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.