The children of Nepal don’t need saviours, but they do need advocates.
The image of a small boy of about four, sitting by a roadside, hugging and sheltering his baby sister, quickly became a social media emblem of the 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25. An estimated 1.7 million children have been directly affected by the disaster, and the viral photograph seemed to perfectly encapsulate their situation. Desperate, vulnerable and alone.
It turns out, somewhat inconveniently, that this symbol of the disaster was just that. A symbol. A stock photograph churned out whenever there is a disaster that affects … well, er … anywhere that has poor-looking brown children. This is in fact just about anywhere in the world – Myanmar, Syria, Nepal. In fact, the children are from North Vietnam.
So why exactly do images like this appeal so much, and compel us to share them with everyone we know? Here’s an answer for you: because the images are empowering. Not for the subjects, but for us, the consumers. We feel sympathy and pity, and these emotions create a power dynamic. They are helpless, we can help. They are vulnerable, we can protect them.
These powerful emotions can fuel charity campaigns. They can move individuals to give money and inspire them to go overseas to volunteer. The standard response to images of displaced or at-risk children after a disaster overseas, is to build and support orphanages. It seems like an easy way to ensure children have a roof over their heads, and hopefully food and education, too. It was a response to the tsunami in 2004. It was a response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. It was even the response to the 10-year civil war in Nepal that ended in 2006. It was the wrong response.
An unintended result of building and funding orphanages can be that children who don’t need to be there end up filling them. In Haiti, an estimated 80% of children in orphanages have a living parent. Some Haitian “orphans” were even adopted by American families, only for it to be revealed that they were not real orphans. Foreign aid can end up unnecessarily denying vulnerable children the chance to live with their families and instead condemning them to a lifetime of institutionalisation.
The narrative that funding orphanages helps vulnerable children is one that displays a grotesque lack of intuitive delicacy and critical thinking. Orphanages barely even exist in developed countries, and there is a reason for that. A large amount of evidence told us decades ago that family-based care is in the best interests of the child. Orphanages do not always solve problems, but they can create them. So why is it always our first response when responding to crises overseas?
One of the reasons is that providing family-based care for children who have been orphaned, abused or separated is hard. It is a long-term process requiring specialist skills, a high level of input and a tight system for monitoring. It cannot be done immediately in the wake of a disaster. It cannot be done by foreign volunteers. Crucially, it is not as easy to put a plaque on a reintegrated family as it is on the door of an orphanage.
There is an even darker side to the orphanage issue. In many countries across the world, including Nepal, children are deliberately separated from their parents and trafficked to orphanages.
As in any situation that attracts a large amount of cash, the willingness of foreign donors and volunteers to support orphanages can be exploited for profit motives. Aid money can be unknowingly lining the pockets of corrupt businessmen and fuelling the commodification of children.
There have already been stark warnings about the increased risk of human trafficking in the chaos resulting from the earthquake. Unicef Nepal has launched an urgent campaign to try to prevent misguided foreign donors and volunteers from inadvertently supporting trafficking.
Next Generation Nepal is one organisation on the ground tackling these problems head on. Country Director Martin Punaks said: “We are now deeply concerned that the earthquake will accelerate child trafficking beyond our worst nightmares. Aid money is flooding in to the country, children’s homes are offering hundreds more places for children, and not enough is being done in the rural areas to stop the flow of children away from their families into profit-making orphanages.”
Children who have been separated, displaced or orphaned are among the most vulnerable in society. If we stand by while they are trafficked into institutions – many of which keep children in woefully inadequate conditions and some of which are dangerous – we will fail them.
It is always disempowering to hear that things are more complicated than originally assumed. That good intentions can backfire, that obvious solutions create even worse problems. We are being warned against rushing to Nepal and giving the “wrong kind” of aid. It would be forgivable for you to feel like throwing your hands in the air and shouting: “So what can I do?”
Here’s where you start: see this critical conversation as being a crucial first step. In raising awareness of the complexity of these issues, we are mustering support for nuanced and considered responses that aim towards real solutions that we would accept in developed countries.
The children of Nepal don’t need saviours, but they do need advocates. We need to speak out against “disaster porn”, the misuse of imagery and the simple, paternalistic media narratives of how aid works and what is needed in the wake of the disaster. Orphanages are not needed. Support for the tricky work of rehabilitating displaced and orphaned children, and reuniting them with living family members, is.
Punaks remains adamant. “The next few weeks and months will determine the future for thousands of children in Nepal, and in turn, the future of Nepali society.” – Guardian News & Media