Having good data on the number of orphans worldwide is valuable. It gives us at least a small glimpse of the sheer vastness of the need. And for decision-makers in government or nonprofits, having quality information on how many orphans there are and where they live can play an important role in shaping policy and priorities.
A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress (The Families for Orphans Act) would (among other things) require the U.S. government to do a better job in collecting global orphan data. It’s my understanding the U.N. also desires to improve its approach to orphan-related data. Both of these are worthwhile initiatives.
But, we need be clear-eyed about three big limitations of global orphan statistics.
- Imprecise. Even in the U.S.—where transportation is easy and communication is lightning-quick—the Census Bureau must harness hundreds of millions of dollars and a vast army of workers to collect its data. Contrast that exercise with trying to pinpoint the number of parentless children in the the Gobi Desert or Andes’ Mountains. It is, to say the least, an imprecise science. This doesn’t mean the numbers are useless, just that we need to recognize they are only an estimate.
- Potentially Deceptive. While there may be good reasons to sometimes classify children who’ve lost one parent as “orphans,” most people still think of an orphan as a child who has lost both parents. It’s important that advocates make clear what we mean when we’re talking about “145 million orphans in the world.” A failure on this count may cause some people to think we’re not being totally forthright.
- Paralyzing. Think about how you feel when someone drops on you a “big” statistic regarding need. Do you typically feel inspired to act…or does it make you feel drained and overwhelmed? Whopping numbers that we can’t get our minds around rarely rouse people to action. In fact, some research (shared with me by Jodi Jackson Tucker of North Carolina) suggests that human response to need actually decreases as our sense of the size of a problem expands. That doesn’t mean orphan advocates should eschew statistics. But it does mean we should recognize that spewing out big numbers won’t often generate response. We should know the numbers, but most of the time we’ll want to help others recognize the need in the eyes of a single child or the struggles of a single family.
Ultimately, there’s a single statistic that matters more than any other: It only takes a single caring individual to make a lifelong difference in the life of any orphan. That’s one statistic that is precise, unambiguous, and empowering. Most importantly, it’s a fact people will act on.