Why not a family?

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

What would be better than building orphanages in developing countries? You might be surprised at how many alternatives would be better, starting with grandma if we’d give her a chance.


Imagine a grandmother. She is raising three grandchildren and struggles to feed them. They need uniforms and books to attend school, so she scrapes together enough money to send one. Then her neighbor tells her about an orphanage where the children are never in want and says it will be in the children’s best interests to send them there.

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What will she do? She feels unfit by comparison. She resists, but one day when there is not enough rice for dinner, she gives in and takes them. The children grow up in the children’s home well fed and attending school, but in time they become distant. They are uncomfortable in their grandmother’s home; they even feel awkward visiting their former friends and community. There is no mattress to sleep on, the food is different, and the neighbors treat them with a mixture of disdain and envy.

At the orphanage volunteers come and go in a steady stream, and there is hardly a dull moment. It’s like another world. And then one day it’s time to leave. The children, now young adults, no longer fit in with their extended family and former community. But in this society family and community relationships are all important. They feel cut off, afraid, and alone.

What is wrong here? The scene is repeated again and again: grandparents, aunts, uncles, single mothers, and even married couples are sending children to orphanages for a perceived better life.

Today eighty percent of children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent, and the vast majority have relatives who could care for them. And these numbers are consistent with worldwide statistics. Ninety percent of Cambodians surveyed in 2005 felt a poor family should send a child to an orphanage if the family couldn’t afford to send the child to school. Families are turning over their responsibilities to organizations and and being torn apart.

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But Cambodia is in crisis, so they say. Actually, Cambodia is slowly on the rise. Since 2005 the number of orphans in Cambodia has been shrinking. But the number of orphanages increased by 75 percent between 2005 and 2010. Each and every orphanage in Cambodia has staff and buildings supported by foreign donors. Many have sponsorship programs and donors can give online.. To exist they need to keep bringing in children.

There is a better way!

Save the Children, UNICEF, and a host of respected secular and Christian organizations worldwide are advocating a shift away from putting kids in institutions toward alternative care, also known as family-based care.

Family-based care means keeping children displaced from their own parents with relatives (kinship care) or in loving substitute families (foster care). It also indicates a need for programs that support and restore families, so families will not break apart due to the stresses of poverty or when a crisis strikes.

Today there are grandmothers in Cambodia raising their grandchildren. In some cases they are supported by organizations that provide them with rice, cover the minimum cost of school, and send social workers each month to check on them. These programs require organization and staff, but supporting a child to live with a family still costs a fraction of what it takes to raise the same child in an orphanage, and being raised in a healthy family is best for children.

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A rural family working together during the rice harvest

Some people express concern about losing the educational services that orphanages provide for poor children. Why not fund day programs that work cooperatively with poor families within their local communities? In fact, the government of Cambodia is encouraging orphanages to transform themselves into community centers that strengthen families.

Here is a vision with a healthy future for Cambodian families and society, and it’s better for the caregivers and aid organizations, too.

Note: Visit our learning center for documentation to support the claims and statistics in the essay. For statistics related to Cambodia, click on the “regional” tab and see the reports listed there.

Photos by Andy Gray

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Andy Gray

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray hosts and writes for Uniting for Children. He lives in Cambodia with his family where he works with Alongsiders International. He wrote Home, a Cambodian story and created the video “Why Not a Family?.
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