Five Things We Need to Know Before Supporting an Orphanage

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Australians love to support orphanages in poor countries, or one of the more recent adaptations of the idea, orphan villages. Orphanages push all our emotional buttons. On the one hand who can’t be moved by the plight of children who are alone and vulnerable? On the other hand institutional care is so tangible – we can see and touch the buildings, visit the children. For many Christians orphanages are a wonderful way to share God’s love with needy children and hold out the hope that they will be exposed to and embrace the good news about Jesus.

Why then are orphanages viewed so negatively by most development workers? Here are five facts I’ve taken from Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions (2009) by Save the Children.

1. There are very few orphans in orphanages. Four out of five children in orphanages have either one or both parents still alive. Surveys showed that up to 90% children in institutional care in Ghana had one or both parents alive; 88% in Liberia; 59% in Zimbabwe; 90% in Indonesia; 80% in Sri Lanka; 45-70% in Afghanistan; over 80% in Brazil; and 98% in Central and Eastern Europe;

2. Poverty, marginalisation and discrimination are the main reasons children are placed in orphanages. Parents who are very poor often see institutional care as the only way to ensure their child receives an education, while some children are abandoned due to their being disabled, girls or from an ethnic minority;

3. Institutional care, particularly large-scale institutional care, is damaging to the physical, emotional and social development of children. This has been demonstrated by a large number of studies across a wide range of countries. Inadequate living conditions and low staff to child ratios are often the norm. Children in institutional care commonly have lower IQs, experience violence and fear, are more likely to end up in crime, have lower educational attainments, are poorly equipped for non-institutionalised life, have no community to which they belong once they leave the institution;

4. There are far better options than institutional care. The best option is to support families so they can stay together. Where this is not possible, the next best option is for children to be cared for in a family structure, such as the family of a relative or an adoptive or foster family;

5. There are some cases where family based care may not be not possible – eg children with severe disabilities. Where this is the case children should be cared for in residential homes that have no more than 6-8 children, with as family-like a setting as possible. This type of care should only be temporary until in community family care is viable.

One of the difficulties with information like this is that it cuts across our emotional impulses. Once a charity has shown me pictures of smiling children “rescued” off the streets by placement in their orphanage, or once I have visited the orphanage and met the kids, all rational discussion seems to go out the window. But the facts are clear. No matter how loving it feels to support that orphanage, by electing to support a system that breaks up families and harms healthy child development, rather than family-care alternatives, could it be we are sacrificing children for our own emotional gratification?

Post Script – added Sept 22
Just as there are children who have been damaged by institutional care, so there are children who point to the profound and positive impact such care had on their lives. My blog piece should be read with this in mind. The aim is not to argue that every child is harmed by institutional care nor to demonise those who have devoted their lives to loving and caring for children. Rather my point is that institutional care is a system that is demonstrably problematic and that we should question why we get so invested in it when demonstrably better options for children are possible.

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9 Comments on "Five Things We Need to Know Before Supporting an Orphanage"

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Mark Medhurst
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Scott, as someone who has experienced supporting and visiting Christian Orphanages in Zimbabwe, I was disappointed in this article that seeks to make someone think of the negatives (which I believe are not entirely true) before understanding the impact someone can have on a child’s life through providing for them in may ways to which they may not have received before hand. I understand we use wisdom and discernment when supporting any organisation, but to put a blanket 5 things before considering supporting mentality is diminishing the emotional input that we obtain that compels us to love like the way… Read more »
Scott Higgins
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Hi Mark, I can’t comment on the organisations you’ve been involved with and in no way want to impugn the character or motives of the staff nor suggest that their work is not helping vulnerable children. I am sure there are many organisations like these devoted to providing the very best care they can. But there is an absolute mountain of research on this issue and it pretty much all points in the direction outlined in the Save the Children report.

Mark Medhurst
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Yes I read this copied reply on FB, and I noticed you did not take an interest in what my response was toward your article, or sought to discuss it futher, but rather point me to some research by a US based organisation that seeks to raise fund globally … for what? I like to give to an organisation that I can partner and pray for for the welfare of that children. That way I can seek to make a difference with the Christian organisation set up to help children in need. If your response to people is to just… Read more »
Mark Medhurst
Guest
Yes I read this copied reply on FB, and I noticed you did not take an interest in what my response was toward your article, or sought to discuss it futher, but rather point me to some research by a US based organisation that seeks to raise fund globally … for what? I like to give to an organisation that I can partner and pray for for the welfare of that children. That way I can seek to make a difference with the Christian organisation set up to help children in need. If your response to people is to just… Read more »
Lyn Jackson
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Thanks for posting on this very controversial topic, Scott. The “orphanage trade” is quite strong here in Nepal, with the stats you give reflected here. Most children in Nepali orphanages are not orphans; their families think that they’ll get better opportunities and a better education in an orphanage in Kathmandu than they will in their home villages. How much better it is to work towards better opportunities for children in their own villages, living with their own families! Another problem with orphanages is the constant stream of well-meaning young people who come wanting to “help out”… with no Nepali, little… Read more »
Rick Plumb
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working on the border where there is war torn areas there is a huge fall out of children who are not being educated , not getting proper food or medicine. They are placed in dormitory schools on the safe side -not perfect that’s for sure, but a great improvement on where they came from – hopefully as the cease fire continues and the rebuilding starts they will be able to return to their villages and relatives -agree there is no substitute for family These kids seem to be doing very well though but one wonders what is under the surface.… Read more »
Scott Higgins
Guest

Thanks for posting Rick. Yes in conflict situations we often have to work with options that are far from ideal.

Mark Edwards
Guest
Scott thank you for the post. A lot of what you said is true. I am in Vietnam right now visiting a HIV centre that cares for children who have been abandoned because they have HIV. Most have parents who are alive. We need money to provide for the children, but this centre also needs funds to employ social workers who are doing a great job in trying to educate people (parents and extended) about HIV, to defuse the myth and to move these 60+ vulnerable children back to a family network. The centres work doesn’t stop once the children… Read more »
prashanna adhiakri
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hie its me prashanna…from nepal from siloam orphanage…we are having struggle now….we have 8 kids…some time no foods for 2 days, first they study at boarding but now we dont have enough finance so now they are studying at nepali goverment school…..no clothes no good food…now we just paying for room only….for stay…not more then it….we still praying with God…i know he will do miracal…plzzzz if u like to help in God kingdom anybody plzz give to need and poor people God will bless u so much….in jesus name amen!!!!!

if u wanna contact me then please u can..( a_prashanna@yahoo.com)

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