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12 December 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 7:14am

International aid can turn the tide on orphanages

The orphanage business harms children. It is time that it is recognised and understood as trafficking.

By Georgette Mulheir

“When we entered the orphanage, they made us all look the same, made us wear the same clothes. They cut off our hair and cut away our hope that we would ever leave this place. When we cried to go home, they beat us. We did not even have the right to our tears.”

“There was never enough food and what they gave us was rotten – you could not eat it.  But if I didn’t eat, there was nothing else and I went to sleep hungry.”

We would be forgiven for thinking these quotes are from Dickens or one of his contemporaries in Victorian Britain. In fact, the words are from two girls living today in Moldova and Haiti. Their experience – and that of millions of other children – is of the orphanage as a place of depravation, fear and bewilderment.

During the 20th century, evidence emerged demonstrating that children simply do not thrive outside a family environment, and those raised in orphanages are likely to have impaired brain development, physical developmental delays and emotional difficulties. Mortality rates were high and future life chances were dismal. The very charities running these places began to realise how harmful they were and changed their approach, supporting families to care for their own children. Britain’s own large orphanages are a thing of the past, and many of the grand buildings have been converted into luxury apartments.

So why does a myth persist of orphanages as a social good? Whilst the word “orphanage” might have filled people in the early 20th century with horror, in the early 21st century it is clear that we have forgotten our history, with donors and volunteers travelling eagerly to developing countries to support orphanages.

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An estimated eight million children live in orphanages and institutions around the world. No one knows for sure whether that number is accurate, because there is no system for counting children who live outside families. We also know that more than 80 per cent of the children are not orphans, but have at least one living parent. If desperate parents cannot afford school fees or medicine, the only education or medical care provided is in an orphanage. If a child has a disability and there is no inclusive education, they are sent away to a residential special school.

At Lumos, we have been working for more than a decade across the European region to help governments and communities rethink and reimagine the way they address the needs of vulnerable children. The dramatic change in the children as they move from orphanages to families is astonishing: they begin to flourish, many catch up their developmental delays and they do well in school. And even extremely poor countries like Moldova have found out that they can afford it, if they ring-fence the funding in orphanages and reinvest it in community-based services that they can help many more children – children who are healthier, happier, safer. They can do this because even poor quality orphanages are expensive to run.

It is the money involved that in fact is driving the proliferation of orphanages in many developing countries. Across much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, orphanages are being established at an alarming rate. Whilst some orphanages are run by well-intentioned people who believe they are doing the best to help the poor and needy, many are simply established as a business, operating outside the law.

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In Haiti, Lumos found that “entrepreneurial” people have realised that foreigners like to donate money to orphanages. They hire “child-finders”, who visit the slums and poor rural areas to aggressively recruit children. They seek out poor, pregnant women and offer to pay for pre-natal care. Soon after birth, they present the new mother with a huge bill for her medical care, and so in payment she must give them her baby. Other parents are promised their children will receive an education, and led to believe they are doing the best for their children. However, in many cases the promised education is not provided, the children are deliberately malnourished, and photographs are taken for websites persuading foreigners to “help starving Haitian orphans”. There is even witness evidence of children dying or disappearing without record.

To turn the tide globally on orphanages will take a concerted effort of all those involved in delivering international aid. The UK plays a lead role in international development across the world. In the midst of wars and disasters, it is our responsibility to ensure our government prioritises the forgotten eight million children in orphanages.

Firstly, we should ensure that no UK-funded programmes provide money to orphanages, but instead finance the development of community-based health, education and social services that keep children in their families and communities. Secondly, the orphanage business should be recognised and understood as trafficking. This should be included in all research and programmes to address trafficking internationally. Thirdly, the UK should support the development of an international mechanism to count all children globally, to make sure that children outside families cannot simply disappear into the streets or orphanages.

All children need families to flourish and once they are outside families the risk of being harmed or exploited grows dramatically. International aid invested in families and communities is needed to build strong, resilient communities, ready to weather any future storm.

Georgette Mulheir is the CEO of Lumos

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Make a donation at bit.ly/lumosns.

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: wearelumos.org.