of assistance away from orphanages toward sustainable community engagement initiatives. 

Changing Perspectives

To combat the dangers of orphanage tourism, we must reject the idea that poverty equates to a lack of love. Uganda is home to resilient and compassionate communities that actively engage with each other. It is not our job to project our views and impose our methods on an established community. We must listen, learn, and understand what communities want us to do to add to their efforts. Rather than participate in orphanage tourism, local community leaders advise tourists to prioritize supporting local businesses that allow business owners to provide for their families, ultimately fostering economic growth. 

At Global Foundation for Girls (GFG), we are active thought partners, serving global BIPOC communities in order to advance and support the advocacy movement. We lead webinars and trainings for providers, including doulas, social workers, childbirth educators, and more! To learn more about our upcoming training, click here!