The domino effect in voluntourism – IVHQ might stop orphanage trips

What an achievement for children rights! The world biggest voluntourism company International Volunteer HQ announced this year that they will stop to send their clients into orphanages. The company itself stated, that each year about 900 IVHQ volunteers work in orphanage placements (that’s 5%) .[1]


Orphanage volunteering causes serious harm to children

The trend that tourists want to volunteer with orphans and poor children have lead to a huge increase in the number of children homes in the “third world”. Approximately 80% of the children in orphanages volunteers work in have at least one living parent.[2] The children get pulled out of their families because of “poverty“ and in the name of ”development”. Orphanages that host volunteers generate not only income for the tourism industry, but also for local orphanage staff, that gains profit through donations from volunteers and fees they charge per volunteer (voluntourist). In addition it is the easiest short term solution for aid organizations, to bring “development”. But for which price?

Once institutionalized, the “valuable” children face abuse and mental diseases which leads to long-lasting traumata.


A history of abuse and corruption

In the past children in IVHQ child care placements faced abuse[3], placements operated illegally without a licence[4] and others were closed down directly. Some volunteers reported corruption and a poor matching process.[5] The decision of IVHQ to put an end to the controversial orphanage placements is therefore an important step forward to protect children from abuse by the volunteer travel industry.


“Radical U-turn” – IVHQ ends orphanage trips closely after strongly defending them

Just by the end of 2016 the current director and former owner of International Volunteer HQ, Daniel John Radcliffe, strongly defended their work with orphanages. Mr. Radcliffe explained in detail, why IVHQ supports orphanage volunteering and called organizations that condemn volunteering in orphanages, to believe in the “bogeymen” that wants to “exploit children or volunteers”.[6] The statement was widely criticized.[7] The hope of child right advocates that IVHQ might stop offering orphanage trips decreased further, when it was revealed that Daniel John Radcliffe sold 80% of his company to an Australian investment, which focuses on further growth and has no experience within the tourism and non profit sector.

Thus, the decision to stop offering orphanage trips hit the industry by surprise. The announcement of the decision was most likely triggered by the accusations of the New Zealand Herald against IVHQ’s operations. The New Zealand Herald revealed IVHQ´s operations to be questionable and intransparent. The article also showed, that Radcliffe has established a whole business network behind IVHQ, benefiting from IVHQs operations and volunteers. [8] [9]

The company declined to be interviewed. Ben Brown, the company’s head of impact, risk and people announced the end of orphanage trips in a later statement, and explained that the decision to phase out orphanage placementswas made already last year[10] and that this “would happen over the next 12 months[11] from now on. At the same time the company admitted to delete comments and reviews that reported grievances, when they found their customers opinions “baseless”. In the past many volunteers complained that their comments were taken down and Facebook groups taken over by the company.


Big success for children rights – the web is celebrating IVHQ’s decision 

Despite the unknown effects of the pull outs, advocats are celebrating IVHQs decision. Just in Cambodia, about 50% of the IVHQ volunteers work with children, many of them in child care placements and children homes that have been set up to satisfy the demand of a partly weird western aid concept. A neocolonialistic concept, that includes voluntourism as a development tool. Now, IVHQ is another “domino” falling over, set in motion by the hard work of many great organizations and individual advocats. Their work is finally coming to fruition.

Reactions from the web

One of the advocats is Vicky Smith, who has been campaigning many years to #stoporphantrips. She is pleased to see, that a domino effect is going on in the volunteer sector.[12]


To understand the reactions, the past year and the effect of orphanage tourism on children have to be taken into consideration.


The domino effect in the volunteer travel industry – more and more companies stop offering orphanage placements 

To put an end to this, individuals and organizations have campaigned many years for a change in the industry. Campaigns from UNICEF, Save the Children, Rethink Orphanages, Ecpat, Lumos (founded  by the Harry Potter Author J.K. Rowling) and many many other great organizations lead to increased pressure on companies that offer orphanage placements. The media helped to increase this pressure. Al Jazeera got the ball rolling in 2012 with an amazing series about the harm volunteer travel can cause and the New Zealand Herald was just the latest of many news reports, that hit the industry hard.[17] The efforts to put an end to orphanage tourism received in the beginning of last year a huge upswing. The campaigns reached the political level. International politics took notice of the issue. The United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2017 recognized the problem formally and Australia put attention to it through an inquiry to establish a Modern Slavery Act. As a result of this inquiry, Australia is considering to restrict funding and volunteering in orphanages.[18] The scandals, the political discussion news reports severely undermined the credibility of the volunteer travel industry.

Credibility companies are planning to win back by putting an end by supplying orphanages. The world’s largest school-based volunteer organisation, World Challenge stopped offering orphanage trips first.[19] The company was followed by Intrepid Travel, Projects Abroad and workingabroad.[20] Advocates hoped for a further domino effect this year. Now, IVHQ is the latest and most prominent domino to fall. We are keen to watch, what happens next!