The issue of orphanage volunteering has attracted huge amounts of media attention in the Netherlands recently, due to the new campaign by Better Care Network Netherlands called ‘Stopweeshuisstages’. The campaign aims to stop higher education institutions offering student internships in orphanages, and is part of a broader global movement to bring an end to orphanage tourism and promote responsible forms of volunteering and service.

So far all of the media about this has been in Dutch, so Learning Service has been eager to catch up with the campaign and find out what all the fuss has been about! Fontys University School of Pedagogical Studies has became the latest higher education institution in the Netherlands to formally take the pledge to end student internships and placements in orphanages in developing countries. In this guest interview, we catch up with Lecturer and Coordinator of Internationalization, Marlinde Melissen, to explain why Fontys decided to take the pledge.

Learning Service: Marlinde, the decision by Fontys School of Pedagogical Studies to take the university pledge has caught the attention of the public in the Netherlands, with many media outlets covering the signing event which took place recently in Rotterdam. Why has Fontys decided to sign the pledge to end internships in orphanages in developing countries?

Marlinde: Quite simply, the main reason was the best interests of children. At Fontys, for years we have been sending trainees to internships abroad working with children, including in orphanages, but after a while it started to hit home: are internships in orphanages in the best interests of children overseas? Many children living in orphanages have suffered harm and deserve the right kind of specialized care which students doing internships are not able to give. It is important that children in these situations feel safe and have a stable routine. Because trainees and interns leave after a short time, they can contribute to creating the very inconsistency and unpredictability that puts vulnerable children in danger of experiencing further trauma and attachment problems. Indeed, our own students coming back from internships have confirmed this. In addition, research shows that on average 80% of children in orphanages are not orphans. As educators, we believe that children should grow up in families or in family-based care as much as possible, in line with international children’s rights and best practices on the alternative care of children.

As a school of pedagogical studies, we feel that we must act in the best interests of children. We don’t want to take the risk of even one child being harmed. That’s why we signed the university pledge.

It is up to us as teachers and trainers to guide our students to express these good intentions in ways which do not cause harm to children.

Learning Service: The new Better Care Network campaign encourages universities to end internships and volunteer placements in orphanages, building on last year’s successful campaign against orphanage tourism. Why do you think it’s important to focus on internships specifically?

Marlinde: There are many colleges that offer internships to their students in orphanages or similar residential care institutions for children. Most of them are unaware of the scale of the global problem of orphanages and the ‘economy’ that goes along with them in many developing countries. In addition, some are not sufficiently aware of the trauma and the attachment disorders that children in orphanages can suffer, and the specialized and consistent help these children need.

Many students want to contribute to a better world through their school or university activities, including through internships. The intention is good and to be encouraged. However, it is up to us as teachers and trainers to guide our students to express these good intentions in ways which do not cause harm to children. The good thing is that the students who had done internships in orphanages in the past were the ones who gave the first signals that it was not okay to gain experience in this way. We listened to them. The result is the university pledge and the campaign by Better Care Network Netherlands.

Learning Service: Instead of working in orphanages, are there other ways in which interns doing placements abroad can help children without causing harm?

Marlinde: Yes there are! It is nice when young people are motivated to do something for others. Personally, I believe greatly in the power of intercultural encounters or even immersion in another culture. It encourages critical and personal reflection and gives opportunities to broaden your frame of reference through learning. As a university of applied sciences, we focus on internships where students are supervised in a professional setting and where the interests and rights of children are not compromised. Think of projects in family and community based care, local empowerment projects, or projects supporting schools, day-care centers or specialized care facilities for children and youth. We choose to invest more in equal cooperation with partner universities in the countries where we work and where our interns go. Local partners know their own context best and can offer guidance in finding good quality internships which help students to learn about development issues without causing harm to children or disrupting local cultures.

Learning Service: Thank you talking to us, Marlinde, and congratulations to the teachers and students at Fontys School of Pedagogical Studies on taking the pledge.

This post was written and translated with the support of Rob Oliver of the Better Care Network Netherlands working group. Marlinde is pictured here at the pledge signing, far right.