Volunteering with Lions – What You Should Know

This is a guest post written by Sarah Dyer of Voice4Lions.


So you love lions? Me too! Learning about how desperate a situation our lions are in nowadays, who would not want to try and do something they felt would improve their situation?

People have many reasons for looking at voluntourism projects that include wildlife – for example, friends have done it and recommended, it looks a bit of fun and something different to your standard holiday, some look at it for experience for a future career, and others do it for the love of the species and the hope that what they will do has a beneficial impact to the animals they are going to work with. Volunteering can be a great way of aiding wildlife AS LONG AS YOU DO IT RIGHT!

As a mature volunteer I set off to South Africa in December 2012 to volunteer with lions. I was someone who had previously volunteered at a wildlife rescue in the UK, and I wanted to take things a step further and work with an animal I had always loved and revered. I tried to do some research on the place I was going to, but it was not that easy to do and being naïve (yes even mature volunteers can be naïve!) I never thought about the real impact of this kind of volunteering nor the industry associated with it.

I don’t want to make this blog about the details of my volunteering experience, which I regret deeply now, but instead about the realities of the situation and the industry that you will get involved in if you go and volunteer with wildlife, particularly captive lions. Believe me – if you are doing this to be involved in conservation or animal welfare you sadly couldn’t be more wrong.

Having looked hard into the industry after my terrible experience, and knowing what I had really involved myself in, the easiest option would have been to say nothing and walk away, just chalking it up to experience. However, I started this journey with a passion to help lions, so how could I desert them? Particularly knowing what I now knew! I also do not want other volunteers to fall for the same trap I did, so please do read this before you even contemplate volunteering. As tough as it was, I admitted to my friends and family what had happened and what I had since learnt, and they were so incredibly supportive of me. They knew I was a lover of lions and how difficult it must have been to state publicly that I had made a huge mistake. More than ever I felt that I had to stand up for both the lions and for other people who would volunteer like me in the belief that they were doing something good – I needed to be a voice for them. To help me do this, I joined the International Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH) and became a UK representative for 4 years. During that period, I learnt huge amounts about the industry and in November 2018, with a colleague from CACH, co-founded my own charity called Voice4Lions. Our mission is to raise awareness of the issues facing lions all over the world with particular emphasis on those in South Africa within the commercial industries of captive breeding, petting, walking, hunting and the lion bone trade. We do this by working collaboratively with and engaging in discussion with all parties, always with the welfare, protection and future of lions in mind and at the heart of everything we do.

Firstly, let’s clear up straight away that that there is NO form of conservation involved when you volunteer with lions that have been bred in captivity. When I first looked at volunteering, numerous projects used the conservation angle to say you were helping the species. “Lion numbers are declining”, “We need to breed them to save them from dying out”, “Later we send them back to the wild” – all of these are marketing ploys to get your attention and not one of these claims is true. It should be noted that over time facilities have dropped some of these misleading claims, as many have been caught out with false advertising and they know the world is watching.


The Captive Lion Breeding Industry

Unfortunately, it is not possible to get accurate figures from South Africa but there are around 3500 wild living lions in South Africa and more than 8000, at a very conservative estimate, languishing in captivity. These lions born and bred in captivity are used for promotion to bring in volunteers and tourists to either pet them or walk with them. As they become too dangerous to use for interaction they are left in enclosures awaiting their fate of, among other things, being sold off for hunting, being sold to public and private zoos across the world, or being used for breeding the next round of lion cubs. It should be noted that in the wild lionesses breed around every 2 years, not as they are bred in captivity – 3 or 4 times a year! In short, there are huge animal welfare issues with this industry, with little regulation.

With only around a third of facilities that breed lions being open to the public or volunteers, the rest of the facilities are run behind closed doors. They breed lions to send to facilities for commercial entertainment purposes, to be hunted or to be literally bred and killed for their bones as part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine industry.

Captive bred hunting is referred to as canned hunting, ranch hunting or captive hunting (the last two have been used to get away from the negative associations with the term canned hunting). Effectively they are all the same, the lion is bred in captivity and then hunted in an enclosed area with no chance of escape. There are laws around the time that lions have need to be “free ranging” before being hunted – but these differ tremendously between provinces. In the Free State it is 3 months but in the North West it is 96 hours, which is also why many Free State lions are transported to the North West. We have heard of lions that have been literally offloaded and killed shortly thereafter.


Your Health Could be at Risk!

Did you ever contemplate that if you volunteer in close proximity to lions that your health is likely to be at risk too? Lions are not cuddly toys or domestic animals that are regularly treated for diseases, they are wild animals and as such carry a multitude of diseases. When I volunteered I had absolutely no idea about zoonosis or other diseases that lions had that could transfer to people. On top of this, lions (even cubs) can inflict serious injury through a bite or claws – Pasteurella multocida is an important human pathogen, and its association with wound infections from animal bites is well recognised. Serious infection can occur – as happened in the case of Scott Baldwin, Ospreys player bitten by a lion in 2017, who was lucky that a surgeon managed to save his hand. In addition, dermatophytosis is a fungal skin infection commonly known as “ringworm” with transmission by direct skin to skin contact with an infected animal. External parasites such as fleas, ticks, lice and mites can all be transmitted, as well as tapeworms, roundworms and hookworms.


Major Tourism Bodies Condemn Unacceptable Practices

In 2016 ANVR (the Dutch regulating body for travel companies) brought in tough animal welfare guidelines for all their members which effectively stopped them offering interaction, and in October and November 2019 SATSA and ABTA respectively came out with their own new guidelines. All these guidelines state unequivocally that petting or walking with lions are unacceptable practices that should not happen. Unfortunately, many volunteer organisations are not members of any of these groups. However, with major industry players now telling people not to take part in these practices one would hope that these guidelines are taken on board, whether or not an organisation is bonded with any of these groups.


What Can You Do?

If you want to volunteer then please only go to true sanctuaries that do not allow any interaction, breeding or trading, and give their lions a forever home. A few examples of places that are good to volunteer at would be Drakenstein Lion Park, Panthera Africa or Shamwari (which hosts the Born Free Foundation’s Big Cat Rescue and Education Centre).

If you have already volunteered with lions, please don’t beat yourself up – you are not the only person to be misled into believing you were doing the right thing. Now you know though, please don’t be quiet, stand up and tell your friends and family and wider circle. By raising awareness you DO help the lions. A lot of volunteers raise funds from family and friends to go on these projects – I know it is so difficult to turn around to all those who supported you and say you were wrong. I was lucky, I funded my own placement. I could have easily just walked away and not told anyone but I would then live with the knowledge that I had been involved in this industry and did nothing for lions my whole life.

Become informed. That means reading up as much as you can about canned hunting, captive lion breeding, cub petting, lion walks and the lion bone trade. Knowledge is power. You will find a host of information on our Facebook page Voice4Lions, through the Lion Coalition website, or via organisations such as Blood Lions, Born Free, HSI Africa, and Four Paws.

Once you have grasped the facts, raise your voice. Never think that one person cannot make a difference.

Here are some ideas of actions that you can take:

  • Lobby your local government representatives or the South African Embassy near you.
  • Get hold of media (print, radio, TV) and see if they know about the situation and would be prepared to run a story.
  • Get active on social media and post articles and especially your feelings about the subject.
  • Talk to your friends. Get them to talk to others.

If you hear of anyone who is going to volunteer at any lion facility that breeds and allows interaction, then please explain to them why it is not a good idea. Most people are ignorant of the facts and think they are supporting conservation by bottle feeding cubs and walking lions. If you see or hear anything that doesn’t seem right to you, please report it to us so that we can investigate further.

The power is in each of us to make a difference in this world. Find the way you can do so and never give up.

Sarah Dyer is the director and co-founder of Voice4Lions, and a tireless activist for the protection of lions everywhere. If you would like to report any unethical organisations feel free to comment on this blog or email her. The main image is credited to Adam Park Photography.

Introducing the Sidekick Manifesto

This is a guest post from Shawn Humphrey which was first published on his own website.


“Here’s your check and there’s the parking lot.” 

That’s how one civically-engaged college campus responded to my talk on global poverty.


It stung. 

And, on my lonely walk back to the parking lot, I tried to figure out why:

I am still not sure. But, while I was giving a poorly received talk on poverty, TOMS was (mis)educating tens of thousands of ten year olds on their role in ending poverty with its most recent and predictably distorted marketing campaign.

I was dispirited.

Driving up and down highway 95 talking to college students was not getting me any closer to fundamentally and sustainably changing how our culture interacts, communicates, and articulates its relationships with those it deems to be materially poor.

I needed a concise statement of the things I had learned from my dissertation advisor Douglass C. North and bloggers like Jennifer, Tobias, Owen, Duncan, AidLeap, Linda, Dave, Tom, and Learning Service’s own Daniela.

I needed a distillation of the lessons I had learned with and from my students while running the Global Two Dollar Challenge and our micro finance institution in Honduras (La Ceiba). Namely, local leaders with local solutions to local problems will end poverty. We will not.  In the story of poverty’s end, we can only be sidekicks.

So, I wrote the Sidekick Manifesto.

I wrote it to remind myself of my very limited role in ending global poverty. I also wrote it to share with others like billionaire philanthropists, British Prime Ministers, and Ivy League economists randomizing communities into treatment and control groups.

Poverty is about power, politics, and a system of rules that allows so few to capture so many of the benefits of economic prosperity. Poverty is human-made. And, it can be unmade by humans. That includes you and me. That is, if we choose to take up the task as Sidekicks.

I invite you to read the Sidekick Manifesto. If you agree, consider taking the Sidekick Pledge. And, if you are so inclined, help spread the word about the Sidekick Manifesto:

  • Share the Manifesto with colleagues, classmates, family and friends.
  • Post a copy of the Sidekick Manifesto on your office door or dorm room wall.
  • Give a copy of the Sidekick Manifesto to your Student Activities and Study Abroad Directors.
  • Host a Sidekick Manifesto discussion with your students or Non-profit Board of Directors.
  • Post the Sidekick Manifesto on your blog and ask your community to comment.
  • Ask your political representatives to take the Sidekick Pledge.



Shawn (aka the Blue Collar Professor) is the Groundskeeper at IMAGINE Social Good, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Mary Washington and author of the Sidekick Manifesto. His work explores issues facing social innovators and entrepreneurs. The main photo shows Shawn in one of his classes.

Understanding our Role as a Volunteer

This is a guest post by recent graduate and volunteer Natalie.

From quite a young age I knew that I wanted to travel, see the world and meet new people, and I also knew that I wanted to “make a change” and help people that needed it. Being young, we often had quite a naïve view of the world. Growing up in a privileged country like Sweden as I did, we often got fed with news and images that only showed us one side of problems, and we might have had the wrong understanding of what was happening in other places. Like many others, I started off thinking that I wanted to work in international development because I wanted to be able to make a difference and have an actual impact in people’s lives. However, I got caught up with other things in life and did not end up going straight from school to pursue this dream.

At the age of twenty-three I started a degree that offered me a better understanding of the complexity of the development sector, and I was able to be more critical about development work and volunteer work. In the third year of my course I was to undertake a five-month placement in an NGO in what is commonly known as a “developing country”. I was determined to do my internship with the Umbrella Foundation in Kathmandu, that works to alleviate the impact of trafficking, poverty and war on the children of Nepal. I had heard about them before and had been impressed with their focus on running ethical volunteer programmes, and their hard work towards putting an end to orphanage volunteering and focus on making it possible for children to live with their families and communities. At the end of March 2018, I was on a plane headed for Kathmandu.

Through my education and my internship in Nepal I have become more interested in the ethical aspect of doing volunteer work and my views and opinions have been challenged and changed during the years. I learned a lot from my time in Nepal and felt that I wanted to immerse myself into the discussions around volunteering, where at one extreme, volunteers are seen as only enhancing neo-colonialism and at the other extreme, they are seen as saviours that are “helping the poor” and “making a change”. Therefore, when it was time for me to write my dissertation, I decided to focus on good practice in volunteer work and, among other things, look at research around the impact of using volunteers in international development. Through my research, I came across Learning Service and found many arguments for volunteer work being a learning experience for the volunteer, rather than being the source of actual help and change. Many times, people go abroad to volunteer due to a strong desire to contribute to something good by helping others and changing people’s lives. Although this can be something positive and show solidarity as well as empathy towards others, the reasons behind people’s desire to volunteer abroad should be questioned as well as their impact.

It is common that there are no requirements in terms of skills and higher education to apply to volunteer projects, and volunteers are often given responsibility and tasks by the host organisation that they would not be given in their countries of origin. Despite being unqualified, the volunteer is often seen as the person best suited to do the job. In the eyes of other Westerners and NGOs, just by being white and/or coming from a “developed” country, volunteers can be regarded as being more competent and skilled, even in areas where they have had no prior experience. This means that volunteer projects are often done to an unsatisfactory standard, where volunteers’ work must be fixed afterwards, as well as contributing to prejudice and neo-colonialism. This also means that often, solutions and initiatives are imposed on the receiving community that might not be what they actually need or even something that is possible in the context. What is even worse is that it can actually risk people’s safety and lives, when for example volunteers are allowed to perform medical tasks that they are not qualified for. When discussing volunteer work, it is often argued that “every little bit helps” but this makes the assumption that no one local is qualified to do the job, or at least just as unqualified as the volunteer that is travelling across the world to give their “invaluable” help.

If volunteer work is done right, it can among other things, open people’s eyes and change their perspectives on global development issues. By going into a volunteer project with the mindset of learning as the primary goal, volunteers are encouraged to question their assumptions and previous knowledge, and actually try to see the root cause of the problems. By trying to build a better understanding of the context and having an understanding of the culture and environment, it is more likely for a volunteer to be able to understand what would be an appropriate role for them to take and how they can put their existing skills to use. By making volunteers realise that they are not the agents needed for change but rather getting them to reflect on the fact that they are there to learn first in order to identify how they can be of potential help, an actual meaningful impact could happen.


Natalie Bäckström is from Sweden but is a graduate of University College Cork, Ireland, with a BSc in International Development and Food Policy. She has a strong interest in international development, gender, human rights as well as ethical volunteering. As part of her BSc she undertook a near five-month placement with the Umbrella Foundation in Kathmandu, Nepal. The organisation works to alleviate the impact of trafficking, poverty and war on children in Nepal. The main image shows Natalie trekking in the Mardi Himal range in Nepal.

Learning Service Step by Step: A Journey Toward Meaningful Community Engagement

This is a guest post by Learning Service follower Elizabeth Bezark.


Part I

Thank You for Staring: A Day in the Life of an Unengaged Volunteer

During my first international community engagement experience, my group and I took a daylong break from learning how to build fuel-efficient cookstoves in Antigua, Guatemala to visit a local school down the road from the stove factory. An image from that school visit remains clear in my mind after four years: A group of twenty elementary school students sat in desks with their hands politely folded in front of them. Their dark-blue uniforms contrasted with the pink, green, and blue pastel wall behind them. My group of ten mostly white university student volunteers, dressed modestly but more casually than the children, sat in rows of desks on the other side of the classroom, too far away to interact with or hear each other. We listened to a few songs in Spanish and a few songs in English and otherwise continued to sit separately at a distance. For hours.

Schools in rural communities are not zoos.


Later that day, the students called our names to give us thank you cards that they made prior to our visit. I could tell their class had spent hours on this craft project. Before passing out the cards, the students performed a talent show for my group, including a few common Guatemalan songs and dances. While I appreciated the kindness in their gesture, it felt emphatic and misplaced in context. I kept asking myself: Why are we here? What exactly are the students thanking us for?

After asking my program coordinator those very questions, I learned that that day was a holiday for the students during which no instruction was planned, so our presence did not take away from their learning time. However, I walked away from the experience feeling that their display of gratitude didn’t match my group’s level of engagement. The focus of the program I had traveled with was experiential education, which for those who don’t know means education through having an experience, reflecting on it, learning from the reflection, and then using that learning and reflection to plan for the next similar experience. My program leaders weren’t aware that there were no activities planned for that specific day, and neither they nor the program coordinators, nor the school’s teachers used any backup activities from their experiential toolkits. The students essentially thanked us for staring at them. Had we understood that the school had no need for volunteer support that day, and that the school hadn’t planned activities, most likely because they expected us to come up with some, we should have reconsidered visiting at all. Schools in rural communities are not zoos.

In hindsight, activities such as us performing an impromptu talent show for or with them or bilingual language exchange activities would have created monumentally more meaningful interactions. The students could have taught us a few words in Kaqchikel or Spanish, and we could have taught them some words in English. The program coordinators could have brought some bilingual storybooks along. The language barrier could have inspired mutual learning. Why didn’t the people preparing the structure of the program plan for meaningful, interactive activities as backup for these situations? Why didn’t we make thank you cards to show appreciation for our time with them as well? Instead of spending hours staring at each other and breaking the silence only with a few songs, someone could have taken initiative to make that day more engaging. This could have been me, and I take accountability for my part in the lack of initiative to foster meaningful engagement.

If more groups showed up periodically, I would likely have begun to really question their presence.

After I returned to the States, I learned that the school’s partner organization, with which my alma mater contracted for this program, visits the same school during multiple programs each year. While I don’t have information on the other groups’ activities and the school owners’ perspective on any of those groups, I still wonder about the impact of multiple groups passing through every year. Did my group’s one session with the school create an ideologically problematic situation on its own? Not necessarily. However, considering that my group was one of many that the students had encountered, I wonder: Do they ever grow tired of calling names of volunteers they’ve never met before and will likely never see again? Is singing and dancing for strangers a norm for them?

If I were nine years old and one group of college students from Guatemala came to my school for a similarly-arranged day, I probably would have thought that that time together was fun. I would have enjoyed seeing people from a different culture. If the college students sat across the room from my class for a few hours and if we didn’t interact, then I would likely have felt slightly confused. If more groups showed up periodically, I would likely have begun to really question their presence. I wonder if and when the students at that school in Antigua began to question the presence of groups of volunteers passing through their classroom on a regular basis.

To be fair, my group did interact with the students during the last half-hour of our day there. We played jump rope and picked flowers together with the students. My friend and I made daisy chains with one of the students who told us that she enjoys math. I told her that my favorite subject was math when I was her age too. If only it hadn’t taken hours to realize that staring at each other was not interactive. The end of the day went better than it began, and I only wish that the majority of the day had been worth their gratitude.

Do schools in the States normalize visits from groups of college students from other countries on a regular basis?

Additionally, analyzing this situation over the years has illustrated for me that ideas such as community engagement and the impact of volunteer groups don’t always land on a positive-negative binary. While most of the day’s inactivity in no way warranted their emphatic display of gratitude, we did eventually interact with the kids, which was fun for all involved. Our day had a rocky start and a more positive end. My program included a pre-departure orientation on the potentially negative impacts of voluntourism, emphasizing the need to continuously reflect on our intentions and impacts. Thus, none of us walked away thinking we had saved the world or that we were the students’ only source of joy for the rest of that year. This pedagogy is to that program’s credit. However, as far as I know I was the only student who questioned our presence during the school visit portion of our program. This situation taught me to think critically about community engagement. Sitting in desks and staring at a group of children constitutes neither learning nor serving. Such a situation perpetuates school visits in rural communities as a norm in voluntourism programs. To repeat my sentiment from earlier, this practice treats schools in rural communities essentially as zoos. Do schools in the States normalize visits from groups of college students from other countries on a regular basis, legitimatizing their presence with the title of ‘volunteer’? You know the answer to that.

This problematic school visit guided me to seek more engaging learning service opportunities. It taught me that program marketing and excellent orientations do not always translate to meaningful engagement on the ground, especially when program delivery results from multiple partner organizations with different priorities.


Part II

Short, Sweet, and Simple: Community Engagement Through Learning Service



A few years after my time in Guatemala, I journeyed to Thailand with an international experiential education provider that emphasized ethical learning service and meaningful travel. I didn’t expect this provider to deliver an engaging program perfectly, however, I thought they would have done so better than a small student organization nestled deep within a university structure. During my program in Thailand, my group spent a week with a permaculture education center and organic farm in Nan.

While there, I learned about organic farming, and I learned how to cut bamboo strands to weave into baskets. As needed, we followed the direction of the farm’s owners in digging rain trenches and planting bulbs. When we participated in these activities, we understood that our short-term contribution was part of the long-term sustainability of the farm, which existed before we arrived and which continued after we left. On days when the owners didn’t require volunteer support, we followed the sabai sabai (which roughly translates to ‘laid back’ or ‘relaxed’ if I remember correctly) culture of Thailand and spent time just being. We learned how to cook green curry from ingredients grown right there on the farm. We wove baskets from bamboo that we cut down in the forest and sliced into strands.

We understood that our short-term contribution was part of the long-term sustainability of the farm.

During our time at the farm, we did spend time at a school. However, this time, we had a plan. One of the owners of the permaculture education center teaches English, and she planned this visit as an opportunity for her students to interact with native English speakers. We spent a few hours with the students, during which time we sat in a circle small enough so that we could all hear each other. We introduced ourselves and then talked about our favorite subjects in school. We learned a few Thai words as we taught them a few English words, and then we had lunch and left. It was a simple interaction that did not involve any elaborate thanking rituals. There were a few silences, maybe even awkward silences, but those did not last hours. The primary teacher of that class planned the short activity with our group, we followed her plan, and then we left to explore Nan while the teacher continued with her day teaching the students.


The example of more meaningful service was an example of a simpler activity. In the voluntourism industry, there seems to be an expectation for community engagement to have extreme impact and a very hands-on approach. However, this doesn’t always make sense. My program in Antigua used hours of time unproductively and involved the students’ elaborate thanks. My program in Nan involved a short and sweet, structured activity and a simple exit. Sitting around and staring at students in a school in Antigua does not warrant a talent show and thank you cards from elementary school students. Sitting in a circle and exchanging a few words with students at school in Nan and parting on simple terms also does not, but it illustrates a healthier example of engagement. One might still question whether or not multiple groups visit that school in Nan during a given year, and one might reflect on the impact of this, even though this second story illustrates learning service done better. Active learning took place. Active reflection is still necessary.

There seems to be an expectation for community engagement to have extreme impact and a very hands-on approach.

I don’t claim to have a definitive solution to learning service fails, nor a definitive formula for learning service wins. However, I conclude with some questions for reflection while choosing a learning service program to participate in or to lead.

  • What constitutes meaningful community engagement?
  • What activities will participants engage in? Who will select these activities?
  • What aspects of the voluntourism industry breed elaborate gratitude rituals that don’t necessarily depend on a group’s in-practice activities?
  • When is it appropriate for one group to spend time at a school? What about multiple groups throughout a year?
  • Are a provider organization’s partnerships within host communities (with local non-governmental organizations, with local schools, with homestay communities etc) healthy? From whose perspective?
  • What does a healthy learning service experience look like in practice?

I invite readers of this post to use these questions to reflect as I do the same on my learning service journeys.


Elizabeth Bezark is a University of Oregon graduate with a BS in International Studies (Honors with an emphasis in sustainable development). She has strong passions for meaningful travel, ethical community engagement, and intercultural education. She sees these practices as valuable ways to foster global citizenship in herself and others. She is a current student of the Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement) program, and she’s currently studying Spanish to prepare for extended time in Perú next year. The main image shows the elementary school in Guatemala that Elizabeth visited.

The Orphanage Voluntourism Campaign: Is the End-Game in Sight?

This is a guest post by consultant and campaigner Martin Punaks.


Rising awareness of orphanage voluntourism

A decade ago very few people had heard of the term ‘orphanage voluntourism’, but now barely a week goes past without the media covering it.  For anyone who is unaware of what orphanage voluntourism is, it involves well-intentioned volunteers who give their time and money to orphanages in the belief they are helping vulnerable children.  But without realising it, their willingness to do this is actually creating the incentive for children to be unnecessarily separated from their families and put into profit-making orphanages.  In addition to aiding a form of child trafficking, the volunteers’ support for orphanages reinforces an outdated and harmful model of residential childcare; exacerbates psychological attachment disorders in children having to cope with a rotating roster of hundreds of volunteer carers; opens the door to potential child abusers posing as volunteers; and undermines the local workforce.  In short, supporting orphanages paradoxically harms children.

My own work on orphanage voluntourism began nearly a decade ago as the Country Director for Next Generation Nepal.  We recognised that reunifying orphanage trafficked children with their families was only addressing symptoms, because for every child we took home another fifty were being trafficked into orphanages.  So we set about documenting the problem and raising awareness of the link between orphanages, trafficking and volunteering in Nepal.  By the time I left Next Generation Nepal in 2016, Nepal had joined Cambodia and other counties on the international map of orphanage voluntourism hot-spots.  However, although we started a lively debate, in practice few travel and volunteering organisations had been convinced to withdraw from their orphanage programmes.


First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win

I often think about the orphanage voluntourism campaign through the lens of the famous Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.  For almost the first decade of the campaign, most travel and volunteering organisations were either ignoring or humouring us.  But then on 21 August 2016 something pretty amazing happened – JK Rowling tweeted about orphanage voluntourism and the media went crazy.  JK Rowling’s intervention shifted the debate from us being ignored and humoured, to being fought against, with travel and volunteering organisations publicly defending their practices and criticising us.

But their defence came too late, because the tipping point had already come.  The inclusion of orphanage trafficking in the US TIP Report in 2017 and 2018 and in the Australian Modern Slavery Act further generated mass media coverage of the issue, and one by one travel and volunteering organisations began to withdraw from orphanages.  The impressive list of these organisations on the ReThink Orphanages website is a testimony to this.

This year Hope and Homes for Children and ABTA launched an Orphanage Tourism Taskforce with several high profile tourism industry partners.  Meanwhile, at the World Travel Market in London, travel and volunteering organisations were showcased on the responsible tourism child protection panel, talking about their own solutions to the problem.  This begs the question – have we moved from Gandhi’s fighting stage, to finally winning the argument?

Whilst there is much to celebrate in terms of the progress we have made, sadly I do not believe we are in the end game just yet.  Conversely, I think the next few years may be the most challenging of all, as the campaign diversifies to address multiple different types of stakeholder groups at different stages in their understanding and evolution away from orphanage voluntourism.  So in this article, I set out my own thoughts on where we need to go from here.  This is not intended as a comprehensive strategy, but simply some ideas – as someone who has been involved in this movement now for nearly a decade – on what we could do to make our campaign even more effective.


We need to return to the grassroots

The movement against orphanage voluntourism began at the grassroots with small organisations and campaigns operating in places such as Cambodia and Nepal, as well as to some extent the UK.  However, in more recent years its focus has shifted predominantly to Australia, Europe and the United States.  This has been for a very good reason: to influence legislation and policy in the countries where volunteers come from.  Incredible progress has been made on this front, and there is still much work to be done to influence the policy positions of governments, donors, travel and volunteering organisations, educational institutions, faith-based organisations, and so on.

Yet, whilst this strategy is vitally important, there is also a risk that it puts too much emphasis on the assumption that policy will automatically shape practice on the ground where children are being harmed.  Highly respected development anthropologist, Professor David Mosse, has shown that in reality policy does not influence practice in the way we expect.  Mosse’s work convincingly demonstrates how those working at the grassroots use their agency to ignore, resist, adapt and reinterpret policy to suit more urgent demands from within their own context, and he argues that as development professionals we need to be more realistic about how this works.

Anyone who has spent significant time working at the grassroots, as I have, will have experienced the inevitable gap between policy and practice on the ground.  So whilst I am giving talks at events in Europe, singing the praises of the Australian Modern Slavery Act and US TIP Report, my colleagues in Nepal tell me that most people on the ground are unaware of these policy developments, and sadly not much is changing yet.  Or they tell me that where there is awareness of these developments, orphanages and volunteering organisations are using clever tricks to greenwash and re-package orphanages as ‘childcare centres’, ‘boarding schools’ or using other euphemisms, or they are reassuring supporters that they have found ways of making orphanage volunteering safe for children, and so on.

I have always had a perverse admiration for the ingenuity of traffickers (for example, the way they convincingly presented themselves to families as ‘child rights NGOs’ after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal).  I know them well enough to know that they will keep finding innovative ways of making the orphanage business continue.  My view is therefore that, while important policy work in the US and Europe must continue, we also need to turn our attention back to the countries where orphanage voluntourism is happening.  I would like to see more resources allocated to small but highly effective grassroots organisations like Stahili Foundation in Kenya, One Sky Foundation in Thailand and Next Generation Nepal.  These organisations are working directly with host governments, voluntourists and orphanage trafficked children, and they achieve a lot with very limited funds.  When I donate to charities, this is where my money goes.



We need to be talking to Asian voluntourists

We need to start talking about the rising wealth of many Asian countries – such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India – and the corresponding increase of Asian tourists and voluntourists.  China is already the leading country in the world in terms of outbound tourist expenditure, and by 2030 this is predicted to be double that of the United States.  The evidence of a rising interest in voluntourism amongst affluent Asians is mounting, including, unsurprisingly, a desire to volunteer in orphanages.  Yet the orphanage voluntourism movement is dominated by ‘Western’ agencies and thought leaders, and its campaigns are still mainly targeting ‘Western’ volunteers and organisations.  This needs to change fast, or we risk winning the campaign in one part of the world whilst losing it in another.


We need to work with the ‘woke’ and ‘unwoke’

One of the challenges we now face are the vast differences in levels of understanding of this issue amongst our target audiences.  For example, within the tourism industry, on one hand we are working with many self-professed ‘responsible tourism’ organisations who are 100% with us on disagreeing with orphanage tourism, and are already working on ethical alternatives such as engaging with children through community-based tourism.  This group has moved well beyond the ‘Don’t Volunteer in Orphanages’ message and they want us to use our resources to help them safely transition from their orphanage programmes and design new ethical products.  There is a strong moral justification for us to do this because, without our interventions, the so called ‘ethical alternatives’ could be equally as harmful to children.  ReThink Orphanage’s soon-to-be-published divestment resource will be hugely helpful here.  However, on the other hand, evolving research also from ReThink Orphanages suggests that there are still many volunteers and organisations completely unaware of this issue, which justifies the need for fresh campaigns telling people not to volunteer in orphanages – such as Lumos’ recent #HelpingNotHelping campaign.


We need to better recognise our privilege

Another challenge the orphanage voluntourism movement faces is that it is still dominated by privileged white Euro-American-Australian voices (like mine!), with an under-representation of voices from the places where voluntourism happens. This not only brings us uncomfortably close to neo-colonial critiques of the development sector as a whole, but in practical terms leaves us vulnerable to criticism by our detractors that we do not value the preferences of communities who say they want orphanages and voluntourists. There is also a danger that our narrative portrays less-developed countries as delinquent because they still have orphanages, while we portray ourselves morally superior because we say we ‘abolished orphanages many years ago’.  There are two ways we need to address these concerns.  First, we need to encourage and amplify voices from the Global South whose views resonate with ours – people like Stephen Ucembe and Ruth Wacuka from Kenya, Sinet Chan from Cambodia, and Rishi Bhandari from Nepal.  Second, we need to be more honest that we have not really solved the orphanage problem in the Global North.  Exposes in the UK into unregulated profit-making children’s homes associated with trafficking and abuse, and the profit-making inpatient healthcare economy which “turns people into commodities”, suggest that UK residential care is in fact not that different from the orphanage business in places like Cambodia or Nepal.  Therefore, let’s acknowledge our privilege and our problems, and create a movement that recognises that we all have work to do in all our countries.



Sometimes we need to use the carrot and the stick

The default position of many organisations in our movement is that they do not name and shame.  For the most part I wholeheartedly agree with this position.  I like to believe that the majority of stakeholders propping up the orphanage business are not doing so out of disregard for children’s best interests, but they simply don’t understand the impact of their actions, or if they do, they don’t know how to change.  Therefore playing the role of a critical friend to help these actors is usually the most effective strategy.  However, there is a counter-argument that sometimes the stick can be just as useful as the carrot.  For example, Human Rights Watch’s sensationalist expose of child abuse in Russian orphanages did certainly not endear them to the Russian government, but it is likely that it was influential in opening the door to less critical organisations to be invited in to help the Russian government to address its orphanage crisis.  A recent quandary for some of us in our movement was the news of members of the British Royal Family endorsing a controversial orphanage, which also happens to run a voluntourism programme.  When an institution as influential as the Royal Family supports orphanages, it is inevitably going to massively undermine our messaging.  In this instance, however, after much internal discussion, most of us concluded that it was not worth talking about this publicly for fear of a backlash or reducing our chances of privately being able to start a dialogue with the Royal Family.  I still think this was the right decision.  However, judging by the impact organisations such as Human Rights Watch have had on rights-based issues, I sometimes wonder if there is a place for occasional sensationalist campaigning.  In a social movement that represents a broad church of organisations with varying positions, is there a role for such an approach?


We need to communicate better with Generation Z

Let’s be honest: many of us from the early days of the orphanage voluntourism movement are getting older.  In my younger backpacking days I would get my travel advice from a hardcopy of the Lonely Planet.  But these days most Millennials and Generation Zs are influenced by very different mediums.  I attended a ‘hackathon’ recently at a creative agency in London’s trendy Shoreditch district to help plan a new voluntourism campaign.  Whilst there I discovered for the first time, from our hip young facilitator, that putting information on a website is consider ‘old school’ – instead, Instagram and YouTube is where potential young voluntourists will go to get their advice.  “Is this guy for real?”, I can hear all under-30 year olds saying as they read this confession, but I can assure you I was not alone!  Not only are communication mediums changing, but our style of communication needs to adapt to fit into short engaging soundbites, if they are to have any chance of being listened to by a younger generation bombarded by media messaging.  For an issue as complex as orphanage voluntourism, this is a big challenge, and the only people who can help us rise to this challenge are young people themselves.



We need to embody the values we expect from volunteers

Much of our movement’s messaging is about telling voluntourists to search deep within themselves and consider their motives for volunteering, and to think of the best interests of children and families over their desires for adventure, ego-satisfaction and enhancing their CVs.  We advise them to be open to learning and to work in collaboration with existing local projects.  Yet we often don’t embody these values ourselves in our work.  As anyone who works in the human rights’ sector will testify, we sometimes have a problem with ego and a lack of collaboration between like-minded organisations.  Living around Buddhists for so many years has influenced my own thinking that if one’s motivation is pure, then the chances of success are much greater.  Therefore I believe it is important for us to learn to quieten our egos and remember our own mantra that the best interests of the child are paramount (not the best interests of our organisation or our reputation).  This is much easier said than done of course – and I struggle with it as much as anyone – but we have to try.  Similarly, a few organisations in our fold have sadly become embroiled in scandals in recent years around bullying and harassment of staff.  This is never acceptable: it undermines everything we stand for.  We therefore have to truly embody the values we preach.


What happens next?

A decade has gone by from when a few brave activists in Cambodia began the conversation about orphanage voluntourism.  We should take a moment to reflect on how far we have come since then, and give ourselves a pat on the back.  But we are still a long way from the end game, and in fact the next few years promise to be as challenging, busy and exciting as it ever has been.  We have to continue to build and embrace a diverse global movement of activists, from many different backgrounds and with radically different life-experiences, to speak to the plethora of international stakeholder groups whom we need to influence.  And we need to learn to truly embody the values which we espouse.  It will not be easy, but if you are anything like me, that’s exactly why we keep doing it.


Martin Punaks is an International Development and Child Protection Consultant, and the Strategic Advisor for Next Generation Nepal.  He has been an active player in the global campaign against orphanage voluntourism for almost a decade, and he vows to continue playing his part until orphanage voluntourism is completely abolished. The main photo at the top of this article is copyright of Next Generation Nepal, 2015.

How to Travel Ethically in Nepal

This is a guest post from Jenny Adhikari, a tourism professional based in Nepal.


As someone who works in the tourism industry, and who tries hard to ensure that the company I help to run is responsible and sustainable, I am often dismayed when I see travellers engaging in actions that can cause actual harm. Most of the time, the damage done is entirely unintended. Here I offer some tips for those wishing to travel ethically in a country I know and love well, Nepal.


General Advice on Ethical Travel in Nepal

  • Stay in locally-owned places. Do some research before booking a hotel to try to ensure that your money is going into the local economy. Even better: go for homestays! The money goes directly to the family and you will get an insight into the Nepali way of life. If you can, I recommend homestays run by indigenous or Dalit communities, whom are traditionally marginalised.
  • Take the road less travelled. Places like the Annapurna region, Chitwan National Park and Everest Base Camp already have as much tourism as they can take and are in danger of being damaged by “overtourism”. But there are countless other beautiful places in Nepal well worth a visit. Going to different places will spread your tourist dollars more widely, and the people will offer you a warm welcome for showing interest in their area.
  • Use local guides and porters. This is important especially when trekking, so you have someone to help you if things go wrong. It also provides vital income for people from remote places. Try to employ females if possible, as the industry is still very male-dominated. Going through a company will offer a little more security – it’s no guarantee but at least you have someone to complain to in case their are problems.
  • Research your travel agency. A good company will be transparent with their policies. Ask questions such as: Are they paying proper salaries to their staff? What are the working conditions like? Do the staff have the right equipment? Is the agency working against social injustice, by being members of ECPAT’s The Code or similar? What is the weight limit for porters to carry? (The maximum weight for a porter to carry in Nepal is 30 kg on low altitude treks, according to International Porters Protection Group. Never agree to your porter carrying more than that! Check out IPPG’s 5 guidelines.)
  • Know that volunteering on a tourist visa is illegal. Although this is widely practiced, in theory both paid and unpaid work on a tourist visa is punishable.
  • You have to learn before you can help. If you are serious about wanting to engage with aid and development work in Nepal, you should start by coming as an observer instead of diving in. Stay in homestays and learn to understand the culture, so that you can more easily understand what the needs are and if/how you can contribute. If you have specialised skills you will soon find a way to utilise them.
  • Bring a refillable bottle with a water filter. Plastic waste is a huge problem not just in Nepal but globally, so let’s avoid contributing to it. Also bring a plastic bag to pack and carry your garbage until you find a good place to throw it out.
  • Don’t throw away old trekking clothes. Unless they are completely destroyed, your trek staff will be able to find a good home for secondhand gear.
  • Collect dead firewood. Nepal has recently doubled its forested area but deforestation is still a problem. Help to collect dead firewood when trekking so that the people don’t have to cut down trees to keep you warm and full.
  • Ask before taking photos. Nepal is a super photogenic country, but remember that you are taking photos of people’s day-to-day reality. If people are in your shot, ask for consent. Also make an effort to understand what you are photographing before you take the photo.
  • Avoid elephant riding. Elephants are wild animals and the domestication process is grim and painful for the elephant. Jeep safaris or walking tours are just as good.
  • Think before giving money to people begging. Instead donate to registered NGOs or hospitals who know how to use your donation effectively. Some begging is part of an organized crime ring, and offering money perpetuates the problem.
  • Report child exploitation. If you see anything suspicious contact ECPAT or CWIN.
  • Buy locally-produced handicrafts. There are high-quality beautifully-made products available in Nepal made by local artisans. There are also fair trade organizations that work to empower craft producers and sell their wares. You can also get lessons with local artisans to learn their skill. As well as supporting the economy you also show the locals how valuable you think their handicraft skills are, in these days of plastic and use-and-throw.
  • Eat at restaurants that support NGOs. The food is delicious and the profit goes towards social causes.


Why to Avoid Volunteering with Vulnerable Children

  • It fuels child trafficking. Children are a lucrative trade in Nepal, as the demand for “orphan tourism” is bigger than the supply of actual orphans. Only 10-20% of the children living in orphanages have no living parents. Children who could stay with their families in their villages are brought to tourist hotspots, where the chance of finding sponsors and donors is biggest. The orphanage owners collect donations from naïve and goodhearted people but the amount that reaches the children is variable. Most ends up in the pockets of the business-minded owners.
  • It traumatises children. These are children who have already been separated from their parents. Volunteers give the children love and care for a short time, but when they leave the children’s trauma is exacerbated.
  • It leaves children wide open to abuse. As orphanage owners wants the volunteers’ money they will not demand a police background report. Therefore child sex tourism is a huge problem in orphanages in Asia.
  • You would not be qualified to do it at home. In developed countries people are not allowed to work with vulnerable children without significant levels of training. Why would it be allowed in developing countries? Sometimes volunteers are offered opportunities they are not qualified for, on the basis of their skin colour alone. This is a colonial mentality – there are usually local people with the language, skills and education to do a better job.
  • It cements the image of “white saviour.” Usually volunteers come to do the “fun activities” like playing, while the local staff are left to the “boring” work like cooking, cleaning and disciplining. This can result in children believing that foreigners are kinder, better or more fun than locals, idolising foreign culture instead of valuing their own.


Jenny Adhikari has been living in Nepal since 2007. She is together with her husband running the Kathmandu-based trekking and travel company Beyond Borders Ethical Adventures. They work actively with promoting sustainable and ethical tourism in Nepal. The main photo shows Jenny out trekking in rural Nepal.