WHAT’S THE LINK BETWEEN ORPHANAGES AND CANE TOADS?

Lesson 1

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 below.


Lesson 2

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.


Matthew Jarlett from Harvest Bible College is featured on our blog this week, taking an in depth look at the history of orphanages in developing countries and how good intentions can often hurt those they're trying to help. It can be an uncomfortable and difficult issue, because many of us have visited, volunteered and supported orphanages and care strongly about helping vulnerable children. Yet it's an issue that must be unpacked if we're to help without hurting.

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