It certainly sounds a bit mean. Controversial even. How on earth could one argue against supporting poor children, in poor countries, with no parents? Well, I would argue it’s worth learning a little more about the situation first, then you may change the way you decide to help.
An orphanage is a business.
There are many orphanages across places like Cambodia that are run as a business. And by that, I mean they are in the business of making money.
In very simple terms, it started like this. There was an orphanage in a town that was receiving a lot of international visitors and donations. The children were very poor and lots of people wanted to help, for all the right reasons. Then, another local person saw that the orphanage ‘owner’ was receiving large amounts of money. So they wanted a piece of the pie. The only problem was, they didn’t have any orphans! So, the orphanage owner would go out to the local villages and target poor and vulnerable families, offering to provide education and food if the child is removed from the family and lives in the orphanage instead. You could argue that orphanages are in the business of trading/trafficking children for profit. And it’s a business that is funded by tourists and charities with good intentions. Unfortunately, 80% of the 8 million orphans in the world have at least one living parent or relative.
Institutional care v Family based care
Child care institutions usually have too few carers and are unable to provide children with the affection, attention, personal identity and social connections that families and communities can offer. Even carers with the best intentions and training are not able to look after 10 to 20 infants at a time with the same level of support as a family of 5 or 6 children. Research shows that children in institutional care are more likely to have stunted growth and have a lower IQ because they lack stimulation and attention. (Save the Children)
In regards to these business, it is in the interest of the orphanage owner to keep the children at a particular level of poverty. Nobody is going to donate to an orphanage with excellent educational & recreational facilities. The more poor, the more money.
The children are open to abuse
Institutions are often unsafe for children. They can leave them vulnerable to neglect, violence and abuse, which often goes undetected and unreported. Countries with a long history of institutionalisation have also seen problems as young adults leave institutional care and try to reintegrate into society, leading to much higher rates of homelessness, aggression, difficulties finding employment, criminal activity, and depression leading to high rates of suicide. (Save the Children)
In order to facilitate donations, orphanages often open their doors up to short term volunteers. This not only creates attachment issues for the children, as they grow up with a revolving door of people who ‘love’ them for a week or two, but it also opens up to predators. Volunteer applications rarely have a ‘working with children’ check and it is not often required, creating a haven for sexual predators.
The cost of a child in institutionalised care is 10-12 times more expensive than family based care. Quite frankly, your money is better spent elsewhere. That’s not to say that we should not be supporting vulnerable children across the world, I’m saying we should be smarter with our money.
So what does that mean exactly? And what are the alternatives?
Support organisations and charities that support family based care. To say that all orphanages are bad is reckless. And to say that families can always support their own children is idealistic. The fact is that there are many vulnerable children living with their families. The goal is to support the family as a unit. If the child is vulnerable to abuse in their own family, there are many more measures and alternatives before an orphanage should be considered.
NGOs like Cambodian Children’s Trust have turned orphanages into day time recreational and resource facilities. All the promises of education, community activity, food nourishment and a break for the family are delivered, but the children return to their families each day. It is organizations like Friends International and CCT that we should be supporting, not the orphanages.