Who benefits when tourists spend a day volunteering at an orphanage? A classmate is going on a Caribbean cruise which includes a one-day stop in Haiti. Rather than do the usual tourist shopping and sightseeing she wants to spend the day helping out the local people.
My classmate is Black. On the surface her orphanage trip is a good thing, as it is still rare to see Black people helping other Black people in media images of disaster zones.
When the earthquake smashed up Haiti in 2010, television and newspapers were filled with images of brave white people going through the carnage to rescue poor Black people. The stories were framed around the selflessness of the white angels and the helplessness of the Black victims.
The media reports all pointed out that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The earthquake was just the latest tragedy in a long list of misfortunes that had struck the nation since its independence. Missing from the reports were any discussions on the fundamental reasons why Haiti is so poor.
There are many orphanages in Haiti and in other poor countries. Visiting them or orphan tourism has become a big business fed by donations from tourists, churches and foundations formed by companies, especially those in the travel industry. The money collected is supposed to help feed, clothe and educate the abandoned orphans. Local partners encourage orphan tourism as it brings in the money.
But is it good for the children?
A report in The Guardian reveals that in many poor countries the children are paper orphans. That is they have parents but are living in the orphanage as they have no choice. Many of the children land in the orphanage through child trafficking. That is they are sold or stolen by brokers to feed the demand from orphan tourism.
Last year, my daughter’s school trip to Belize included volunteering as the social justice component of the visit. The class would spend a day helping out either at an orphanage or an animal sanctuary. My daughter vetoed the orphanage.
“I don’t want to be part of the white savior industry,” she had said.
I accused her of being cynical. Initially. I saw the orphan visit as an opportunity for her to show that Black Canadians exists and that we too want to help poor people. The kid rolled her eyes and told me to think about how a group of highly privileged, mostly white teenagers, with no childcare skills would be of any use to the Belize children.
Would a Canadian daycare allow a bunch of foreign strangers to spend a day hugging their kids?
I think visiting an orphanage is emotional entertainment for tourists. They spend a day ‘doing good’, by taking and posting on social media, all those lovely photographs of themselves feeding and cuddling cute children. At the end of the day tourists return to their cruise ship, hotel or lodge and continue with their pampered lives. Smug and satisfied that their donations and time have helped a child.
When race is added to the picture, orphan tourism becomes dirtier. Most tourists are white, visiting orphanages filled with Black and brown children. The visuals are reminiscent of the days of empire and colonialism.
Surely everyone has a memory of donating to churches collecting money to feed the hungry children in the orphanages in Africa and Asia. I know I did. I questioned why the children were in the orphanages. The usual response was that it was due to war, famine or natural disaster. What I never questioned was who benefitted from keeping the children in the orphanages.
The Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in history. The new country declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804. The price of freedom was steep. The Haitians had to pay about 90 million gold francs, today’s equivalent of $21 billion, to France to cover the loss of its slaves and the sugar they produced. It was pay or be re-enslaved. The Haitian payments started in 1825 and ended in 1947. That is over a century of the poorest country paying all its wealth to one of the richest, to cover the costs of its own exploitation.
Like the rest of the Caribbean the Haitians are demanding reparations. The islands’ wealth built the colonial empires of Europe and later the neo-colonial empire of the USA. The poverty of the islands is a direct result of their wealth sailing across the Atlantic.
If my classmate spends the day in the Haitian orphanage it will make her feel and look good. It will do nothing for the children beyond continuing their exploitation.
Image: Black Child 1815-1825, by Phillip Thomas Coke Tilyard– Oil on Canvas. Fenimore Art Museum.