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Good Orphanages, Bad Orphanages


Light for Children's executive director, the late Yaw Otchere Baffour, was actively involved in a task force to shut down illegal orphanages in Ghana and resettle the children with their families. Program coordinator Mike Owusu has also been publicly advocating for more attention to this issue. We are also actively involved in supporting some orphanages, including sending international volunteers to work with the children.

Currently in social media we’re seeing a lot of criticism of orphanage volunteering and of international volunteering in general. Volunteers are mocked (often quite brilliantly) as white saviours or Barbie Saviors. There is at least one petition to stop volunteer organizations from listing any orphanages among their placements. As a non-profit, we’re starting to face pressure to downplay or discontinue our orphanage volunteer programs in order to be listed with European volunteer agencies.

This is worrying, as there are children in these orphanages who have immediate, daily needs for food, shelter and care. As much as long-term projects to address root causes are important, taking food out of the mouths of children today in the name of maybe creating a better future for the next generation is unacceptable.

An organisation has put together this video to explain why they think all orphanage volunteering should stop, and indeed why all orphanages are bad. It makes a pretty compelling argument, at least for people who don’t understand how complex the situation is. The video addresses several issues around orphanage volunteering and gives us a good jumping-off point for discussing the problems in more detail.

1. Orphanage volunteering encourages poor families to give up their children.

This is true when orphanage volunteering is done badly. Many orphanages recruit children and use them as assets to gain money. In Ghana, such orphanages are never legitimate, licensed children’s homes, but private institutions that make their money from a variety of sources. They successfully solicit donations from local politicians and celebrities, as well as international foundations and volunteers. Volunteers are a part of this process, but not necessarily the deciding factor in whether or not the venture is profitable.

Other interventions such as domestic and international adoption can also go wrong and lead to the trafficking of children if done badly. And yet adoption can definitely be the best option for some children when done properly. Trying to help vulnerable children in a developing country is complicated and there are no simple answers.

2. Research shows that orphanages are not a good place for children to grow up.

This is absolutely true. Children who grow up in orphanages are at a disadvantage in life. They may have impaired psychological and social development, and they have often been neglected and even abused at some point. Even an institution staffed by people with the children’s best interests at heart cannot replace what a child would get from living in a family and community. The UN recommends that orphanages be used only as a last resort. Unfortunately, for many children in the developing world, orphanages are currently the only homes available to them.

3. Experts estimate that about 80 percent of children in orphanages worldwide have at least one parent living.

This is also true. In many cases, these parents are lured into giving up their children with false promises of better nutrition and better educational opportunities. In some cases the family is genuinely unable or unwilling to care for the child. Disabled children for example are often abandoned by parents who already have 6 or 7 children that they can barely afford to feed and clothe. When one or more parents die, the extended family is sometimes able to absorb the burden of the extra children, and sometimes not. It’s worth noting that UNICEF defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

4. Foreign volunteers cause children in orphanages to develop attachment disorder. The attachment-abandonment cycle as volunteers come and go is damaging to the children’s emotional and even brain development.

It’s true that this dynamic is far from ideal. However, children in third world orphanages already have attachment disorder almost by definition, before volunteers get involved. If you visit those same orphanages when there are no volunteers around, you realize that they may be desperately short of permanent staff, and the children get very little personal attention or affection of any kind. So, unless there is a steady stream of volunteers, the actual cycle is attachment-abandonment-neglect. It’s hard to argue that removing the attachment-abandonment component and replacing it with full-time neglect is an improvement.

Another kind of attachment problem stems from the illegal orphanage owners themselves. They are very good at getting the children to attach to them, sometimes telling them lies about their families of origin so that the children no longer want to leave the institution. Some “orphans” are unwilling to leave the orphanage even once they are in their twenties because of excessive attachment to the orphanage owners and a lack of connections in the outside world.

Again, removing volunteers from this picture may change the dynamic, but it won’t reduce attachment disorder.

5. There’s no point in trying to choose a “good” orphanage. Orphanages are by nature a “bad” solution.

For our purposes, we define “good” orphanages as those who take in children who genuinely have no better alternatives available, including children with special needs. Good orphanages have strategies in place to re-integrate the children with family, including extended family, whenever possible.

Bad orphanages are those who take in children regardless of their family status and use them to solicit donations. In Ghana, these homes are not legally licensed but continue to operate because shutting them down and repatriating the children is more complicated and expensive than it sounds.

Even a “good” orphanage is not a great solution, but is it worse than homelessness, neglect, and possibly even death?

6. There are no orphanages in North America and Europe, so they are not the right solution for poor countries either.

Birth rates are extremely low in developed countries compared to places like sub-Saharan Africa. The combination of poverty, high birth rates, and in some cases war and disease, has left some children without family available to take care of them. It’s true that there is no large-scale orphan crisis in most of the developing world, but there are children whose families are not able to care for them.

It’s also worth pointing out that there is an “orphanage crisis” of a sort in the first world: the warehousing of elderly people in nursing homes. This phenomenon is just as horrifying to many Africans as orphanages are to Westerners. Think for a few minutes about what would be involved in shutting down all of the nursing and seniors’ homes in the West, and you’ll gain some insight into why eliminating orphanages in poor countries may be even more difficult than it sounds.

7. Children should be raised in family situations such as extended families, foster care and adoptive families. These solutions are available even in poor countries.

Children should be raised in family situations when families are available. It’s only fair to say that the American foster care system has also had its share of abuse and negligence scandals, and has been described by some children’s rights organizations as a broken system. To suggest that Social Welfare departments in third-world countries would be better able to administer such a program (with a bigger per capita problem and less money) is naïve. Even at the height of Ghana’s economic growth spurt in 2011, Social Welfare used to operate on $3000 US per year for the whole country (population 23 million.) Currently the operating budget excluding salaries is pretty much zero.

For reference, this is what has happened to Ghana's economy since 2011

8. Orphanages are not the answer.

Orphanages are not intended to be the answer. Orphanages at their best are responses to children in crisis situations. As with the many “temporary” refugee camps around the world, a good permanent solution is a better goal but it often fails to materialize.

9. Getting involved in helping needy people is a complicated process. It can often end up doing more harm than good.

This is true, but what about the “stop orphanage volunteering” movement itself? Is there any possibility that good intentions there could be doing unintended harm to the children they are trying to help?

Imagine that you’re responsible for a group of orphaned and abandoned children in Africa. You have no money to hire staff to care for them, nobody wants to adopt the children, and the families are unable or unwilling to take them back. You try to meet your funding and staffing needs by hosting volunteers and accepting donations from an international organization. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least when volunteers are available you can offer a better standard of care. Donations help to cover the costs of caring for the children. Maybe you can even hire more permanent staff.

Then, suddenly, the supply of volunteers dries up and the donations stop coming. You have to lay off staff, and you know that the children are no longer getting as much food, care and attention as before.

Spreading the oversimplified message “Orphanages bad!” hurts the licensed orphanages more than the illegal ones. Potential volunteers who do their homework and think about the consequences of their actions are more likely to stay home, and the more emotionally driven volunteers continue to come and fall in love with cute orphans in exploitative institutions. They act on impulse and tend to believe the lies of illegal orphanage owners who have learned to harness the Internet to their advantage. The volunteer and donor pie is getting smaller, but the unlicensed, exploitative orphanages are getting a larger share of it.

Never take a source of support away from people who need it unless you are immediately and fully replacing it with a new source of support.

Hopefully it’s obvious that we need to address the root causes of poverty, parental mortality and child abandonment in the developing world. But taking away some of the little support that orphanages have in the name of that vague better future is wrong and dangerous.

When a family needs a new house, don’t tear down the old one until you’ve finished building the new one. Repair it in the meantime. All too often, we’ve found that the new dream home never gets past the blueprint stage.


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