Voluntourism: Why ICC Rejects It

CEO Peter Maize explains how well-run volunteer China Teams are not voluntourism and have a positive influence on the health and well-being of the children and young people in our care.

The issue of "voluntourism" has been discussed in the humanitarian field for many years. Sometimes the focus has been on weekend volunteers who are literally "slumming" as they visit impoverished communities. The custom of giving small gifts to eager children has equally been criticised as a well-intentioned act that contributes to a mindset of dependency. Recently there have been questions raised about the validity and psychological impact of bringing teams to orphanages in different parts of the world. 

It is important to clearly define the roles that volunteers play in an organisation, and how they interact with the beneficiaries of that organisation. Making broad, ill-defined condemnations without context can be harmful and counterproductive. Every country is different and ICC understands the current situation in China from a long history of working in China in the field of care for disabled children who have been abandoned. 

In China, ICC works with government welfare centres (otherwise known as orphanages), where almost every child who enters the centre is disabled, often severely. And all of those children have been abandoned by their parents. Upon entering into ICC’s care, the focus is to provide for them in our own care centres that promote “family” and “belonging” through small group care and family-style environments. As a result of their abandonment many children suffer trauma and attachment disorder. 

ICC specifically addresses this issue for our children through provision of loving, consistent caregiving staff, including key parental figures for each child and smaller care groups with a family-style environment that promotes attachment between houseparents and child. We promote the development of sibling-like relationships between children so they can give and receive love to each other, and can then develop a sense of belonging. ICC consults with qualified, experienced child psychologists who understand the situation in China and they provide, support, consultation and training in this area of attachment and engagement in culturally appropriate ways. 

ICC runs volunteer teams, called China Teams, that are well thought out and managed. They are not tourists. People are carefully vetted and referenced, including undergoing police checks, before they are approved to travel to China. They are thoroughly briefed on the way ICC works and they are always under the close supervision of ICC staff members who know the centre, the staff and the children in detail. The daily routines of the children have minimal disruption as their schedules are not “tweaked” to accommodate the teams (e.g. children still go to class and their usual programs and members of the teams either support those programs or do additional programs for children outside of those times). 

For close to 25 years, teams have played a vital role in modelling play and craft activities to our Chinese caregivers. Through the encouragement and modelling by team members the staff are inspired and add new ways to engage and play with the children. Caring for children and young people with high needs is difficult. Our teams provide a huge encouragement to the local Chinese staff, and this in turn further encourages them to embrace and care for the children with a greater passion and connection. 

Another key role of the team members is to support the caregivers with additional activities, outings, and play - volunteers might be extra hands to take children to the playground, or on an outing to the park. Due to the children’s high needs the children may not always have opportunities for these kinds of activities. 

Short term teams also give an opportunity for our children and young people to bless and reach out to others. The children and young people teach the volunteer team members much through their simple and beautiful attitude to life. Through teams, our young people, in particular, become not just receivers of care but are empowered to become givers as well as they teach the team members the dance moves, how to bead a bracelet, or how to clean the fish pond. 

We respect people who are willing to commit their own time and resources to join a well-structured program that allows them to share their love in various ways and participate in ICC's work. We don't do this in order to profit from volunteers: in fact, we don’t profit. We do it because it is a positive experience for everyone involved. 

Making sweeping statements about a very complex topic because of the abuses in some countries can harm organisations that work in countries where orphanages are a reality, and where there are currently no other options. ICC has brought innovative practices to the care of children who are disabled and have been abandoned in China. We encourage anyone who wants to learn more about us to continue visiting this website, or to come to our centres where we care for the children and young people as part of a team.

- Peter Maize, CEO

Find out more about ICC's position on volunteer teams and the impact on the children and young people in its care. Visit the Resources page to download