Joel Borgström, Country Manager Cambodia, China, Nepal & Thailand

Early childhood care and development in northern Thailand

In 2012, Childhood decided to partner with the organisation ‘Rak Dek’ in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. The majority of the population in this area belongs to one of the many ethnic minorities and many children lack birth registration and citizenship which makes it difficult for them to claim their entitled rights which, in turn, increases the risk for abuse and exploitation. Entering the work force at an early age is common for many of these children which also makes normal school attendance difficult.

With the project “community based collaboration on early childhood care and development”, Rak Dek primarily wanted to improve the quality of life for children 0-4 years old. In the long term, the ambition is to assist and cooperate with the involved communities to create improved systems and ways of taking care of young children. After the first year and a half of implementation, results include recruitment and training of 42 parental volunteers (local persons trained in pre- and post natal care, nutrition, available hospital services and other topics). The volunteers function as peer supporters in their villages and can provide support to pregnant women and households with small children. Two new day care facilities were established in very remote villages. The day care centers are now attended by 32 children on a regular basis. The local authorities have agreed to take over responsibility from the end of this year.

When I visited the project area in February I was struck by how far Thailand has developed when compared to neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. Another reflection was the time it takes for general economic growth to reach communities living far away from cities and tourism hotspots. Although the standard of living in Thailand has increased tremendously over the last 20 years, there are still a number of groups living very tough lives on the outskirts of the Thai society. Particularly vulnerable groups include ethnic minorities along Thailand’s northern border and migrants. Rak Dek’s method is to work closely with the local authorities and already from the beginning start discussing when responsibility for a daycare facility or social support should be handed over. Since results are encouraging from the first project period, Childhood will continue supporting Rak Dek’s important work for another year starting now in July.

/Joel

 

New day care center in Pai district

New day care center in Pai district

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Åsa Wikström, Country Manager Belarus, Moldova, Russia

Projects in Belarus

I just got back from a visit to our partners in Belarus. The two NGOs, Hope and Homes for Children and Ponimanie, are both based in the capital city of Minsk but their work is spread across the country. Hope and Homes for Children works to build the capacity of local childcare professionals so that they are able to more effectively prevent children being unnecessarily separated from their parents, move children out of institutions and place children in alternative family-based care. Ponimanie works to prevent child abuse and neglect and within the frame of the Childhood supported project “Barnahus in Belarus”, Ponimanie has trained a large number of psychologists, police officers and prosecutors in child psychology and interview techniques. Child-friendly interview rooms, where children who are witnesses to or victims of sexual abuse can be interviewed, have been set up in several regions.

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Galina from Hope and Homes och Andrey from Ponimanie

After a four-hour drive from Minsk, Galina from Hope and Homes, Andrey from Ponimanie and I arrive in Kalinkovichi, a town in the region of Gomel in south-eastern Belrus. One of the most important local partners for both Ponimanie and Hope and Homes are the Social Pedagogical Centres that provide support to vulnerable children and their families. The Social Pedagogical Centre in Kalinkovichi has just recently been moved to a new location, housed in a school building. The director of the Centre and one of the psychologists are working hard to get the rooms painted and furnished. A Ponimanie interview room will be set up, and Hope and Homes will have one of its resource rooms here. Hope and Homes and Ponimanie talk about the possibility of holding joint training sessions and workshops for the Centre’s staff. It is really encouraging to see how the organizations that Childhood supports support each other. And the teamwork has, as Galina says, “a synergistic effect” – one plus one equals more than two. The individual organizations working together achieve much more than they could alone.

/Åsa

Britta Holmberg, Project Director

Well-meaning volunteers are lured in to the ‘orphanage industry’

Many of you have surely seen images of smiling volunteers, surrounded by a group of children with even larger smiles. We read in media how young adults from the West travel to poor countries with the sincere intention of making a difference in the lives of orphans and abandoned children. We ‘like’ blog posts where volunteers tell of how open and loving the orphans in these institutions are and how much love they gain from the children and by being there.

The Swedsih Radio program ‘Kaliber’, broadcast Sunday June 2, reported that a veritable ‘orphanage industry’ have grown to provide volunteer placements organized by commercial travel agencies, and that there is a particularly strong interest for just orphanages. This is also our experience.

It is commendable and wonderful too see this outpouring of support by well-meaning young adults directed to children who are living in difficult situations around the world. The problem is that the reality is not as simple as it seems: we believe that this is a misguided kindness that actually is harming children more than it is helping them.

In our work for Childhood, we often travel to countries where we see more and more young adults wanting to work with orphans as volunteers. Our impression is not that there are too few orphanages and that foreign volunteers are the only ones that can give love and care to abandoned children. We have a very different view.

● We meet parents in Thailand who are persuaded to give away their children in the belief that they can be given a better education and future, but that the results are often the opposite.

● We hear about single teenage mothers who in poverty and despair abandon their children because they see no other way to cope. We talk to children who have spent their entire childhood in an institution in Russia even though they actually have relatives who could care for them, and not often also have fathers, who no one counts on as caretakers.

● We listen to South African researchers who points out that the already known risks with being in an orphanage can be made worse by the never-ending stream of volunteers, who the children form attachments to but who then disappears.

● We meet children’s rights activist in Cambodia, who desperately complain that the efforts to build supportive services to children and families in need, so that the children don’t have to be separated from their families, actually are thwarted by well-meaning Westerners who want to help children they believe are orphans or abandoned.

It is important to emphasize that most of children living in orphanages are not orphans, and that there often are much better alternatives. The numbers vary between countries, but at least 80-90% of the millions of children who live in institutions all over the world have one, sometimes two, living parents. And most of the children who are truly orphans are cared for by relatives.

In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has increase 75% since 2005, according to UNICEF – and not because there is an increased need. Rather, the increase is a result of private individuals and financing. Sometimes, the initiatives are benevolent; sometimes it is a way to make money.

Sadly enough, it is much easier to receive funding for an orphanage than to raise funds for preventive efforts, which would help a child stay with his or her family. These situations remain to true despite that fact that living in an orphanage often causes problems later in life – children who grow up in orphanages often have poor mental and physical health, have difficulties adjusting to society, and to form healthy and lasting attachments. For some reason, we tend to view the needs of children differently depending on if the child is Swedish or from a poor country.

Imagine if your child had a new caretaker at daycare every other month. Nice and kind people, who albeit don’t understand the language of your child, or have appropriate education or even experience working with children at all, wouldn’t matter that much. If it’s one time, it’s kind of exciting and new. Twice. Three times. After a while, the children start to understand that even the most loving and caring volunteer will leave and abandon them.

This kind of behavior, described in blog posts and Facebook status updates, chronicling fantastic meetings with orphans who “give me so much love”, who seek attention and smother the volunteers with hugs, are actually signs of that they have been subject to continuous separations and not formed lasting attachments with a caring and loving adult who stayed.

We are truly happy that there are so many who contribute to more children being able to have a safe, secure and happy childhood. We only wish that all the good intentions to an even larger extent could be channeled to something that actually will help children who need help.

It is not that complicated. It only just requires thinking one more time.

What we wish for and believe is good for “our” children are the same things that parents in poor countries wish for their children. What’s not good for Swedish children is not good for children who grow up poor.

Anna De Geer, Secretary General, World Childhood Foundation
Britta Holmberg, Project Director, World Childhood Foundation

Published June 3, 2013, on SVT Debatt.