Projects Abroad review of the long and rocky path to the end of orphanage trips

Projects Abroad review – Projects Abroad and World Challenge are the first companies to

stop orphanage trips!


Yesterday was a big step forward for the efforts for more ethical and sustainable operations within the voluntourism industry. ABC Australia and the Guardian reported, that the volunteer travel agency Projects Abroad announced to no longer send their clients to volunteer in orphanages by the end of 2017. For the implementation they receive support from the Australian based organization ReThink Orphanages. The UK based company is following the volunteer travel institution World Challenge’s, which told the public in September to stop sending volunteers into residential care placements. We believe, thanks to both of these companies, others will follow.


The End of orphanage volunteering, a result of advocacy work


But let’s look on why Projects Abroad has decided to end orphanage tourism. An Australian parliamentary committee focused recently on the subject with the result, that it might be soon illegal for Australians to support orphanage tourism. A lot of research has been conducted in the past years. Many advocacy groups have looked into and addressed this matter. It was found that most orphans still have living parents, that many often end up being trafficked and that voluntourism in residential care institution is creating attachment disorders and other diseases. In addition it has been known for years, that institutionalized care harms children’s development. The Voluntourism industry fed the demand for orphanages; as a result more orphanages started operating out of financial interests. Global volunteer travel companies fuelled a whole new industry: The business with poor children.

The Australian Projects Abroad manager Will Pashley outlines, that the step is a result of the research about orphanage tourism. But in our opinion it is much more. It is the consequence of rising pressure the company has been facing in the past years.


Projects Abroad review Cambodia – an example of what went wrong


Whereas Projects Abroad is confident that they have not been working in orphanages that exploit and traffic children, it has been proven by varies documentaries and research that the company did so. Let’s look to Cambodia, as an example:

and other researchers as well as volunteers reported about concerning structural shortcomings and child exploitation in Cambodian Projects Abroad placements, in which also other volunteer companies operated.

It was in 2011 that our Co-Founder informed Projects Abroad about child abuse, fraud and corruption issues in one Cambodian orphanage. At this time, Projects Abroad did not see the need to take any action against the accused orphanage. It was their internal policy to not intervene in organizational and internal matters of their placements and partners. Our Co-Founder Sebastian was told that the children would be “worse off without any volunteers”. This was repeated a little later by the UK management, which said publicly that even if the allegations against the Cambodian orphanage CUCO would be correct, it would be still better for the kids of this orphanage to receive vetted volunteers. This of course is worth a discussion, but cannot be an explanation for not protecting children from abuse. Now Projects Abroad has understood that sending volunteers to unethical orphanages is not helping the children but supporting the wrong people and maybe even criminals.


Projects Abroad – The alleged end of residential care volunteering in Cambodia


After the rising pressure through international media, the company announced in 2012 to stop working  in Cambodian orphanages. This was delayed to 2013, the year in which Projects Abroad consulted the international children’s rights organization Friends International about orphanage placements. So it was only in the end 2013 that Projects Abroad stopped officially working with orphanages in Cambodia. But is this true?

Despite Project Abroad being confident in 2017, that they never supported orphanages that exploited children, investigations showed that in 2013 another Projects Abroad placement, the Angkor Orphan and Education Organization, faced child abuse charges.  The director was charged with abuse of minors. In 2015 the volunteer placement Our Home orphanage was closed down  by the government because of several cases of child abuse. In 2013 an American was arrested for sexually abusing five boys in Phnom Penh. He is the former director of the Home of Hope orphanage, in which Projects Abroad volunteers used to operate. He faced 30 years in an U.S. prison. A Projects Abroad placement, that was at least aware of the danger is the Jeannine’s Children Association, an orphanage that rescued children that were facing physical abuse in 2003. Unfortunately these are not the only Projects Abroad placements in Cambodia, that were shut down, faced problems or stopped operations in the past years.


Projects Abroad Cambodia today – promises to end orphanage voluntourism were not kept


In spite of announcing in 2013 the end of orphanage placements in Cambodia, our research found that Projects Abroad Cambodia is still working with children homes (orphanages).

The current Projects Abroad residential care placement National Borei for Infants and Children was in 2016 under criticism for their adoption practices. Until now the company sends volunteers to this institution, hand in hand with many other volunteer companies.

The National Borei for Infants and Children, a center for children with special needs, is not the only residential care institution Projects Abroad is still sending their volunteers to. Among them are also

and maybe others.

Regardles advertising on the website to only send skilled volunteer into physiotherapy and occupational therapy projects, unskilled volunteers worked in these institutions. Of course it can be argued about the necessary skills for such a placement. But it was just in 2016, that  a volunteer complained about a residential care center Projects Abroad is supporting. The volunteer found concerning issues about the selection process, the center and the mentoring of Projects Abroad.

Besides being glad that Projects Abroad has announced to stop fueling the orphanage industry, we wonder why it is only now that “it has become clear” to Projects Abroad, “that there are a growing number of orphanage-type settings, where it is effectively child trafficking,”. UNICEF reported already in 2011 about the harm orphanage tourism can cause and child abuse cases in Cambodian orphanages have been regularly reported in the news since 2000. Beside all the facts Projects Abroad denied in 2013 that the growth in orphanages and children’s psychological trauma is in any way related to voluntourism.


The path to an ethical voluntourism industry – A long way ahead


Until now, for many companies it has not yet been clear, that there is no difference between the negative effects on children in residential care centers, orphanages, teaching placements attached to orphanages and care centers for children with special needs. All of this are different settings for the same way of locking children away from their families and communities.

In addition, for most volunteer travel companies it is a huge challenge to control and monitor their local projects. Often the companies are not aware of the shortcoming and problems in their host countries. Whereas we have no reason to not believe that Projects Abroad is keen to implement the changes, a reason for difficulties will be, that the head offices often do not know what is happening in the field.

Whereas we always found it unfair, that mainly Projects Abroad has been the target of critical media contributions, this misfortune might end up in a positive outcome. We are extremely glad Projects Abroad is taking child protection a step further, the company can now lead the way in the area of child protection. In addition, we are keen to support the implementation of this decision and are confident, that Projects Abroad doesn’t repeat its mistakes from the past. They have found a strong partner to be successful in the near future. Their partner, ReThink Orphanages, has lead the work for a world without orphanages for some time. We hope that companies such as International Volunteer HQ will follow Projects Abroad. Otherwise the vacant volunteer positions will be just filled by other volunteer travel companies, that have not been as much in the focus of the Media and advocacy groups as Projects Abroad.

And in the end, Congratulation Projects Abroad and World Challenge’s!


A list of advocacy organizations that lead the way to a more sustainable voluntourism industry


On the left is the organizational name, then the location and on the right the main focus of the institution

update from the 10.11.2017

update from the 21.11.2017