Orphans and Development: Broad Perspective and Narrow Focus

A recent blog post by the insightful researcher Dr. Bruce Wydick collates and digests some of the best recent research on effective development, ranging from economic opportunity to effective government. I’d highly recommend the collection of papers to orphan care practitioners, advocates and all who care about vulnerable children.  See 12 New Papers for Development Practitioners.

Far too often, discussion of solutions for orphans and broader development conversations fall into distinct silos.   That’s always a mistake.

When we come near to orphaned children – whether double orphans, single orphans or social orphans – if paying close attention, we soon begin to see how their challenges are utterly intertwined with myriad other complex issues, from poverty and disease to governmental corruption and religious practice. When we fail to recognize this interweaving, our efforts to help often tug hard on a single loose thread on the sweater – creating even more of a tangled mess than at the start.

That’s not to say there is no place for focus on any one of these issues. On the contrary, the most effective organizations often carry a highly disciplined focus on their core mission and strengths. They provide deep solutions to one need rather than shallow solutions to many. In contrast, organizations that try to “solve it all” often end up solving nothing.

But even while keeping strong focus, the best leaders and organizations also always keep the bigger picture in mind. They are students of how economics, medicine, governance, superstitions, social mores, attitudes toward sexuality and countless other factors interplay as both causes and effects of the more visible needs-at-hand.

In short, we could say that wisdom calls us to keep a broad perspective and narrow focus. 

Just as important, the best organizations coordinate with others to build more comprehensive responses. Some focus on clean water. Some on medical issues. Some on economic opportunity. Some on government reform and accountability. Some on reunifying children who’ve been separated from their parents and helping those families thrive. Some on protecting and caring for children who can’t be reunified. When each of these critical pieces is done well and in coordination, comprehensive solutions begin to emerge.

Certainly, at any given moment in any particular place, it may be that one particular need is especially pressing or that one particular solution is particularly strategic. We have every reason to try to hone in on precisely what these priority needs are – including their root causes and ideal solutions – in each unique situation.

For example, in many African nations and some other parts of the world, financial poverty is often the primary driver of children’s loss of parental care; HIV and other diseases are also major causes of orphanhood in Africa. In Central America, although often interwoven with financial poverty, it is often family breakdown and sexual abuse in the home that rise as central factors. In Eastern Europe and Russia, alcoholism and drug abuse tend to play an outsized role. Of course, all of these factors are often part of the picture for orphans everywhere, but the primary causes and primary solutions can vary greatly by region. These differing blends of root causes call for differing emphases in response.

Taking a broad perspective, narrow focus approach amidst all this diversity enables us to affirm the “both-and” responses that are needed in each place: both micro-finance and clean water projects, both family preservation and orphan care, both local adoption and international adoption, both economic development and vaccinations.

There’s no need to pit one needed response against another when both are of value. Too often, “tribes” form around one approach – not only to champion their preferred focus but also to disparage the others. To be sure, there are indeed times for the iron-sharpening-iron debates that refine our perspective, priorities and approaches.  But broad perspective, narrow focus approach enables us to honor the needed contributions others make even while we drill deep in our own area of emphasis.

To address root causes of the orphan crisis, the broader development perspective must be part of our vision. And because some children in even the most developed nations face the world without parents, some of us must also give focused attention to protection and nurture of children who lack it.  The same goes for micro-finance…human rights…roads and other infrastructure…education….governance….medicine…and all well-targeted efforts to address complex human need.

Broad perspective and narrow focus.