The role of children’s homes in the developing world is a complicated issue. And one that needs to be separated from ‘orphanage tourism’. The simplistic discussion of the terms ‘orphanage’ or ‘children’s home’, then paired with ‘tourism’ does no justice to the care of children in the Developing World. These terms do not automatically belong together. The majority of children’s homes do not accept ‘visitors’ or groups. They are carefully scrutinised by governments, local officials and an increasing number of child protection agencies. These are the appropriate, on-the-ground mechanisms for protecting the rights of vulnerable children and limiting the impact of cultural superiority.
Still, the question remains. ‘How can we best care for our world’s most vulnerable children?”
For the most part, the idea of children’s homes in the modern context has been a Western solution. The Developing World has implemented the model both at our suggestion and based on our funds. Now that the model is in place, it will require a long-term commitment to shift to alternative solutions such as group or foster homes, and extended family placements. Many countries are taking big strides in this arena. Cambodia has introduced vigorous criteria and processes for approval as a registered organisation caring for vulnerable children. It has increased requirements around registration of homes and minimum expectations of the care of children and cultural integration. India continues to work at all levels of government and the community to protect children not living with family. These steps include registration and inspection of children’s homes, preparation of individual child care plans for all children in care, reintegration schemes for children leaving care and training of children home staff. Rwanda has closed all institutional care and relied upon community networks to support children and youth, both into independent foster homes and child-headed household programs.
On the one hand, it is true, children’s homes in the Developing World have a small number of ‘orphans’ when the term is applied as understood in the West. However, in many of these countries, an ‘orphan’ is defined as having one living parent. On some occasions, local project leaders are more interested in funds than child welfare. But overwhelmingly, homes are led by authentic people caring for children with one parent living in abject poverty and without access to health, education or good nutrition. The hopelessness, neglect and inequity in living conditions of those living in poverty, have made it necessary for a surviving parent to find ways that provide opportunity and support for family members.
Just consider Reuben. He is 11 years of age and lives in Tamil Nadu, India. Both parents were born blind and unable to earn a consistent income. When Reuben was 8, his mother died. According to these circumstances, he’d never go to school. Enjoy more than one meal a day. Or have a future outside of day labouring. But today, because of his enrolment in a fully-funded boarding school, he’s the third-ranked student in his class, loves science and technology, and dreams of a job in the Indian police force. Every month his father visits. Every holiday period, he returns home and cares for him. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best option. But his father feels it is the very best he can do.
The Care and Support Options
When you have almost non-existent government or community services for basic needs, and a huge disparity between the poor and the global community (now more obvious than ever), there exists a place for different models of support. Today, there are group homes, boarding schools, foster care, extended family support programs and child headed households. Perhaps children’s homes are never the best option. But often they’ve been the only option when poverty or addiction or disability have robbed families and children of an alternative.
An Alternative Response
I, like many of you, am considering how I can protect the effective care of children in the Developing World. I have arrived at a short list which we can all practice:
- Educate others about the definition and risks of ‘orphanage tourism‘. Play an active role in communicating the complexity and risks of poorly considered plans to visit children’s homes in the Developing World. This may be necessary in conversations with friends, family or local communities (e.g. schools).
- Don’t participate in activities or programs that visit children’s homes on a short or medium term basis. Negative and even destructive outcomes can eventuate when well-intentioned people visit child-based organisations without a full understanding of their potential contribution or harm, and a wider understanding of the organisation and its care strategies (e.g. child protection).
- Support child-based projects that keep children connected to culture, family and community. Look for projects that partner with home care or group home settings, extended family placement and community engagement. Or have a reintegration plan for reuniting children with families.
- Ensure there is independent monitoring and accountability when looking to support an overseas project. Without this, local leaders do not continue to learn new competencies and expand their own capacity. And too often, the absence of accountability produces opportunities for deception that impact on the intended beneficiaries and in the long run, harm the people leading the organisation.
- Give to non-government organisations (NGOs) that are approved for international development. The Government endorses approved organisations meeting compliance standards in financial management, promotion and fundraising, as well as child protection.
Each of these steps emphasise the necessity for having an active and engaged conversation rather than drawing battle lines that separate caregivers, donors and development organisations. We need to find solutions that prioritise children, uphold culture and community values, and have an eye to the future. Relying on overseas funds and support is an uncertain path for children and governments alike. But it is a role that we need to thoughtfully exit. Not turn our backs on in protest.
It seems we each need to beware the simple solution in a complex reality.
PS: Foxglove Project does not financially support a children’s home in the Developing World.