Stories

The Australian Government has launched a new initiative to prevent Australian volunteers from inadvertently contributing to child exploitation through the practice of orphanage tourism.

The Smart Volunteering Campaign discourages Australians from any form of short-term, unskilled volunteering in overseas orphanages.

At the launch, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “For decades, thousands of Australians from all backgrounds have given their time and skills selflessly to help communities overseas.

“However, some Australian volunteers have unwittingly contributed to harmful practices by participating in the “voluntourism” industry and engaging in orphanage tourism. This work will help to ensure the good intentions of so many Australians are fulfilled through positive actions that protect them and vulnerable children overseas.”

ChildFund Australia, which has long advocated for an end to orphanage tourism, has welcomed this recognition of the harmful impact institutional care can have on the most vulnerable children.

Mark Kavenagh, child protection advisor at ChildFund Australia, says: “We know that children are best off with their family, or with community-based care. In Australia today, children are very rarely placed in residential care. If they are, it is a last resort and never on a permanent basis.

“In developing communities, many orphanages or children’s homes are unregistered, under-regulated and under-staffed by workers lacking in formal qualifications. Children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, neglect and sometimes exploitation.

“These risks are only heightened in facilities where volunteering tourists and visitors are permitted to have direct contact with children.”

The efforts of Australian aid and development organisations are integral to alleviating poverty in a number of ways. Some important examples include reducing the rates of gender-based violence in the Pacific, enabling more girls and women to access education and employment opportunities, assisting vulnerable communities to cope with the impacts of climate change and disasters, and providing access to vital basic health and education services to give children the strongest possible start to life.

But this work is now under threat, with the Australian Government decimating the aid budget since coming to power. More than $11 billion has been stripped from the aid program in successive cuts announced over the past year. This will see the 2015-16 aid budget slashed by 20 per cent – around $1 billion – the largest single-year cut in history. By 2017, Australian aid will be at the lowest level ever recorded at a mere 0.21 per cent of Gross National Income.

These cuts to the aid budget have been met with strong backlash from the Australian development NGO community because it will dramatically set back efforts to deliver effective aid. NGOs including ChildFund Australia have already had to axe crucial education, health and child protection projects in some of the world’s poorest communities, and more blows will follow this year.

In light of these setbacks, a fresh, innovative and unified response to the budget cuts is needed to increase public support for aid. While the outcry from NGOs has been loud, support for aid in the Australian community appears to be at an all-time low, with the cuts to aid being the most popular saving in the recent budget.

A good step in this direction is the newly launched Australian Aid campaign, an initiative supported by over 50 organisations working to end poverty around the world. Although still in its early days, the campaign strives to shift the debate on aid from what we should be doing to what we already do, highlighting the vital role of Australian aid in our region and beyond, and the massive achievements that have occurred over the past 20 years. Half as many people today are living in extreme poverty than 20 years ago. Half as many young children are dying needlessly each year. Through the contributions we make, Australian aid is part of this success story.

The overarching message of the campaign is that we have much to be proud of about the aid program. But it’s also about reconnecting aid with our national identity. New research has found young Australians overwhelmingly view ˜fairness` as our most important national value (42 per cent), yet one in three feel this iconic Australian characteristic is under threat. Helping children and families wherever they may live is surely the definition of giving everyone a fair go.

Working together, Australian NGOs are in a good position to inspire people and increase understanding of aid. A unified effort will help garner public support and show the Australian Government that Australians are truly proud of the aid program, and consider aid to be a priority in the lead-up to the next election. In turn, this will enable NGOs to keep on doing what they do best: helping children and families overcome poverty and stand on their own two feet.