Why Orphanages Are Part of the Problem, Not the Solution

Published on: June 05, 2017

Are orphanages necessarily the best answer to care and provide for children without parents? Human rights lawyer Wanchi Tang provides a deeper understanding of the complex issue of ‘institutionalizing’ children. By Wanchi Tang   For ages, well-intending people have been volunteering for and/or donating to orphanages in order to help out those in need. However, orphanages can be problematic. It is not easy to argue a case that is so contrary to the seemingly intrinsic good of helping underprivileged children. But, unfortunately, orphanages are a part of the problem and are in effect separating children from their families.

The orphan myth

Institutions or residential care homes for children are often referred to as ‘orphanages’ even when the children are not technically orphans. Research from Save the Children has shown that 80% of children in these childcare institutions have at least one parent who could care for them.[1] To think that these children do not have a parent to care for them is a false assumption.

Severe negative impact on children’s development

But then, could orphanages be an answer to the 20% that do not have at least one parent to care for them? For decades, studies have been done on the effects of institutional care and we have learned that institutional care brings with it a severe negative impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. For example, young children in institutional care are more likely to suffer from poor health, physical underdevelopment, and deterioration in brain growth, developmental delay, and emotional attachment disorders.[2]
Instead of donating or supporting orphanages, support organizations that work on preventing children from being separated from their families.
Institutional care should, therefore, be the ultimate last resort and only temporary. However, in reality, this is most often not the case.

Donating, visiting or volunteering harms those you want to help

In Cambodia and Nepal, orphanages have become attractions.[3] In Ghana and Uganda, the number of orphanages increased, not due to an increase in orphans, but due to the demand from volunteers.[4] When volunteer work is driven by profit and the demands of volunteers and visitors, instead of the best interest of the child, there is a big problem. Despite the harmful effects to their development, children are taken away from their family and kept in institutions.[5]
…institutional care brings with it a severe negative impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development
Stays of long periods in an institution make it harder for children to assimilate back into families and communities, it also denies them access to the life-long attachments and community support systems that families relationships and communities can provide. The coming and going of visitors and volunteers lead to children developing attachment disorders, meaning they are unable to form genuine and affectionate bonds. This is a basis for unhealthy relationships in the future. While the intention is to help these children, the undesired result is that harmful situations are, in effect, perpetuated.

Support solutions instead

The reality is that poverty is the main driving force behind children in institutions. Instead of donating or supporting orphanages, support organizations that work on preventing children from being separated from their families. Support programs that focus on poverty alleviation through income generation, education and training, and help keeping families together with parenting guidance, social protection, and child protection.
Children are not tourist attractions
If you want to help children that are already in institutional care, support organizations and programs that work on (re)integrating them with their (extended) families or family-based alternative care. Take ‘the time to seek out programs and interventions in which children return to their homes at the end of the day.’[6]

Teaching your child about privilege and poverty

Showing your children the reality of others could provide a valuable lesson about privilege and poverty. However, as the Cambodian child protection organization Friends-International rightly campaigned: ‘children are not tourist attractions’. Some other ways to make children think about different realities can be by visiting different neighborhoods, communities or countries; watching age-appropriate documentaries together; encouraging friendships with children from different backgrounds (in the broad sense of the term). The aim is to focus on empathy and understanding, rather than sympathy.  


1 Save the Children (2014), Policy Brief Institutional Care: The Last Resort. 2 Kevin Browne (2009), The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care’. 3 The Sydney Morning Herald (2015), Don’t fall into Cambodia’s orphanage trap, Australians told(Lindsay Murdoch); The Rising Nepal (2014), Stop The Orphanage Business (Ramesh Danekhu); The Independent (2011), Cambodia’s orphanages target the wallets of well-meaning tourists (Robert Carmichael); The Phnom Penh Post (2007), Orphanage tourism: a questionable industry (Tracey Shelton and Sam Rith). 4 The Guardian (2016), Volunteers are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. They need to stop (Mark Riley); Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare and UNICEF, ‘National Plan of Action for Orphans and Vulnerable Children – Ghana’ (June 2010-2012); IRIN (2009), Protecting children from orphan-dealers. 5 Friends-International (2015), ‘ChildSafe Movement – Don’t Create More Orphans’; The Sydney Morning Herald (2015), Cambodia: too many orphanages, not enough orphans (Lindsay Murdoch); The Guardian (2014), Cambodia: child protection workers call for end to ‘orphanage tourism’ (Helen Davidson); The Sydney Morning Herald (2013), Stealing a generation: Cambodia’s Unfolding Tragedy (Lindsay Murdoch). 6 Orphanages Not the Solution, ‘Alternatives’ (orphanages.no/alternative2.html)  

About the Author

Wanchi is a human rights lawyer from the Netherlands with a LL.M. from Maastricht University and a M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She specialized in child rights and child protection and has about ten years of professional experience working for academic and research institutions, NGOs and the UN. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, (under)water sports, learning to fly, and photography (instagram.com/worldwidewanchi).
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