Anyone who visits our website frequently and reads it carefully will have noticed that two of our partner children’s homes had been removed from the program last year. In the past, we have repeatedly ended partnerships with projects and started new projects in order to meet our standards and to be able to ensure that our volunteers and interns are working in projects in which they can make meaningful contributions and which have a holistic value and understanding of “volunteering” as we do.
However, the recent development has an even deeper background.
We are sure that many of our volunteers and those who are interested in our program conduct a comprehensive research about volunteering beforehand. Sooner or later you will come across articles that critically question the topic of “volunteering in orphanages”. Orphanages in Africa, Latin America and Asia often have a bad reputation, are overrun, the leaders are accused of greed for profit and, in the worst case, even child trafficking. Many orphanages were only founded to make easy money, because after all, the pity business always works. It is also criticized that short-term volunteers quickly become caregivers for the often traumatized children and break the psyche of their protégés even more if they suddenly disappear from their life after a few weeks or months.
All of these are understandable points and will inevitably make you ponder. Do I really want to take this risk as a volunteer? Is it morally justified to work as a volunteer in a children’s home in Tanzania?
When we founded STEP Africa 6 years ago, we of course also dealt with this topic in depth and asked ourselves corresponding questions. At that time, however, we assumed that as a volunteer organization, which also acts directly on site and in personal contact with the projects, we can differentiate between the “good guys” and the “black sheep”. The past years – I, Kira, have been talking about the past 12 years since I first came to Tanzania as a volunteer – have shown us time and again how children in orphanages can grow into self-confident, independent and happy young adults. We had numerous great volunteers who set up great learning and leisure projects with the children in our partner children’s homes, sponsored children to attend good schools and made visible contributions towards the development of the respective institutions. A development that would not have been feasible if we had been dealing with corrupt and greedy children’s home managers!
Nevertheless, we have also come across the downsides way too often. We had to stop working with children’s homes whose number of children seemed to explode and whose leaders didn’t seem to have much more conversation topics than the next big donation. Such situations have always made us ponder. Can we continue to be responsible for working with children’s homes? As a volunteer organization, can we really presume to judge who is good and who is “bad”?
We had numerous conversations with institutions and local authorities, were disappointed and then pleasantly surprised again. Ultimately, however, we came to the conclusion that we no longer want to work with permanent care facilities for orphans. Against the background of the latest research and unfortunately too many negative experiences that we and so many others have had, we can no longer be responsible for working with such institutions. And the reason is actually quite simple:
Children belong in a family!
No matter where in the world, we all agree, right? A loving and caring family is a fundamental right for every child, regardless of the country in which they were born. Many international organizations such as LUMOS, founded by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (https://www.wearelumos.org/), are now committed to this. “Children belong in families, not orphanages”. Another NGO here in Tanzania, PAMOJA LEO, has also drafted a guide on what to look for in orphanages before thinking about supporting them:
A rethink has even taken place among the Tanzanian social services, which in the past have referred children to orphanages very quickly if they lost a parent or could not be cared for by the direct family. Because only a fraction of the children who live in orphanages are actually orphans. Many have family members, often even living parents. However, the family is often convinced that the children, if placed in an orphanage, have a better chance of a good life, maybe even find a school sponsor and then eventually support their family in the future. It seems to make sense out of necessity, but more than any education, a child needs permanent caregivers, love and security. It may be easier to support children in children’s homes, but supporting families is also not impossible, you just have to want it! Therefore, the social welfare office in Tanzania has started to reunite children in children’s homes with their families wherever possible. Numerous children’s homes have been closed, many still face closure, because they are often simply no longer needed.
What are alternatives to Orphanages?
Daycare centers, in our view, are the best alternative for children who only lived in or were at risk of being placed in children’s homes because of poverty or who were at risk of being accommodated at an orphanage but actually still have family members who love them and would like to have them live with them if they had the means to do so. In a daycare center, the children are cared for, have fixed meals and receive age-appropriate education, while their family members do not have to worry about caring for the child during the day and thus have time to regulate their own lives, go to work or continue their education themselves. We are currently working with a number of daycare centers that all do an amazing job.
Unfortunately there will always be children for whom reunification with the biological family, adoption or placement in a foster family are no options. Such children have to be looked after in small institutions that value firm family structures with house parents and permanent caregivers. SOS Children’s Villages are a famous example of this, but there are also numerous other institutions that follow this example. Large institutions with many children and few permanent caregivers will soon be a thing of the past.
Direct accommodation in a family is not always possible. For example, if the mother dies during childbirth, the father lives far away in a village and has more siblings to look after. In cases where professional care, especially for babies and toddlers, is not guaranteed, there must be temporary institutions that can step in and care for the children until the family has found a care solution or until the children are independent enough to join life in the village without further depending on milk formula or diapers. The Cradle of Love Baby Home is such a temporary care facility that only cares for babies and toddlers until they can move back to their family of origin or until they are adopted, provided that there are no known family members. This is a compromise, because of course it would be better for every child to grow up in a family without interruption and right from the start. But in a developing country like Tanzania with weak rural infrastructure and poor medical care outside of the metropolitan areas, this is not always feasible. However, since the Cradle of Love continues to strive to give children the best possible start and all of the above, we will continue to work with this institution for the time being.
Now we could still be accused of the fact that the children might develop attachment disorders with various volunteers coming and going. However, the staff key in the Cradle of Love is very good and the local nannies are the number 1 caregivers for the babies. Volunteers are welcome visitors who bring fun and variety to everyday life, which makes the demarcation clear here.
Since this topic is very important to us, we owe this explanation to all our friends and supporters and, of course, primarily to our volunteers.
We are aware that daycares are often equated with “teaching at a school” and not all volunteers feel like they are capable of the classical teaching. We have adapted our project descriptions and project categories to the new situation, because childcare is right at the top of the list of priorities in the daycare centers, especially since many institutions already take babies as little as 6 months. The areas of responsibility therefore do not differ much from working in an orphanage, with the decisive difference that our volunteers do not leave the children in an orphange in the evening, but rather return them to the arms of their family members 🙂
If you have any questions or feedback on this topic, I look forward to your messages at firstname.lastname@example.org