Stop Supporting Orphanages

What possibly pulls at your heartstrings more than an orphanage in a poor country? It should.

Only problem is that an estimated 80% of orphans in orphanages around the world are not actually orphans. Are we all being duped? How did we get here?

The beginning of the orphanage explosion dates back to the 1990s and early 2000s, partly due to technology to connect us with people around the world but the primary catalyst was the AIDS pandemic. During this time the accepted definition of an orphan changed.

The effects of HIV/AIDS was so widespread that typically if only one parent died extended family couldn’t take care of the child as they were dealing with the disease as well.

When you and I think of an orphan we think of a child who has no family or has been abandoned in some way.

The broadening of the definition made sense at the time but in an international aid success story, the international community had tremendous success in dealing with the AIDS crisis. PEPFAR which was launched by President Bush in 2003 and continued by President Obama dramatically subsidized antiretroviral drugs for the poor. Africa has turned the corner on HIV/AIDS. It should be celebrated.

Though with the ending of the crisis, a new industry was only getting started. Orphanages grew dramatically all across the globe. Today there are an estimated 140 million orphans but only 15.1 million who have lost both parents. The vast majority are living with relatives.

Of the 8 million children living in orphanages, at least 6.4 million have at least one living parent. Through orphanages we have created a situation where poor families can offer a better life for their child by giving up their child. How tragic is that?

Every parent wants the absolute best for their child but there is also an undeniable biological bond between mother, father, and child. “Despite their good intentions, supporters of orphanages such as tourists and volunteers, actually end up contributing to the breaking up of families and removing children from their own family environment,” Unicef’s Cambodian communications chief, Iman Morooka.

These children are not orphans in a traditional sense but orphans out of poverty.

The Guardian has written on the subject and recently an article at with The Economist suggested that the heartfelt thing to do is to shut down these institutions, “especially the big ones”.

Adding more fuel to the fire are short term trips to these orphanages. I myself have visited an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. Among the many issues facing children in institutional care, separation anxiety is present in nearly all cases to varying degrees. Having foreigners come in and shower the kids with attention and then leave to never return again reinforces this damaging cycle that they are rejected. This is the last thing volunteers want to perpetuate but our good intentions mask the reality.

What can we do?

Australian Tara Winkler has suggested family based care after learning all these lessons the hard way. That is a solution but the truth is that there aren’t any easy solutions. Empowering families is good but it will never scale to address the fullness of the issue.

As with many issues in development poverty is the core issue at hand. There are interventions that can be directly employed and we should do them but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can address every symptom of poverty in a one off fashion.

Another possibility would be to explore this issue with organizations like Giver Directly who transfer money directly to poor families. They do this more efficiently than any organization in the world. This still may not be able to scale enough but the more options we explore (and learn from them) the better the situation will be for children and their families.

What is your role in this?

Do you still want to be directly involved with the issue? Maybe you do need to visit an orphanage to better understand or work in family based care. Or you can purchase products from these countries knowing that the more jobs that are created in poor countries means that families will have the income to keep their children away from institutional care. Maybe adoption is the way you want to go.

Everyone is interested in this subject should find their own way. After all, I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell you what to do with your money and time. Even if people think that family based care or cash transfers are the best solutions we need to be care to dictate to other people what they should value.

For me it is all about creating jobs supporting businesses in Africa so that families can provide for themselves. Yet we shouldn’t do either business or aid. We can do both.

What we need to avoid is to think that we already know what to do. Orphanages are not what you think and sadly many of the problems facing poor countries are being portrayed in a way to extract money and/or sympathy from you. Not to share truth.

James Crawford is the founder of Venture Leather Company in Kenya where 100% of the profit is invested back into businesses in Kenya. Check out the video blog on YouTube to see what it is like starting a business in Africa.