Ethical Tourism, Volunteering, and Missions: Are We Getting it Right?

posted in: Mom's Musings | 3

I think this is a really complicated topic, but absolutely crucial for us to consider if we claim to really love the people we want to serve as Christians.

One too many times I have heard people say, and I have done it myself once upon a time, “What they do with it is their problem, I am just supposed to serve and give.” Really? Does that really make sense? I think that may be one of those Bible quotes that isn’t actually in there. You know like: “Follow your heart,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” Forgive me if this post sounds too aggressive, but I have thought about these things a long time and grow more and more passionate the more I learn. However, I realize I am far from knowing all the details and idiosyncrasies of global development and world relief work; so please study also for yourself.

Before we left for our Around the World trip, we read Conor Grennan’s book, Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, and about his path to Christ during his experience. He and several others started Next Generation Nepal (NGN) as a result of their work with trafficked children, and he is the President and founder of NGN. In his story, he was traveling around the world and felt guilty about not giving anything back, so he volunteered at an orphanage, only to discover many of the children there were not orphans at all. It is a simple but moving read and appropriate for middle schoolers, and I highly recommend it.

We had the privilege of meeting with Next Generation in Nepal this past Wednesday in Kathmandu. They sponsor weekly Wisdom Wednesdays to help teach about ethical volunteering and raise awareness in their community. We were unable to find a group of believers to meet with during our stay, so this was the next best thing. We were fortunate to hear a gentleman from the Umbrella Foundation speak about his experiences working in Nepal and answer questions about how to best help those children in need.

The Nepalese gentleman shared startling facts that over 16,000 children are living in children’s homes and orphanages in Nepal, but 85% of these children have one or more living parents. Around 80% of children’s homes and orphanages are located in the top 5 tourist districts of Nepal, catering to tourist’s admirable desire to serve and also have a “life-changing” experience. Those out for profit have discovered we will pay to volunteer with pitiful orphaned children, so they create them. The more pitiful the better, to encourage us to raise money and send more funds when we get home.

During the Nepalese civil war around 2005, 31,000 children were abducted, and 40,000 displaced by war. The Maoists had a habit of conscripting one child per family to fight in the war, so many terrified families sent their children to places they thought were safer. Promises of educational opportunities and reliability of meals and healthcare were used to lure parents into taking risks and sending their children to the cities with predators who appeared to be well meaning. Money is to be made on both ends. Parents pay high fees to guarantee their children this “service,” and on the other side many people are willing to pay – for child slaves, prostitutes, and from well meaning tourists willing to pay to care for these children. Also, soon following the civil war, well-meaning westerners would pay $25,000 to adopt a Nepalese child, creating a financial incentive to fake parents’ death certificates and traffic “orphans.” In 2015 international adoption became illegal for this reason.

A large compilation of research shows that the family is the best place for a child and to support a child financially to be able to remain in their own loving home is much preferable to adoption or institutionalization. Research shows that the majority of orphans in developing countries are usually taken in by family members and well cared for, orphanages and childrens’ homes should be a rarity. Poverty is also not a good reason to create an “orphan.” By supporting poor and rural communities, families can stay together. Many organizations exist that are doing a great job with this. Compassion International, World Vision, and UNICEF. The systems in place are not perfect, but they are better than the alternatives and should be prioritized over adoption and orphanage/children’s homes.

I know some people may be hurt by some of these facts. Many of us may have already contributed to service that likely was not very helpful and probably even harmful. I know I have. And please understand, I do think there is a place for international adoption. However, our focus in the past has proven to not be very effective, and I believe we need to focus more on child sponsorship and supporting community, rather than removing the child from their home and culture to become an American with so many privileges. Our culture is not the most preferable in the world necessarily. Remember Revelations 7:9-10, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Consider you own present monetary and service contributions. Also, here are just a few quick tips adapted from multiple websites addressing these issues, followed by several good sources for further research:

  1. Do not volunteer in a children’s home or orphanage. We have finally learned this in the states as well. Multiple different caregivers that show up for a few weeks and then leave, over and over again, is detrimental to a child’s ability to form attachments, earn trust, and causes significant grief. Think about it. It is unavoidable for a child lacking stable caregivers, and would even hurt our own children if their caregivers were constantly changing. Also, background checks are much more difficult to obtain in a timely manner in the developing world.
  2. Remember, if you are not from the culture you are serving in, you have a lot of learning to do if you really want to help. You must question your assumptions, and know up front you don’t have all the answers and you do not know what it is like to walk in their shoes. Do not think you can just show up for a flight to a short term mission trip with little to no preparation and not cause harm, if nothing more than wasting a lot of tithes.
  3. Research organizations you donate too and especially volunteer with. You are responsible for who and what you support. This does not mean throw up your hands because it is too hard. Christ needs hands and hearts in the world who are willing to make the effort to really love their neighbor in a way that serves them and not us.
  4. Consider what skills you have. Often times, less hands-on rolls are more helpful to the community. They may feel less glamorous to us, but that is not why we’re serving, right? The goal is not to primarily come back more grateful for your own life, but to serve those we seek to show Christ’s love. Our benefit should be definitely the last concern. Consider teaching English with Let’s Start Talking, after having some cultural training. English is incredibly value to all in developing countries, and it’s one skill most of us can help others learn with just conversational practice.
  5. Think about the longterm impact of what you or the organization you are supporting is doing. Are you bringing in doctors or nurses indefinitely to do jobs that locals could be trained to do. Are you preventing local people from doing the same job. Are you bringing supplies into an area from outside, that will essentially close down a local’s business? Are you inadvertently creating unnecessary dependency?
  6. Consider being an ethical tourist. I realize travel doesn’t sound very self-sacrificing, and we desperately struggled with this decision ourselves. However, you can do a lot to support communities by spending money responsibly in these areas, talking with the people, encouraging their efforts, and just showing them the love of Christ. Supporting the work of families creates much more dignity than giving them our solutions and doing the work ourselves. They are often proud of their culture and what they have to offer and want to share it.


For more reading and discussion of this topic, check out the following:

Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child.

When the Elephant Dances, the Mouse May Die

Evaluating the Best Ways to Give to the Poor – Bruce Wydick

Tourism and Poverty Alleviation

Child Safe Tourism

Respect for the Destinations with Visit

Volunteering and Voluntoursim

Short term Missions or Tourist

What no one tells you before going on a mission trip

Grassroots Volunteering

Dear North America: We Can Do Better

The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address

Before you volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

3 Responses

  1. Gwynn

    Thank you so much for his post! So appreciate your perspective and resources provided. Love you guys!

    • Chrishicks5

      This is on my heart so much lately, trying to get a handle on how to apply it in my life more and more, love you guys!

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