The Blog

Be my friend before you try to give me something

Written by on January 25, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

I read an excellent article at The Collegian about volunteering and voluntourism.  Really nice example of storytelling to teach important lessons.

Here is my favorite moment. The writer has been experiencing development work in different parts of Africa for months, and one day she sits down to a meal with a local chief in the Saharan interior.

“Cheikh Mohammed, do your friends give you gifts?” I started in Arabic, breaking off a piece of village bread.

“Of course, it’s a friendly thing to do.” He adjusted his posture on the scratchy woven carpet.

“Now if I’m coming from America to give you gifts, am I your friend?”

His face darkened, and he chewed a great deal before he spoke.

“Heather, a donation is a very dangerous thing to give away. Your American world is filled with so many items and material goods, that you might not understand the gravity of handing something for free to someone who has never been handed anything.”

I watched him deliberately dip his bread into goat sauce and carefully chew, knowing that he would explain himself.

“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

I chewed on his Arabic words while he finished his bread.

“But poverty and hunger still exist, and our morality moves us to feed and clothe,” I broke into his silence.

“You asked me if my friends give me gifts,” he said. “Make sure that you are my friend. Make certain you understand me, first. Learn my strengths, my heart, my efforts. Once we are established in brotherhood, then yes, send me a present, one that won’t hurt me to open.”

“You see, Heather,” he set his meat down to look closely at me, ”We are not weak. We are not underdeveloped. If you believe we must be helped, look more closely. We are content in our hearts, affectionate to each other, and attentive to our souls. Perhaps the greater need is for us to be helping you.”

Our desire to help comes from good intentions. Probably with mixed motivations. But in our rush to “do” and “save” we can miss what is more important – relationship, respect, friendship, seeing the humanity of the other – and in so doing run a great risk of trampling on the people and communities we meant to help.

The new creative tensions for change

Written by on July 9, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Appreciate these thoughts from David Brooks in this NYT op-ed. Consider (bold added):

Sometimes creativity happens in pairs, duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.

When you see creative people like that, you see that they don’t flee from the contradictions; they embrace dialectics and dualism. They cultivate what Roger Martin called the opposable mind — the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.

If they are religious, they seek to live among the secular. If they are intellectual, they go off into the hurly-burly of business and politics. Creative people often want to be strangers in a strange land. They want to live in dissimilar environments to maximize the creative tensions between different parts of themselves.

Today we live in a distinct sort of creative environment. People don’t so much live in the contradiction between competing worldviews. We live in a period of disillusion and distrust of institutions.

Disillusioned. Distrusting institutions. Hopeful??

Some creative people dive into these contradictions. I get that. I feel like I’m swimming in them and being buffeted by the waves, and what next!?

This has created two reactions. Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.

Can we relate this to development work and to working with vulnerable children and families?

“Some withdraw back into the purity of their subcultures.” Check. We see this all the time. Organizations and individual leaders pull into shells in the name of differences (or to preserve uniqueness). With support from donors and those who align with them they may continue that way indefinitely.

“Others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to correct.” It’s not so much “rotting institutions” in the developing world. We have fresh but corrupt and incompetent institutions, and we have organizational/religious/philosophical fiefdoms.

But some cross the lines to engage with seemingly contradictory forces, because they hope for change.

For me this means having friends who are orphanage directors or involved with orphanages and partnering with others to raise awareness about family-based care. It means caring about what is right and best for children and engaging as a learner and partner with people who think differently, because the best hope for real change is many different kinds of people working together.

What does this look like for you?

No easy answers

Written by on July 8, 2014 in The Blog with 2 Comments
The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

Yesterday I read about a Cambodian “mother” in Koh Kong who chained up a four-year-old girl in her care for eight hours a day while she went to work.  She said it was to protect the girl from drowning or wandering away while she was at work. The girl had been handed over to the woman years ago by her biological mother as collateral for a loan.

When informed of the woman’s arrest, her years of chaining the girl to a post, and the 4-year-old’s move to a children’s shelter, the girl’s biological mother, who lives in Preah Vihear province, said she could not take back and care for her daughter…

The article is about child abuse in Cambodia and an overall lack of concern and awareness. That the girl had been signed over as collateral on a loan wasn’t even central to the story. Variations of that happen all the time, usually involving domestic work in return for food and lodging and, in the best cases, attending school. This was a worst case situation.

After reading about this girl, I turned to another troubling article in The Guardian, Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia’s shocking trade.  This article is about  rich and powerful men who prey on helpless girls.  It’s easy to label that evil and other choice words. But then there are the parents who sell their daughters, desperate for money, presented with a pot of gold. Enough money, some might imagine, to buy a new start for their families. Some don’t seem to comprehend the enormity of what they are doing.


Then I read an article criticizing the wave of orphanage closures starting last year in Cambodia, including efforts to reunify children from the closed orphanages with their natural families.

The author wrote about a Cambodian girl whose orphanage was closed.

Pisey is one of thousands of young people our research team has worked with around the world. She is 17 and working in a karaoke bar in Battambang, Cambodia. There she serves drinks and is required to exchange sex for money. She longs for her loving family.

Pisey had such a family a few years ago, but it wasn’t with her parents. Her mother and father were alcoholics who abused Pisey and her two younger sisters, leaving them to eat from a garbage pile. A social worker finally intervened and persuaded the parents to move them to a local orphanage. The orphanage provided what the girls had been missing: love and security with a consistent caregiver who lived with them, along with food, clean clothes and schooling. The girls found a loving family there.

Unfortunately, not long ago Cambodia began shutting down orphanages to reunite children with their biological families, so the three girls returned home. Pisey was not allowed to continue with school but rather had to begin earning money for her parents and her sisters’ school fees. Being young and without a degree, her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.

 The essentials ring true. Most children in orphanages are not orphans, but they do come from poor families, and many of their families have problems. When an orphanage is closed and the children and youth are sent home, there are obvious risks. The Cambodian government has had organizations working diligently in cases when orphanages are closed to guide and monitor the reintegration process, but it’s extremely challenging work. Many children are smoothly reintegrated, but not all.

But here are a few thoughts.

  1. Very few orphanages have been closed in Cambodia. An orphanage has to have significant and serious issues going on to earn that distinction. To say that Pisey had a loving family in an orphanage slated for closure is leaving out lots of information. It was likely a bad place.
  2. The author says Pisey was 17. Her choice to become a karaoke girl calls into question what was happening with her identity and character during those years in the orphanage. She may have been pressured by her family, or she may have balked at a regular job or wanted more money than she could normally earn.  It’s troubling what she did. Perhaps she succumbed to family pressure and the reintegration failed. Once again, we have the broad outlines of her story without the important details. “Her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.” Give me a break.
  3. It isn’t supposed to happen like this. Nobody wants to close an orphanage and take responsibility for all the children inside. That’s why only the very worst ones are forcibly closed. Closing an orphanage is a worst case scenario and nobody wins. Ideally, to reduce the overabundance of orphanages in Cambodia, responsible orphanages will voluntarily phase themselves out by not accepting new children and finishing the job with the ones in their care. The government has asked such orphanages to transform themselves into non-residential community and family-support centers.

All of these articles are about poverty and families making poor choices. There are no easy answers.

Cambodia has deep-rooted problems affecting children and their families. Orphanages are not easy answers.  Family-based care is not an easy answer either.  Reintegration. Restoring families. Prevention. Not easy. It’s going to take a lot of people working well together to put things right. That includes families and leaders in communities, organizations of all kinds, and government.

One thing is certain: things will get better only as Cambodian families and communities become stronger.


Living next to an orphanage

Written by on July 2, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments
The view from their shared roof

The view from their shared roof

Here’s a story about a family who arrived at their first home in Cambodia and discovered they would be living next to an orphanage.

The story caught my attention, and after a little poking around online, I realized the family lives not far from from me. I’ve often passed by and seen children and volunteers milling around outside and wondered what sort of place it was.

Our family of six first arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight, and some friends drove us to the house we had rented on our survey trip. It’s a row house – ten multi-story dwellings that are connected, side by side.

At daybreak, an orphanage moved in to the house next to us… I didn’t know anything about orphans or orphanages  in Cambodia, so I had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like to live next to an orphanage. I would soon learn.

Every orphanage is different, and the one in this story appears to be a bad one. But it’s not atypical of orphanages in Phnom Penh. It was chaotic. Staff were not always around. They had 40 children and the staff living in a space normally used by one extended Cambodian family. There was obvious potential for abuse. Nonetheless, it was frequented by (paying) volunteers  and doubtless funded by foreign donors.

The volunteers came and went with tearful farewells. They talked about feeling so loved by the kids, and often they promised to come back again.

Those declarations gave us pause. How can you promise such a thing?? What makes you sure that you can, or will, without a doubt, return? And doesn’t your statement about being loved betray your own emotional needs, rather than the reception of true love from children in a revolving-door orphanage??

There were overwhelming moments with seemingly nobody in charge. Kids and volunteers had to fend for themselves.

And then:

It wasn’t until Khmer New Year, though, that we realized that virtually none of the children next door were orphans. The entire orphanage closed down for the holiday, which is the most important holiday of the year. No one stayed at the house that week. Not a single soul. All the children went to their hometowns in the countryside, and many of them actually still had living parents. They were not orphans at all.

But it’s good for the kids, right? Gives them opportunities? Makes them better?

 Read the full post here and judge for yourself.

Why Not A Family?

Written by on June 8, 2014 in Featured Videos, The Blog with 0 Comments

You may be surprised at all you didn’t know about orphans and orphanages after watching this eye-opening video made in Cambodia. Many people after watching this video agree it’s time to change our methods of caring for vulnerable children in the poorest places around the world.

Volunteering and orphanages in Nepal, the dark side

Written by on June 4, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Going to visit a beautiful country? Want to make it better by visiting an orphanage? Think twice. Volunteering can have negative consequences as shown in this excellent video (above) and article at The Guardian. Volunteers in Nepal are being used by unscrupulous orphanages and voluntourism companies to the detriment of Nepali children and families.

When Dorota Nvotova, a young Slovakian, began volunteering at Happy Home in 2008, she was so moved by the children’s plight that she found a sponsor for every one of them. She raised about €150,000 (£122,000) for the home, but it was only later that she discovered the real reason its owner was so eager to attract foreign volunteers.

Whoa! Good job, but…

“It’s definitely about him making money. For him, it’s a business,” she said. “Whenever volunteers came he always tried to impress them and then they started fundraising for him.”

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to lure children and volunteers into even bad orphanages with a veneer of educational programs and good salesmanship.

Philip Holmes, chief executive of Freedom Matters, the charity that instigated the inquiry into Happy Home, said that in the worst cases this practice constituted child trafficking.

“Once a child enters an orphanage, he or she seems to become the property of the orphanage owner … [In effect], they become prisoners of the orphanage,” he said. “[They] use the children as an income source, through the sponsorship of children who are presented as being orphans when they are not … and through the exploitation of overseas volunteers.”

The challenge for travelers is that it’s often very hard to tell the difference between a good orphanage and a bad one without spending significant time there. Plus, evidence shows that short visits to orphanages are really not good for the kids anyway. Think carefully. If you’ve got to go, consider what skills you can offer and whether you can go for at least two months or more.

And why not spend some time learning more here at

A comic with a heart-touching twist

Written by on October 30, 2013 in The Blog with 0 Comments


Don’t you love how comic strips can put a finger on something important so quickly and lightly? Unmasking assumptions. Revealing truths we might have missed. This is a good moment to mention the artist who draws Po’s World (the comic featured on this site) has begun work on a longer version (to be called “Po & Ti”). The full story should run from 80 to 100 strips. Stay tuned!

The comic above was originally published in Spanish here: .

Can’t we support her to raise the child herself?

Written by on August 20, 2013 in The Blog with 2 Comments


Does it surprise you that eighty-percent of children living in orphanages worldwide have at least a living father or a mother? Research shows the majority of children in orphanages are there because of poverty.

It’s relatively easy to open an orphanage and fill it with kids. If you promise clothing, food, and an education, they will come, orphans or not.

It’s harder to restore families. You have to put in time to build relationships with the parents and community leaders. You need a team that includes qualified locals who can help families solve problems themselves, rather than relying on your resources to pay for quick solutions.

It’s much easier to start an orphanage. So why bother to support mothers and restore families instead?

Johnny Carr says we can do better

Written by on July 17, 2013 in Featured Videos, The Blog with 0 Comments

Too many times, the Western church, our solution has been to go and build an orphanage, and we’ve come up short by doing that. We’ve done something good, but we’ve not done the best.

Don’t miss this short video featuring Johnny Carr, author of Orphan Justice.  He’s very sensitive and kind with his words, but these are serious matters. Our choices, even when we’re sincerely trying to help, sometimes have unintended negative effects that impact vulnerable children and families in ways we didn’t anticipate — even tearing families apart. If we can do better, let’s not dwell on the past but figure out how to make the needed changes.

A growing awareness of the perils of rescuing orphans

Written by on June 26, 2013 in The Blog with 1 Comment

This article in USA Today  says The Christian Orphan Care Movement is a coalition with a purpose of caring for 150 million orphans, but most of the children classified as “orphans” have at least one parent (not to mention grandparents, aunts, uncles). What a relief to see an article exploring beyond good intentions to the facts. Journalists are becoming increasingly upfront about the complexities of “rescuing orphans.”

David Smolin and his wife adopted two girls from India who, it turned out, had been stolen from their parents. Smolin is the director of the Center for Children, Law and Ethics at Samford University in Birmingham. He concluded that “too much money and not enough regulation in international adoption led to corruption.” His was not an isolated case. The current trend in international adoptions — fueled by compassion for orphans — has led to unintended consequences, such as trafficking in babies.

Earlier this month, at the annual gathering of The Christian Alliance for Orphans, a “new” topic began edging toward center-stage: How do we support vulnerable children without removing them from their own families and communities.  It’s not a new topic at all, but what a breakthrough for it to be raised among people who have resisted the message for decades!

Meanwhile, international adoption numbers seem to be dropping (23,000 in 2004 to 8,668 in 2008). The United States has banned international adoptions from Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nepal and Ethiopia in order to prevent human trafficking . In Cambodia, where I live, “orphans babies” are big business (adoption is still allowed to Australia and other countries). Orphanages scramble for babies, and recruiters have been spotted at funerals confronting single-mothers and relatives offering to give their babies a better life.

Neither the smell of corruption nor the winds of change stopped U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from making a tour of Vietnam and Cambodia early this year to advocate for the lifting adoption bans for those countries. She met a solid wall of resistance in Cambodia, with both government leaders and NGO representatives telling her that: a) lifting the adoption ban would lead directly to human trafficking in babies, and b) very few babies would qualify for international adoption anyway.  (People somehow expect thousands of Cambodian babies are waiting for adoption, but a better estimate once local options are exhausted would be in the dozens.) Senator Landrieu finally erupted in anger toward the messengers, argued with them, and said they weren’t telling her what she wanted to hear. It’s a pity she didn’t want to hear the truth. It’s hard to seek compassion and justice while holding onto agendas. After returning from her trip, she delivered a glowing report about prospects for resuming international adoptions from Vietnam, but she was silent about Cambodia. We can only hope the safeguards that she reports will be in place inVietnam are a higher priority than delivering Vietnamese babies to America.


Speakers at the Christian Alliance for Orphans summit (May 2-3,2013)

To their credit, advocates from Bethany Christian Services have been voicing truths that need to be heard, including debunking the “150 million orphans” myth and calling for more money and energy to support keeping families together rather than pulling them apart. Most children worldwide in orphanages, and much of the international adoption market, is a result of poverty. There are not millions waiting to be rescued, but there are millions who could use a little help to stay in their own families, rather than a helping hand into an institution. For a good example of thoughtfulness on this subject, see Johnny Carr’s book, Orphan Justice, featured under “books” in the “Learning Center” section of this website. Johnny Carr is the National Director for Church Partnerships for Bethany Christian Services.

Too many Christians and Christian organizations continue to invest heavily in orphanages and to fuel international adoptions heedless of warnings and advice, even to the point of disregarding government policies and laws (as we have seen in Cambodia).  Yet we also thankfully see Christians and Christian organizations leading in the movement toward family-based care.