I am working on an amazing project at the moment to try and discourage people from volunteering at orphanages abroad. Sadly, millions of children worldwide live in residential institutional settings such as orphanages. However, an estimated 80% are not actually orphans and have at least one living parent. Decades of research show that living in orphanages is harmful to children, and that it would be much better for children to be supported to stay with their parent, and/or have proper adoption and fostering systems within countries.
There is a huge industry keeping orphanages going; well meaning support through donations, volunteering, tourist trips and faith-based missions. This support would be much better directed if channelled towards strengthening families. Often many of the volunteers go for very short periods to the orphanages and without a family to make them feel secure, children are quick to form relationships with arriving volunteers, only to feel abandoned once again when they leave.
So I’m part of a team to try and reduce the rates of – what is known as – voluntourism.
It is difficult as research I was involved in showed that there is a new generation of people who do not simply want a gap year travel experience, they want to travel whilst feeling as if they are giving back to the communities they visit. This desire to give back is positive and not something we want to stop, but we do want to divert the desire to give back away from orphanages. And this is where my concerns lie – I worry, will we just be passing the problem to another organisation, such as turtle conservation? Do those organisations really want volunteers from abroad coming and traipsing all over their beaches for a couple of weeks, then heading off again (after they have been trained up)? Wouldn’t they prefer money to train up local residents to protect the turtles? I myself took my six year old son to learn about turtle conservation and work as a mini-volunteer in Florida this summer. I was there with work and I know how much he loves turtles so it seemed to me as a perfect learning opportunity for him. As you can see from the photo, my two year old joined in also.
When I was flying to Kenya the other week, on my plane was a large group from a UK church going out to volunteer there. I asked them what they were planning on doing – ‘building a school’, they eagerly replied. I then asked them if they worked in construction in the UK – none of them did, I didn’t even get the impression that they were good at DIY. They were so excited and happy to be going to their faith-based mission, which made me feel as if I was a real party pooper when I asked if they had thought about giving money to pay local builders instead or even training up local builders. They looked at be blankly and with confusion. They were such a friendly bunch and I didn’t want to give them a lecture, especially as I had to sit next to them for the next eight hours and didn’t fancy getting into a discussion about God’s work, so I left it at that and wished them well.
But I was left with the question – do our good intentions just create unintended consequences elsewhere? And how is this seen in relation to plastics?
The BBC breakfast news was talking about recycling cards and boxes last week. With more and more of us ordering on the internet – I am one of the many as I hate Christmas shopping crowds so avoid shops wherever possible – there is now vast amounts of cardboard boxes which need recycling. However, I was amazed at the energy needed to recycle paper and cardboard.
With the demise of the plastic bag in the UK (which I am delighted about), a greater number of shops are offering paper or canvas bags. However, what I did not know until I read a UK Environmental Agency report, was the fact that a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.
Yes, turtles and whales and other sea life and not likely to swallow a paper or canvas bag, but this is definitely an unintended consequence of us moving away from plastic bags. For me it illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of all shopping bags (and not just plastic ones). I am not suggesting bringing back plastic bags at all, but it has made me think twice about how I use paper bags at my local farm shop, and made me conclude we have to reduce and reuse everything, not just plastics.
I guess, as with the orphanages work, when it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another.