Global Orphans: The Numbers

One of the slipperiest elements of orphan advocacy is the statistics often quoted to describe the number of orphans worldwide.

These often-varying estimates are sometimes misstated and frequently misapplied. For example, the various global estimates (143 M, 145 M, 163 M, etc) are often quoted in ways that imply that all of these children have no living parents.  It’s hard not to make that mistake, since most people typically think of an “orphan” as a child that has lost both parents.  But since global orphan estimates include children who’ve lost either one or both parents, roughly 90 percent of children classified as “orphans” have one living parent.  This does not mean that these children are not highly vulnerable, but it does mean that the best response to their needs is often not adoption or some form of orphan home, but helping the family remain intact or reunite.

In recent years, the most frequently quoted numbers have been UNICEF estimates.  However, the data used to produce UNICEF’s most recent estimate (145 million) is three years old.  Previous UNICEF estimates also include the frequently quoted 143 million figure.

The most recent and, according to many experts, most accurate numbers we have at this point are those delivered in a U.S. government report from late 2009.   These numbers are expected to be updated late this year.  This report projects:

  • Total global orphan estimates for 2008 are 163 million (Children having lost one or both parents).
  • Of these, an estimated 55.3 million have lost a mother and 126 million have lost a father.
  • An estimated 18.3 million children have lost both parents.

In addition to the fact that such statistics are often misquoted or misunderstood, the simple truth is that statistics rarely motivate to action.  If anything, they create a paralyzing sense of “what can one person do?”  (See this prior blog posts on the shortcomings of orphan statistics).  So, while it certainly is important to have a good grasp of the numbers and what they actually mean, it is vital that advocates emphasize the most important statistic of all:  it only takes one caring individual to transform the life of an orphan.

Finally, Christians also need to understand that the biblical concept of “orphans” or “the fatherless” found throughout Scripture is a category that includes much more than just the boy or girl who has lost both parents.  Rather, it describes the child that faces the world without provider or protector.  Some children who fit this description have one living parent.  In some cases, such children may even have two living parents who’ve abandoned or abused them, or simply have no capacity to care for them.  No statistical analysis will ever perfectly capture the global number of children who fit in this category, but that need be of little concern.  Ultimately, God’s call is to defend the defenseless child—whatever the particulars of her situation may be.