A few months ago I was contacted by Anna Mckeon, the co-ordinator of the Better Volunteering Better Care initiative. She was seeking my advice on how to raise the profile of issues around volunteering in orphanages.
My suggestion was to run a sustained blogging campaign, enlisting knowledgeable bloggers and writers to publish articles on the topic, one a day, for a month. A year or so earlier I’d been involved in a similar campaign to promote rhino conservation, and was impressed at the ability to reach a wide and disparate group of people in a short time.
Furthermore, as has been seen with the recent publicity and success of initiatives involving captive whales and dolphins, canned lions, tiger temples and elephant riding, there is a potential to stimulate a lot of noise amongst social media active millennials and the like, and to move industry rapidly and in the right direction. If it worked for animals, could it not also work for children?
Could it? The truth is that over the last couple of years I have found it very difficult to generate much interest in the topic of child protection in tourism. Whenever Harold Goodwin or I publish articles on these issues on this site, they routinely get read less and shared less on social media than articles on other topics. The only conclusion I come to is that most people working towards responsible tourism think these issues don’t apply to them.
Nonetheless, volunteering trips are – rightly or wrongly – currently one of the mainstays of responsible tourism. They are often promoted by companies that target travellers seeking a more authentic experience. The travellers seek to leave the world a better place than they left it. Yet in many cases, and in particular for trips sending international visitors to volunteer in orphanages, they often have the opposite result of that which is intentioned.
Hopefully, the 35 different bloggers and writers who engaged with the #StopOrphanTrips campaign will have begun to make more in the industry pay attention. By the end of the month, the initial analytics tell us that the various posts had received 123,419 views and 26,668 likes or shares on social media. 2201 tweets were sent with the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips. A single article on the Guardian’s Sustainable Development Professionals (GDPN) website received 15,000 page views and 9,484 social, shares, nearly 10 times more engagement than most pieces published on GDPN.
In addition to the coverage in the Guardian, the Telegraph picked up on the campaign and interviewed Anna and the LSE’s David Coles about it. And David was also interviewed on the BBC’s flagship Today news programme, which routinely gets 7.18 million listeners per week.
What has the impact been?
Notably, especially considering that so many of the people who go to work in these orphanages are of student age, five universities as well as Student Hubs (representing 10 universities) and VSO contributed their logos to the pledge to demonstrate their commitment against orphanage volunteering.
A few companies that had already stopped sending volunteers to orphanages, such as Exo and Intrepid, expressed their support for the campaign. And one company, Travel4Change, released the following statement as a result of the blogging blitz.
“Travel4Change has decided to sent no more new volunteers to orphanages. A few years ago we already decided not to add any new orphanages to our volunteer programme. With the 2 orphanages included in our programme we worked closely to ensure the best possible way to engage volunteers. This with various results. We sent volunteers for longer periods of time who helped the projects with love, professionalism and energy, but unfortunately it also happened regularly that volunteers looked upon the children as “teddy bears” and selfie models. With the support of former volunteers we have now ensured that local staff has been hired and the projects no longer depend on volunteers. We will continue to follow and support the projects as after so many years the children and staff have place in our hearts. Travel4Change will focus on knowledge exchange and medical project in Uganda and Burkina Faso in the next years.”
This remarkable statement epitomises the risks inherent in even well intentioned orphanage volunteering, and also the challenges confronting a company looking to stop offering such trips. There are undoubtedly well run orphanages providing necessary services in cases where no alternative exists. And where relationships have been built and expectations made, simply dropping partners in search of a quick favourable headline (or to avoid a negative one) could damage those one seeks to protect. Better that change comes more slowly, and is supportive and sustainable.
But change must come. That attention paid to this campaign, run on no budget, co-ordinated by one person, supported by 35 bloggers writing for no money, on an issue that most chose not ignore, has opened the door a little further.
This time we reached over 100,000 people. One company has announced it is making the change. Hopefully by the time we return to this issue at WTM London, more will have joined it.
This article was originally published on WTM London Blog.