A Warning About Orphanages in Nepal

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We would love to offer an orphanage program in Nepal. We used to have one, but discontinued it in 2014 when we learned the extent of the orphanage “industry” in Nepal. Don’t take it from me, read the report from UNICEF in Nepal. Families in rural areas are tricked into sending their children to orphanages. They are promised education by foreign teachers - “foreign” being synonymous with high quality. Families, in the hope of a better life for their children, actually pay fees for this “opportunity.” In reality, the children will receive a fragmented education from a constant stream of “voluntourists.”

Anyone with a background in education knows that continuity is essential to effective teaching. Imagine taking a course where your teachers change every few weeks. It might be manageable (but far from ideal) if these teachers communicated with their successors and worked within a well-constructed curriculum, but this is rarely the case. The educational benefits of these orphanages/children’s homes are, in fact, very low on the list of priorities of those who run them.

What is at the top of the list? Financial gain. Not only to these orphanages charge fees to the family, they often charge the volunteers as well. This would be fine in a legitimate organization. Fund-raising is an essential part non-profit work, and receiving a nominal fee from foreign volunteers is a perfectly acceptable way to do this. But neither of these are where the true money is. The big profit comes from donations. Volunteers often want to help the children they met. How can they help? Perhaps they can pay school fees for one or more of the children. If an orphanage has enough of these well-meaning volunteers streaming through, they can easily have multiple sponsors for those fees. Imagine 5 or more people paying full tuition for one child. Where does the excess go? School fees are just one of the tricks. A volunteer might also volunteer to help fund renovations or purchase furniture or computers. What if you get multiple people to purchase the same thing? Once they’ve returned home, there is no way for them to monitor purchases. They may get a picture of a new bed, but as with the school fees, did others pay for the same bed?

I’ve read articles of people who have donated huge sums of money to orphanages in Nepal. The shocking thing is how little they vet the organizations they are supporting. The most basic requirement should be that the organization has government certification. Most don’t. Of course, dealing with the bureaucratic quagmire in Nepal, as in most developing countries, is a daunting prospect. It is also quite possible that certification was received by knowing and/or paying the right person. But for those of you who are determined to help at an orphanage, make this your first question.

What have we done to cover this gap in our youth offerings in Nepal? We turned away from orphanages and began working with a program with toddlers, the children of the working poor. Every working parent knows that daycare is both a financially and emotionally difficult obstacle. We have located a program at a government certified school that provides this. There is no exploitation of children or their families here. No separating children from their homes. What's more, our volunteers love it! A win-win situation.

UPDATE: I just came across an article on J.K. Rowling (who doesn't love her!) commenting on the dangers of orphanages READ IT. Our take: Don't completely dismiss volunteering with orphanages, just be very careful. Legitimate orphanages still need help. There are abandoned and orphaned children in even the most wealthy nations.

By Kevin O'Neill


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