Africans, Orphans and Kilts

A story about school expeditions, education and responsible tourism.

Walking in the Scottish Highlands recently, I stumbled across a small rural orphanage.It was, if I’m honest, a bit shabby around the edges – paint peeling off the walls, the garden gone to seed, a handful of forlorn looking toys in a poor excuse for a playground. There was a bunk house too, recently painted.

On turning the corner, I was greeted by a wholly unexpected sight - a group of African teenagers playing games with some of the children. A little way off, some of the smaller children, wearing kilts, were having their photos taken with the visiting teenagers. They were being shown the images on the back of the digital cameras.

I wondered… “Do Scottish orphans normally wear kilts?”

In another corner, some of the Africans were teaching a group of 8 or 9 year olds how to sing, well, how can I describe it? An African version of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ perhaps..? The children looked on in blind bewilderment. The poor mites evidently didn’t understand a word.

My eye was magnetically drawn to a vast, colourful mural on the back of the building showing all the countries of Africa and pictures of the wildlife found on the continent. The artwork was impressive, but ‘out of keeping with the Scottish moorland’ didn’t even come close…

I went in search of an adult.

And found one, sitting inside having a cup of tea. Intrigued as to what was going on, I started asking a few questions.

How long had these foreigners been here?

What was the purpose of their visit?

Did you invite them?

Who is paying for their board and lodging?

The orphanage manager sighed ominously.This was the third group to visit in the last 3 weeks. Each group had stayed 4 days – just long enough to form bonds with the orphans - before they disappeared again, usually to kayak across the loch and trek to the top of mountain yonder.

Delving a little deeper, it seems the orphans had enjoyed the first group’s visit. It was something different for them and, more importantly it seemed, it meant the overworked manager and staff could relax for a bit whilst the teenagers entertained the kids. But now, by the third group, it was evident things weren’t so rosy. The kids had done all the games before and still didn’t understand the point of the action songs.What’s more, the kids were getting upset that the new friends they had become so attached to were, on a regular basis, being replaced by a new set of faces.

There were two more volunteer groups yet to visit this month.

I asked about the Volunteers – they, at least, seemed full of enthusiasm and energy. Yet apparently they had no qualifications and no teaching experience. It turned out some were also struggling to adapt to the idiosyncrasies and culture shock of Scotland (the weather perhaps?) - which meant some of the staff’s energy was being spent on making sure they were OK, rather than getting on with proper teaching. Given the clear ‘one on one’ uninhibited interaction between the volunteers and the orphans, I wondered whether any back-ground checks had been done on the visitors. Surely the orphanage had a safe-guarding policy?

As bleak as the situation evidently seemed, I am pleased to say there is a brighter side to this story; as I found out when I spoke to a number of the African teenagers.

They told stories of a life changing expedition to the UK. How the experience of helping out in the orphanage for the past few days had given them a new perspective on life. How they hoped their enthusiasm and sporting prowess had given the young children hope and happiness - at least for a few days. How the mural would be a lasting legacy of their visit. How they were going to be so sad when they left, yet also happy that they had made a big difference to a small part of the world…

I turned and headed for the hills, wondering how some bright spark had ever imagined this to be a good idea…

Swap black for white, swap Scotland for the developing world and this story is being played out every summer in the name of education.

Thousands of British teenagers are heading overseas on school expeditions to take part in ‘life changing’ adventures and project work – including working in orphanages.

If the picture painted above is shocking and unacceptable in the UK (and, for the record, it would NEVER be allowed to happen), why is it acceptable in Africa? Or Asia? Or Latin America?

Over the last year there has been a plethora of articles, blog posts, videos and semaphore messages about responsible volunteering. Volunteering in orphanages has come under particularly heavy focus, and rightly so.

Article, after article, after article… I’ve collated links below if you want to read them (and I recommend you do, as the arguments are far more eloquently delivered than my ramblings.)


Actually, most are more than damning.

Yet until now, the spotlight has not been shone on the educational travel and school expedition industry. Why is that? Does the short term feel good factor of project work and the undisputed educational benefits of ‘pushing boundaries’ allow us to turn a blind eye to the impact caused?

Cute photos of white teenagers playing with black orphans are helping sell these trips to naïve parents and eager students with catchphrases such as ‘give something back’.Indeed, some school expedition companies actually highlight orphanage work as a positive choice for schools groups to undertake.

Schools need to wake up to the issues.

A recent UNICEF report showed that 76 percent of Cambodian ‘orphans’ living in orphanages have one or more living parents. And whilst the actual number of orphans in the country is decreasing, the number of orphanages is increasing. Why? To put it bluntly, it’s good business. And those businesses are cashing in on the premise of our students’ education and their desire to do ‘good’.

But what message are we sending to our own students?

Surely, at this first immersion into the developing world, should we not be setting the highest of ethical standards? The industry markets these expedition projects as an opportunity to ‘make a big difference to a small part of the world’, yet most do little more than reinforce the common stereotype that problems in the developing world can be fixed in four days with the help of some enthusiastic teenagers and a few tins of paint.

Many would say we are lucky to live in the developed world. But should British students feel embarrassed about that or feel obliged to temper their guilt with the notion of having to ‘give something back’? Instead, what if we simply travelled sustainably, humbly and with an open mind? By travelling to such places, provided it is done in a responsible manner, we are already benefiting local communities hugely through economic and social means. (That’s a whole article in its own right, which I’ll save for another time).

What if school expeditions shifted their mentality to learning about the challenges and issues – side by side with the locals - rather than attempting to fix them through some ill-thought through short term sympathy volunteer work? If we stopped trying to feel better about ourselves by ‘fixing’ problems, and took the opportunity to actually understand the issues on an empathetic level, what might we actually learn from Africa? Or Asia? Or elsewhere…?

Because, really, who benefits from the current set up?

In many cases it’s not the local community - where jobs that locals could be paid to do are filled by volunteer workers.

It’s certainly not orphans.

And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, it’s often not the students taking part in these projects. In a few years’ time, how do they feel when a little more worldly ‘wiseness’ means it dawns on them that their project didn’t have the impact they were led to believe? What if they realise that they may even have had a negative impact on the community they were there to ‘help’?

It is, of course, a hugely complex issue, and there are undoubtedly some projects that are very successful and responsibly run by community associations and NGOs.But I believe they are the exception when it comes to school expeditions, not the rule.If good project work cannot be found, would it not be better to tell our teenagers that there isn’t anything useful for them to do?

Nobody is perfect.Looking back, some of the projects The School Travel Consultancy has been involved with could have been better. That said, I can honestly say we try really hard to take a very critical view when seeking out project work for groups wanting them as part of our school expeditions. We have also refused to organise project work where a positive project could not be found.

Raising awareness is a vital first stage. The school expedition industry AND schools, have a responsibility to their students and parents NOT to service a demand for project work just because it is there. Instead, they should be leading the way in redefining what is acceptable, what is worthwhile.

It comes back to education. If we educate schools and young people about the issues, then the demand for change will grow.

Maybe then our teenagers will stop thinking of the developing world as a charity case in need of ‘fixing’ and instead discover the real lessons that only travel can teach us.

References and suggested reading:

Why you shouldn’t participate in Voluntourism – excellent article about the negative side of volunteering:

Volunteer tourism doesn’t work:

Stories of Fake Orphanages and Bogus animal sanctuaries:

Nepal’s orphanage problem:

The problem with little white girls (and boys) – a damning article on the realities of volunteering:

Insider’s view on Cambodia’s Orphanages:

Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying To Do Right?

What to think about when considering volunteering:

Daniel Papi’s passionate TEDx Talk on why Orphanage Tourism needs to stop:

Help on how to choose ethical projects:

Wide reaching article about the industry as a whole and the issues of volunterring:

Who to follow: