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Opinion: How to Really Help Children Abroad

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A U.S. military member interacts with orphans at Saint Vincent Orphanage of Niamey during Flintlock 2018 in Niamey, Niger. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Heather Doppke/79th Theater Sustainment Command. Nigeria, 2018.

A U.S. military member interacts with orphans at Saint Vincent Orphanage of Niamey during Flintlock 2018 in Niamey, Niger. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Heather Doppke/79th Theater Sustainment Command. Nigeria, 2018. (CC BY 4.0)

Second of two articles.

People in wealthy countries have a lot of good will, time and money to help vulnerable children in poor countries. Too often, though, these resources are squandered — or even end up doing harm. Last week I reported on how volunteers from wealthy countries perpetuate a harmful system of orphanages in poor countries. I also wrote about a program in Costa Rica that worked with churches to establish foster care and family reunification programs as alternatives.

The internet has made it very easy for unscrupulous orphanages to attract volunteers and donors, and for volunteers to continue raising funds through blog posts and Facebook pages — often with the ubiquitous orphan in a selfie.

But a large and growing group of development charities like Catholic Relief Services, Unicef and other United Nations agencies, campaign groups like Disability Rights International and Christian advocates for family care are successfully changing the practices of tourism companies, churches and development agencies. The Australian foreign affairs department, for example, now actively discourages Australian voluntourism in orphanages.

For sure, every backpacker on a volunteer trip and Christian on a short-term mission to help children wants to do as much good as possible. So what can donors and volunteers do?

Drop the idea of “saving” people.

An influential series of books by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, beginning with “When Helping Hurts,” has persuaded many churches to rethink their short-term missions. The authors argue for abandoning terms commonly used by church volunteers, like “rescuing” people or “bringing hope.” Even the term “mission” is not helpful, they say. (In secular circles, these terms are often called the Great White Savior complex.) When we travel to countries we know nothing about and perform work we are unqualified to do, we reinforce the idea that local people are helpless and need privileged people from America or other developed nations to solve their problems. And that message is counterproductive for fighting poverty.

Mr. Corbett and Mr. Fikkert recommend that churches start thinking of volunteer service trips as ways for people from different cultures to learn alongside one another. Also, they recommend that the goal change from relief work — doing things to and for people — to development work, which acknowledges that these are long-term issues that must be solved locally, by tapping into people’s strengths to help them solve their own problems. All missions should support, and be invited by, local organizations or ministries that are doing effective poverty alleviation, they write.

Step away from the baby.

Everyone loves to hug babies. But that prioritizes the volunteer’s emotional needs over the child’s best interests. This is especially true for children in orphanages, who have already been abandoned. “People actually can do harm to a child by building attachment bonds and ripping them again and again by coming and going,” said Jedd Medefind, the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. “We are seeking to shift people from the experience of directly holding and caring for children to providing support, encouragement and training to primary caregivers and others who will be serving long after visitors are gone.”

The Christian Alliance’s guide for short-term volunteers working with children recommends that they support, not supplant, a parent or long-term caregiver as a “hero” in the child’s life. And they should have no contact at all with children under 3 years old.

Volunteer with community programs.

Instead of working in an orphanage, volunteers can work as teachers’ aides. They can help local churches with their activities. They can help run art or sports or other events for children in the community.

The company Projects Abroad, which matches volunteers to opportunities, stopped placing people in orphanages this year. Jessi Warner, the chief operating officer, said that when potential customers requested an orphanage placement, the company explained why these were harmful and offered them a volunteer experience in a community program. She said the company lost no business.

Fund the move to family care.

Good family care requires trained professionals and a system to investigate abuse, locate parents or other relatives, recruit and train foster families, help families to solve their problems and monitor how children are doing.

We do a terrible job with this in America. So imagine the challenge facing poor countries where there are very few social workers and psychologists, and where governments are willing to spend practically nothing on child welfare.

“There’s huge pressure on government to reduce the number of children in residential care — as if that were the be-all and end-all of improving quality,” said Karen Spencer, the founder and chief executive of Whole Child International. “We must build a new system before we dismantle the other one.”

While Whole Child believes that family care is best, the group opposes what Ms. Spencer calls “reckless deinstitutionalization.” She said that some African countries are simply taking children out of orphanages and putting them on a bus to their home.

Where will that new system come from? Governments are crucial. But the money in the current system is in orphanages. The best of these orphanages are expanding to include family reunification and foster care programs. (The organization Faith to Action has published a manual on how to do this.) It’s expensive work.

One orphanage that’s doing this is Oasis in Guatemala, run by a Christian organization, Kids Alive International. It houses girls who have been victims of sexual violence. Oasis provides intense therapy to help them recover from their trauma. It also works — with remarkable success — to get the abusers out of the girls’ homes and prosecute them.

Seven years ago, Oasis hired a social worker to develop a program to work with girls’ families, so that the girls could go home once the abusers were gone. It supports, counsels and monitors the families and helps them start small businesses.

Corbey Dukes, the director, said Oasis has been able to reunite about half of the girls with their mothers or another relative.

But for some girls, their own family isn’t an option, so Mr. Dukes went to Casa Viva in Costa Rica to learn about foster care. Guatemala is just starting a foster care program. “It’s focused on young kids, mostly toddlers and babies,” Mr. Dukes said. Few families want teenagers. So far, he’s put one girl in foster care. He anticipates having seven or eight with foster families soon.

Family care will be a long time in coming. For some children, it never will.

“Last night, the court sent us a 14-year-old girl with newborn twins,” Mr. Dukes told me last week. “It is tragic. However, there are no foster families in Guatemala prepared for this profile.” He said Oasis will try to find safe family care for her, but in the meantime, she will stay at the orphanage. “Until Guatemala moves from around 60 accredited foster families to literally thousands of families, residential care is the best alternative to many tragic situations,” he said.

So it’s important to do whatever is possible to make orphanage care better. Next month, Whole Child will begin a nationwide project with the government of El Salvador to improve care in orphanages, as well as to broaden their scope to include family-based care, reunification and monitoring.

Orphanages will begin putting children in age-mixed groups with caregivers who follow them as they grow, which builds more lasting attachments. The program will teach caregivers how to have meaningful interaction with each child. These changes don’t cost much, beyond the training. (A pilot project in five orphanages in Nicaragua had excellent results.)

If you must go, support the staff.

The role of donors in helping orphanages move toward family care is evident. But is there a place for short-term volunteers?

Elli Oswald, the interim executive director of Faith to Action, believes that such volunteers are never appropriate in orphanages. (I agree, if only to keep a consistent “don’t volunteer in orphanages” message. There are exceptions, but they are few and hard to distinguish from afar.)

Mr. Dukes, however, said that volunteers are necessary — as long as they focus on the staff and not the children.

Oasis’ short-term volunteers provide services to the staff, such as helping with retreats, and do construction projects. “Of course, you do not need an M.B.A. to understand that any service project could be done cheaper by a Guatemalan laborer,” Mr. Dukes said.

Volunteers get one formal supervised activity with the girls, such as a game or craft activity and a barbecue, and sometimes also can play basketball or soccer with the girls.

Consider staying home and donating the cost of the trip.

If you’re a dentist or soil agronomist traveling to help a great local program train people, then by all means, go.

If the only thing you can bring is your good intention, you’ll be more helpful staying home and contributing money.

Please do travel and have life-changing experiences. Just don’t confuse it with helping. Especially when you’re spending most of the money on airfare.

Mr. Corbett and Mr. Fikkert write: “The money spent on a single team for a one- to two-week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year. And we complain about wasteful government spending!”

Find a way to stay involved without traveling.

Here’s the problem with staying home, though. Oasis accepts volunteers because without them, it would close. Mr. Dukes needs to raise $1 million a year for his programs. “Of that funding, over 80 percent comes from people who have visited this ministry with church teams or from the churches that send those teams,” he said.

The challenge for a church supporting a great project is staying engaged without the wasted expense and potential for harm of a mission trip. That might require a lot of education about how poverty alleviation really works, Skype calls and photo-filled newsletters showing donations in action.

Still, it is likely that donations will drop. But thousands of dollars that would have been spent on airfare can help fill the gap.

This is an argument for a little less heart and more head. To feel deeply, care deeply — these emotions are why people choose to go on volunteer trips. But we confuse our own caring for help. In pursuit of those emotions, we spend money, time and good will on things that are often of no value to the people we care about — and are, at worst, the very opposite of true service.