A New Zealand company that sends thousands of volunteers abroad will phase out links to orphanages amidst growing controversy over such placements.

International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is the latest "voluntourism" company to end orphanage placements.

The company's size – at 18,000 customers a year it is one of the biggest in the industry – means the decision is a major milestone in the campaign against orphanage tourism.


READ MORE: Voluntourism: Are best intentions enough?

Organisations including Unicef have warned well-intentioned Westerners that children can be exploited to attract tourist dollars.

In countries such as Cambodia the number of orphanages has increased as the country opens up to tourism and becomes more developed.

A survey released last year by the Cambodian Government found as many as 79 per cent of the estimated 16,500 children living in 406 residential care institutions still had a parent, with families encouraged to send their children to relieve a financial burden, and some orphanages run as businesses.

Friends International and Unicef have run a hard-hitting campaign featuring posters showing Cambodian children locked in glass museum cases, with Western tourists taking pictures.

Amid such publicity, the world's largest school-based volunteer organisation, World Challenge, announced an end to orphanage trips, and for-profit companies including Intrepid Travel have made the same move.

IVHQ has now joined their ranks.

In a response to Weekend Herald inquiries, the company's head of impact, risk and people, Ben Brown, said the decision was made last year to phase out orphanage placements. That would happen over the next 12 months.


"While it is only a small number of IVHQ's placements (less than 5 per cent globally) we feel this transition needs to take time to be done responsibly, while limiting the potential negative impact our decision has on our trusted partners and the communities they support."

Brown said the debate surrounding orphanage volunteering was an emotive one that was disproportionately distracting organisations such as IVHQ from "fulfilling their core mission of creating opportunities for travellers to provide volunteer services that make a positive contribution to communities they visit".

IVHQ, which is based in New Plymouth, had previously strongly defended orphanage placements, with founder Dan Radcliffe outlining the reasons why in a September 2016 blog. Radcliffe, the 2014 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, said sweeping generalisations were based on the unethical behaviour of a few.

"In most cases, volunteers in orphanages provide a vital source of hands-on support, energy and skill that makes a huge difference to the lives of children, and has a positive flow-on effect in the wider community. Not all orphanages are run by bogeymen out to exploit children or volunteers," Radcliffe wrote.

"At the very least, volunteers pick up some basic workload that frees up other staff to focus on more important educational and developmental outcomes for the children."

The Cambodian Government has set a target of returning 30 per cent of children in residential care to their families by this year, and there is a push in Australia for legislation against orphanage volunteering.

Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef New Zealand, said the "environment has really switched" against orphanage tourism.

"Children living in orphanages have a fundamental abandonment in their lives…the voluntourism sector is this repeated exacerbation of that."

IVHQ's programme fees vary by country, and cover airport pick-up, orientation, accommodation and some meals. A separate registration fee is charged.

For example, a six-week placement in Cambodia costs NZ$1040 in programme fees, plus the $408 registration fee. Not covered are flights, insurance, transport and visa costs. Once volunteers are in their host country, their trips are managed by IVHQ's various local partner organisations.

Volunteers now have the choice of 34 countries and projects spanning conservation, education, health and childcare.