14 November 2012

Do No Harm

As promised, here is a follow-up to my post about orphanages, aid, donations, expats, and Africa.

After writing down my scattered thoughts on this complicated subject, I went looking for people who have spent years considering how best to help vulnerable children in developing nations.  Lucky for Mama Congo, we have friends who have friends who know folks who have considerable knowledge, experience, and ideas on the topic.

The first person we talked to (in what will be a little "Mama Congo Chats" series) was Everett Ressler.

Multiple felines or a set of informal conversations?

Everett is someone I've know for a long while as mainly a tireless handyman, teller of magical stories, and father of two of my best friends.  He is also, however, an international researcher working on humanitarian issues, including such topics as the care and protection of children in situations of war, and the care and protection of unaccompanied children in war, refugee and natural disasters.

I asked him the three questions I posed in my last post:

1.) Why not orphanages?  They LOVE it when I visit!  The kids hug me and hold my hand and don't want me to leave.  The people running the orphanage thank me every time I bring toys and clothes for the kids.  How can this possibly be bad?

 2.) Isn't doing something better than doing nothing?  Even if I just make one day brighter for one child, isn't that making a positive difference in the life of an orphan?
 3.) I'm living in this impoverished country and I can't just sit back in comfort and do nothing.  What CAN I do to help?

And this is what he had to say:

First, anyone who has the sensibilities or humanity to see and feel for children in difficulties circumstances, and is willing to do something, is a "god-send" for most of us walk by, or close the windows to such them out.  That compassion should be encouraged, for in all the world, children without the protection of a family are the most vulnerable to every type of deprivation and abuse - everywhere.

Secondly, it is important to understand why institutions/orphanages are NOT in the best interests of children.  What we know is that there are THREE most fundamental elements for children to have a fighting chance in life:

1.  Continuous care by care givers - children who have no continuous care giver or are passed from one care giver to another as occurs in orphanages have extraordinary difficulties to overcome

2.   Age appropriate care (babies need to be cared for like babies in family - held, talked to, touched, etc; at each age, children and adolescents need the kind of care appropriate to that age

3.  Being cared for/loved uniquely as no other. 

By the very nature of orphanages, they fail consistently on all three counts.  Commonly the hidden culture and life experience within the orphanage is one in which children are not only deprived what children need for healthy development, but live in a very abusive environment from other older or stronger children and much more often than assumed by the adults themselves.

There is no question but that there are many children in need of basic services and support, who live on the street or in other horrific conditions.  The question is what to do.  There are no easy solutions.  In the many ways people around the world are grappling with failed families, leaving children on their own, but one may think of several categories of activities:

1Prevention - the best interventions are those that work to protect children from falling out of families

2.  Mitigation - those measures that attempt to get children back into their families, including support to families and children if essential

3.  Temporary/non-institutional care - making certain some short term arrangement is available to protect and support children while some longer term solution is found.  Long term non-institutional commitment and care arrangements.

"Do no harm" should remain a principle.  Read the experience around the world about orphanages.  Encourage people to look at unintended consequences - whether the charity being offered is causing more parents to give up their children, or the orphanage to not go beyond collecting money and things.  Support preventive/family support programmes.  Encourage local community engagement/ownership.  Support programmes that try to get children back into families, and have dedicated monitoring and child protection systems.  Report and publicly make known the worst institutions where overt abuse or neglect is occurring (terrible things are to be seen).  Be careful about providing resources because it continues to encourage institution grow, which is often a money making scheme at the core, but until other alternatives are found for the children in institutions, do all possible to help find individual care arrangements - one child at a time.

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