Part 2: What's the link between orphanages and cane toads?

By Matthew Jarlett, Harvest Bible College

In Lesson 1 we compared the importation of Cane Toads with that of orphanages in the developing world. In this article I wish to develop this idea even further.

I remember my first visit to Queensland as a young boy. One of the locals had set up a tourist attraction where kids like me could not only come and see the infamous toads up close, we could even race them! Mine came last, but I had lots of fun anyway.  

The truth is though, all the locals hated the toads. Even the attraction owner wished they have never come, but reasoned, “While they’re not going anywhere I might as well make a buck.”

As outrageous as it sounds, the same is all too often true of orphanages in developing nations. The locals know that institutional care actually contributes to the problems it purport to solve, yet they are good business. Local owners are able to lure children away from poor families and use their sad faces as to generate a profit. It has gotten to the point that there are now many examples of exploitation which mirror the modus operandi of organised begging. That is, children are forced to perform, e.g. respond with big smiles and hugs to volunteers, in order to attract more volunteers and donors. The funds this generates are then used for the exclusive benefit of those running the institutions instead of providing support so that the children could go back to living with family (cf. esp. points 2 & 3).

So why do we persist with institutional care? The most common objections to seeking alternatives are 1) the children would then have nowhere to go, and 2) even if they did find someone to take them it wouldn’t be safe. Neither of which are on the whole true. In most cases, the children in orphanages are actually not even orphans - their parents are still alive! In Cambodia for example, a recent statistic suggests that 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans, they’re just from poor families. For the minority of those whose parents have either passed away or are genuinely unfit to look after their children, most of these have relatives who could take care of them. We call this foster care or adoption and think it’s our idea, but as I laid out in Lesson 1, with the high view of family and community that these cultures have, this is exactly the methodology they were using prior to colonialisation, minus all the red tape and academic jargon.

Undoubtedly some readers may be uncomfortable, perhaps even angered, by this comparison of orphanages with Cane Toads. This is understandable. Well-meaning Christians have invested much time, finance, love and care into these programs, and may have even created lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with some of these children.

While this may be true, it is not considering the full picture. Therefore is not good enough in and of itself to justify our persistence with orphanages. The question that must be asked is, “Do those results outweigh what would have been possible for the child, their family and their community if they had been raised in a normal family?” All the statistics say that such cases would be extremely rare.

Fortunately, unlike the toads there is a plausible solution to this mess - deinstitutionalisation. Because of the generations of disruption and poverty these nations have endured, it’s true that these adoption and foster relationships often need some additional support.  However, what may surprise you is that the cost of such support in most cases is actually less than what it would be to support the child in an institution, yet the benefits are incomparable.

It’s time that we looked past the good intentions of institutional care and assessed whether it really achieves what we actually want, that is life and life to the full for the children, their family and community.

Part 1: What's the link between orphanages and cane toads?

by Matthew Jarlett, Harvest Bible College

Sugar cane is an alien species to Australia, imported here to exploit a perceived lucrative economic opportunity.  However, the tiny native Grey-Backed Cane Beetle almost put an end to that dream as it decimated the new plantations. The proposed solution? The American Cane Toad. Despite biosecurity concerns which initially limited its introduction in 1935, only one year later the possible wealth to be had proved irresistible, the flood gates were opened and the toads spread rapidly. They are now considered an exemplar invasive pest. They have devastated the biodiversity of North East Australia, and continue to spread west with no plausible eradication plan in sight.

There’s much we can learn from this sad story. But this article applies these lessons specifically to institutional care in developing nations, a.k.a. orphanages.

Orphanages had a long history in Europe prior to western colonialism, but were a foreign concept in non-western nations. Traditionally, non-western cultures are what’s known as collectivist cultures, i.e. they have a significantly higher view of family and community than individualist western cultures. So much so that the idea of isolating a child from its extended family and community as a solution to poverty would never have even entered their mind.

So where did orphanages in the developing world come from? Westerners imported them. Generally they did so as a sincere expression of compassion in response to the poverty (or at least perceived poverty) they witnessed. Orphanages seemed like a “normal” and rational solution. However, like sugar cane, in most cases this poverty wasn’t native either. Rather, it was the direct result of colonialisation which set out to exploit the lucrative economic opportunities of the developing world. In so doing, it wreaked havoc on the health, cultural, economic, and social fabric of these nations leaving many natives in a state of poverty or vulnerability to it.

Unfortunately, orphanages, rather than solving these problems, only exacerbated them. Orphanages isolated the children from extended family and community, removing the latter groups’ ability to provide care. This often caused irreparable damage to all parties given their identity and self confidence are grounded in these relationships and functions.  They also significantly impaired the children’s mental, social and educational development. This meant that even as adults, they could not contribute to the community as well as they would have. Nor could they pass on traditional skills to future generations, thus entrenching cycles of poverty.  This was simply never anticipated by the well-meaning-folk who imported the orphanages.

What’s worse, is that all of these affected areas are now recognised as core ingredients required for empowering communities to overcome poverty.  This, in conjunction with acknowledged human rights issues, has led to the global consensus that children should only ever be put in institutional care as an absolute last resort, and even then, only on a temporary basis (Cf. UN’s Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children esp. section II. B Alternative care).

The lesson here is that like the Cane Toad, orphanages are a foreign solution to a problem caused by foreign interference. And like the toad, despite good intentions the damage they caused has been severe.

Undoubtedly this article has made some readers uncomfortable, perhaps even angry. This is understandable, and a response will be made to this issue in the follow up article tomorrow. 

I volunteered in an orphanage and why I think you shouldn't..

As we drove away we could hear the sobbing of children fade off into the distance. Just moments ago their fingers were being pried away from the sides of the jeep as we tried to make our exit. Some children stood in silence with blank stares while others wept uncontrollably.  We sat in the back of the jeep in silence as we tried to process the scene that had just played out. One of my fellow volunteers broke the silence by simply saying “What have we done?”

What had we done? We had spent 6 weeks playing, teaching and caring for kids living in a children’s home in the Philippines. Every year millions of people travel around the world to volunteer, and orphanages are one of the most popular destinations. I had provided those kids with hours of English practice, hugs and laughter but in that moment as we drove away it finally hit me it wasn’t worth it, for those children I had caused more harm than good.

Six weeks earlier, when we arrived the scene was vastly different. As our jeep entered the gates the kids ran towards us, smiling, squealing and hugging us the moment we stepped out of the vehicle. Over the next few weeks I had an amazing time walking the kids to school, helping them with their homework while also planning for child rights training we would run with kids from local schools. From a young age I can recall hearing about the orphanages my church and school supported and listening to the stories of returned missions teams. I dreamed that I too could be one of those people going out to ‘change the world’, which was presented from the platform as being relatively simple, unambiguous and rewarding. And now here I was at 19 years old experiencing what I had once dreamt about. However achieving ones dream always comes at a cost, what I didn’t know yet was there was a cost to reaching this dream but I wouldn’t be the one to pay.

Slowly as the weeks progressed I began having more and more questions. It all began when a young boy started crying after he was caught stealing from my room. He was tired and ashamed and like most kids he wanted just his mum, he wanted to go home. The manager responded by saying that moving back home might be possible, which confused me as I thought that these children had no parents or were unable to stay with them due to abuse or abandonment. Why was this boy here if he wanted to and could potentially go home?

Questions like this kept nagging me during the whole trip. When each of us was given a topic to speak about at the training I was handling the ‘Right to Family and Alternative Care’. As I researched I found information regarding the damaging impacts residential care had on children. But these children in front of me were always happy, gave us long hugs and lived in nice buildings on a beautiful property. How could this place be harmful to children?

During the trip we had a home stay in a nearby village where the kids there ran from house to house freely greeting different aunts, grandparents and cousins. There were no guards at front gates, young children sat on their mother’s laps and there was always a watchful eye of a nearby relative making sure the children were safe and happy. Life was so vastly different between that experienced by the kids back in the children centre. I asked myself, ‘Where would I want to grow up’?

As the trip continued more things began to concern me, such as the sibling groups separated, the favouritism the volunteers unwittingly showed certain children or the constant questions the children asked about former volunteers who had come and gone, promising to send letters that never arrived.

After our dramatic departure I could no longer silence the nagging feeling inside me that being part of the revolving door of volunteers in these kids lives was not in their best interest. Yes, these kids, many of whom had experienced neglect and trauma, needed lots of attention and care, but they shouldn’t have received this love that they so desperately needed from me. For as I turned back one last time as the jeep left the property I knew that I would never see those kids again. These kids needed people who could provide them with long-term healthy attachments. Instead in a matter of days a new group of volunteers would arrive and these children, so desperate for love and attention, would once again embrace them and be devastated as another jeep full of people drove away. I had become one more person in an ongoing cycle of abandonment for those children.