Famed author JK Rowling has sent an alarming warning to well-meaning students who volunteer in orphanages overseas, saying that actions intended to be charitable could be doing more harm than good.

The author made her comments on BBC Radio 4’s Today show, adding that people who genuinely believe they are doing good work could be unintentionally supporting child abuse. Her comments were aimed specifically at students who take a year off before university to travel and work with charities.


The claims, which Rowling says are backed up by eighty years of research, will likely cause distress to students who have already volunteered or made plans to volunteer in foreign orphanages. The credible and sometimes provable allegations are that many of these institutions essentially put children on display for rich Westerners, threatening physical violence and starvation if the children do not cooperate and make the “voluntourists” feel as though they have made a substantial difference in their lives.

Rolwing is the founder of the children’s charity Lumos, which Harry Potter fans may recognize as the spell for creating light. The ultimate aim of Lumos is to find a home for every child in the world by 2050.

“They may not realize it, but they are driving what is sometimes a lucrative business model, they are keeping the institution open as a magnet for funding or private donations”, Rowling told the hosts.

Many of the children in these institutions, sometimes as many as 80%, are not in fact orphans but were taken from their parents with the promise of a good education. Voluntourists then pay a fee to care for the children for free, with the money being siphoned off to the people running the scheme. Rowling also said that many of the most-vulnerable looking children will be moved around to various institutions on rotation, in order to make the volunteers feel as though they are urgently needed.

In addition to being physically abused and given inadequate treatment, many of the children will be sexually abused, and ultimately sold into the sex trade.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir said, “Children tell us that they are told they have to smile and sing and tell the volunteers they love them, otherwise they’ll be beaten or locked up or they won’t get food”.

While Rowling has specifically highlighted the issues surrounding abusive orphanages, the concept of voluntourism has previously come under fire. As well as inundating areas with unskilled workers who build sub-par housing for free, which puts locals out of work, children are taught by an endless stream of unqualified strangers, with whom they make a connection before being promptly abandoned. While criticising any charity work may seem heartless, in many of these cases, the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions. If you really want to make a difference, you should consider volunteering for local charities. It may not look as good on Instagram, but it could have a much bigger impact in the grand scheme of things.