Leading a volunteering team, I've been to an orphanage where the sister (who did a psychology course) running the orphanage was strict that volunteers should spend a minimum of 3 months teaching the kids on the weekends if they wanted to, because kids develop an attachment to the visitors. Another NGO insists that volunteers pledge a minimum of one year if they wish to mentor a child.

At another orphanage which is frequented by volunteers of many companies, a worker there said that the kids were accustomed to seeing strangers everyday. Girls at an orphanage in Delhi told my friend (head of an orphanage in Bangalore) that they don't like it when (well-meaning) visitors arrive and ask them to stand in front of them and narrate a poem or sing a song for them.

As a volunteering leader, I encourage people to contribute to society meaningfully. I want to know what the best psychological/emotional effect we can have on the children. Would it be bad for the children in the long-run, to see strangers come to conduct events for them where they sing and dance, distribute snacks and gifts and then the kids never get to see these people again. People from various companies visit these kids. Is it better to not conduct such events, and instead ensure that volunteers visit these kids weekly/monthly, find out what their needs are, become familiar with the kids and help them in whatever way possible?

The problem here, is that a lot of volunteers see what other companies are doing, and are more interested in conducting a grand event at orphanages/old-age-homes, donate money or gifts and then walk away. They say they don't have the time for multiple visits.

  1. Should I discourage people to do this? (a friend described it as being similar to visiting a zoo)
  2. Shouldn't they spend more time with the children/senior-citizens? Empathy and understanding.
  3. Won't it just reinforce the kids/senior-citizen's belief that nobody really cares about them?
  4. Is there any research done on the psychological/emotional effect this has?
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    I think evaluating whether this is "good or bad" is going to be tricky. It's an interesting question, though. Perhaps making it a bit more objective would get a better answer. – Chuck Sherrington Jan 4 '13 at 1:18
  • Thanks. Removed the "good/bad" part and put the questions in points. The right way according to me would be to go to orphanages/old-age-homes and spend time with the people and get to know them better, and then conduct celebrations with them. Many people see only the celebration part, and decide "hey let our company also do celebrations". Then they just end up doing celebrations and don't bother showing any empathy or care toward the disadvantaged people. – Nav Jan 4 '13 at 2:40
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    It is ,indeed, a perspective to see and analyse. I agree that such small time visits do more emotional harm than any other financial advantage. Visits have to be at regular intervals to build bonds and create oppertunities for actual help. With all the best for all. I am a psychologist and aware of the intricacies involved. I am, at personal level, trying to contribute to the cause by beeing useful to needy. – user11405 Apr 22 '16 at 7:05
up vote 14 down vote accepted

There is indeed research done on the topic. Some links:
http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/
http://www.hsrc.ac.za/HSRC_Review_Article-195.phtml
http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/resources/Misguided_Kindness.pdf
http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/resources/UN%20Guidelines%20Alternative%20Care.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteer_travel

Extracts:

A child's right to privacy Under international law, children in orphanages have the same rights as children across the globe to have a safe and private home setting. Short-term orphanage visits from tourists and travelers lowers a child's privacy inside their own home. Additionally, reports show that short-term visits can cause harm to a child's development and emotional wellbeing. We think everyone agrees that children need safety, privacy and stability.

and

How do I harm children by visiting an orphanage?
Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors to survive. Thus directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists. Children who appear underserved may come across as a cry for help more than children who appear well fed and cared for. This of course places guilt on tourists if they do not help immediately. By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fuelling a system that exploits children.

and

Institutionalised children will thus tend to manifest the same indiscriminate affection towards volunteers. After a few days or weeks, this attachment is broken when the volunteer leaves and a new attachment forms when the next volunteer arrives. Although there is little empirical evidence on children's reactions to very short-term, repeat attachments over time, evidence from the study of children in temporary or unstable foster care indicates that repeated disruptions in attachment are extremely disturbing for children, especially very young children.

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    bravo, these are great links – New Alexandria Jan 4 '13 at 22:24

Nav has already provided a fantastic answer, but I wanted to add a short bit more (primarily to highlight this fantastic post on the subject, not by me) addressing some of the questions in your post (not the title question).

First off, I see this problem as one that is very similar to problems with generic short term missions trips. The above post describes some key facets of the problem. The main one is that when many people engage in a short term missions trip, they tend to walk away with the expectation of an experience (the experience of "helping"). This is highlighted through "the desire to do a grand event... and then walk away." Orphans and the elderly are complex populations and vulnerable in almost every sense of the word. They deserve a more careful consideration.

How is this then addressed? A major component to a holistic solution is the community engagement movement. Many aspects of this are listed in your question "...find out what their needs are, become familiar with the kids and help them in whatever way possible" that they need! The idea is to focus on real needs of the community, and not things that make the volunteers feel good. There is even a nice guide on community engagement found here and formally referenced below.

All of the above being said, I'll add a caveat: sometimes funders will be less inclined to donate if it doesn't feel like they "did something." So, while there may be better ways for orphans and elderly to be helped (than "narrate a poem"), there may be an offsetting cost of less funding and time donated to the cause. As you have noted, less people are interested in the longer haul.

References

Ahmed, S. M., & Palermo, A.-G. S. (2010). Community Engagement in Research: Frameworks for Education and Peer Review. American Journal of Public Health, 100(8), 1380–1387. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.178137

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    Good references. Corporates, educational institutions and even religious institutions are still adamant on following the artificial model and I haven't been able to offer them a better model to follow either, as the "right way" is just too boring for people. Social Entrepreneurship may be one way to go, but until then, please spread the message of responsible volunteering: nrecursions.blogspot.in/2014/07/… – Nav Jun 9 '17 at 5:16
  • Agreed: certainly a pet peeve of mine! – mfloren Jun 9 '17 at 5:30

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