As the co-founder and founding coordinator of the ReThink Orphanages Network, I’ve spent years researching, lobbying and advocating against orphanage tourism, Through my work I feel like I’ve seen it all, including the explosion in demand for ‘orphan experiences’ through school and university exchanges, mission trips, gap year programs, and fundraising events – all in the name of helping the poor children. But today, while doing an image search for another project, I came across something new and equally disturbing: the phenomenon of military personnel visiting orphanages as part of their 'community relations' activities.
The US military defines community relations (or COMREL) as the “on-going relationship between a military community and a civilian community”, and it is a strategic relationship. The US Department of Defense policy is: “to foster good relations with the communities at home and abroad. Not only does it foster support of the military, it's a tool that humanizes service members.”
One of the challenges we have in trying to shift attitudes towards orphanage tourism is the widespread but misguided belief that volunteering in an orphanage is helpful to children, and that as long as the volunteer's intentions are pure, harm couldn't possibly occur. We now know this to be untrue – research shows that children are often trafficked into orphanages to meet demand for these ‘orphan experiences’, and children are harmed not only by the simple fact that they live in an orphanage, but by exposure to a constant rotation of short-term, unskilled visitors and volunteers.
Shifting attitudes is also challenging when we see a legitimisation of orphanage tourism through ‘hero’ stories in the media. When celebrities, or even everyday people in our communities, are praised for their ‘orphanage voluntourism’, we think it must be a good thing. As we see the number of ‘likes’ increasing, we are more likely to contribute to the cause through donations or even volunteer ourselves. Furthermore, when we see these types of stories in the media, there is usually very little evaluation of the actual impact of the activities, and the adulation is based largely on the perceived selflessness of the act itself. Put succinctly by Daniela Papi-Thornton:
“ With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock”
When an institution as powerful as the US Military engages in orphanage tourism, the reach and legitimisation of the message is enormous. With approximately 1.3 million active troops, and 865,00 in reserve, and 200,000 troops deployed in over 170 countries, the audience for such a message is significant.
Consider this: even if only half of the immediate family members of military personnel actually viewed the promotional stories of troops engaging in these ‘community relations’ activities, we could reasonably expect that this problematic message – that visiting and volunteering at an orphanage is a good thing – would reach millions of people, and that's just in the US alone. And we know, of course, that it’s not just immediate family members digesting these stories and images.
Imagery of fatigue-clad military personnel ‘horsing around’ and engaging in close physical contact with children in orphanages legitimises orphanages as an appropriate model of care, and it presents orphanage tourism as a commendable endeavour for the average person. These ‘feel good’ stories also contribute to the myth perpetuated by orphanages, fundraisers and ‘voluntourism’ companies that there are large amounts of orphans in orphanages who are ‘alone’, ‘abandoned’, and ‘in need of care’, monetary or otherwise. In reality, the number of orphanages (and the amount of available funding for them) in many countries well exceeds the legitimate need for residential care.
While these COMREL activities may be achieving the objective of ‘humanising’ the military, they are not helping the children they are engaging with. Instead, they are contributing to the unnecessary and damaging separation of more children from their families.
Given that the world's biggest child-focused aid and development agencies, such as Save the Children, have ceased engaging in residential care for children and openly advocate against orphanage ‘voluntourism’ activities, it's time for governments (including military departments) to follow suit.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is also guilty of engaging in this type of community relations, visiting orphanages in South Sudan as part of Operation ASLAN, and supporting an orphanage in East Timor as part of Operation Astute. However, with the Australian Government leading the world in policy and advocacy against orphanage trafficking and orphanage voluntourism, it is hopeful that we will see policy change filter through to the ADF in the near future.
The US Government, through its annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, was the first government to recognise orphanage trafficking, likely due in part to the work of Australian academic Kate van Doore of Griffith University, who drew attention to the fact that, in addition to being used for financial gain, children in orphanages are often sexually exploited, forced to beg, kept in slavery-like conditions, and exploited in many other ways.
Additionally, through USAID, the US Government has injected millions of dollars into its Family Care First program, aimed at reducing the number of children growing up outside family-based care. The Family Care First Cambodia project also emphasises the need to educate donors and other key parties on supporting family-based care over residential care.
The world is starting to hear the message that children are not tourist attractions. Perhaps it's time to consider that they aren't tools for soft diplomacy either.
Banner image: Image: US Sailors volunteer at Korean orphanage