Lumos Report on Orphanages in Haiti

Lumos – an organization founded by author JK Rowling to advocate against institutional care and for family-based care for children – released an important report today on orphanages in Haiti.

The report, titled “Funding Haiti’s Orphanages at the Cost of Children’s Rights,” documents a number of highly significant findings. These include:

  • Immense private giving. International private donors provide a stunning amount of funding intended to help children in Haiti through Haiti’s orphanages. In a review of just over one-third of Haiti’s 750 orphanages, Lumos documented at least $70 million given annually. Total private support likely far exceeds $100 million each year.
  • Faith-based individuals remarkably generous. More than 90 percent of the people giving to care for children in Haiti via orphanages were people of religious faith. This data echoes other research revealing the generosity of faith-based givers. For example, regular church-attenders donate to charity more than three times the percentage of their income given by non-attenders, giving more not only to religious organizations, but to non-religious nonprofits as well. (See, for example, Who Really Cares.)
  • Care provided in Haiti’s orphanages is often inadequate and sometimes horrific. The report documents how a heartrending number of children suffer violence, exploitation, malnutrition, abuse, and severe neglect in Haiti’s orphanages. It’s important to acknowledge that children also experience these evils living on Haiti’s streets, as household servant restaveks, and even sometimes at the hands of parents and relatives. But it should both trouble us and spur us to action to recognize that these dark wrongs can (and frequently do!) occur in orphanages supported by well-intended donors.

These findings carry implications of tremendous importance. First and foremost, they remind that good intentions alone are utterly insufficient, and sometimes even destructive.

The report powerfully reminds that good intentions alone are utterly insufficient, and sometimes even destructive.

The generosity of Americans generally, and faith-motivated individuals in particular, is indeed a beautiful thing. But it must be channeled with much greater wisdom and discernment than is currently the case. As Scripture affirms, zeal without understanding – whether in the form of donations, volunteerism or other support – can be deeply harmful (Proverbs 19:2). Christian individuals and churches, inspired by their faith to share their resources, must do so in ways guided by the best available knowledge.

For those of us who care deeply about these things, the answer is not to denigrate people who give – even if that giving is sometimes severely misdirected. These individuals are choosing to use their own money (often the truest measure of our priorities) not for a kitchen remodel or the newest tech device or an afternoon at the day spa, but to help children. The fact that these givers care – in a world where so many do not – makes them our natural allies.

However, generosity must consistently be matched with understanding. This includes grasping the reality that a very large percentage of children in Haiti’s orphanages have living parents. Certainly, some of these parents are not willing or safely able to care for their children. And forcing reintegration recklessly can do immense harm to children. But in a larger percentage of cases, with appropriate external support, children can indeed be raised by their parents or relatives within a family. As Christians, we believe that God’s very best for children is family – and we must work to see children grow up in families whenever that is safely possible (Psalm 68:5-6).

Generosity must be matched with understanding.

At the same time, it would be naïve for us to imply that the problems spotlighted by the report can be solved solely by shifting paradigms about institutional care for children alone. The outcomes that the report finds to be common among young adults who age out of Haiti’s orphanages – including trauma, lack of education, unemployment and homelessness – are also rampant among young adults who age out of America’s foster system. The issues at the root of these tragic results – both in the US and Haiti – are often deep and complex. They center in family breakdown, often tangled with addiction, abuse, poverty, sexuality, cultural mores, and other very-hard-to-alter patterns.

This is why the history of humanitarian endeavors, both faith-based and secular, is often riddled with good intentions gone awry. (See one of my favorite TED-talks on this theme, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”) Certainly, there are many, many successes that have made a profound difference – from President Bush’s global HIV program (PEPFAR) to innovative models of family strengthening in Haiti. But the stories of waste, abuse and unintended consequences are legion as well.

All of this underscores the tremendous importance of the information and insights provided by a well-researched report like the one Lumos released today. One need not agree with every statement in it to wholeheartedly affirm its ultimate conclusion: Haiti’s children deserve so much better.

Americans of faith have often been at the forefront of personal generosity and service to the children of Haiti. It is time we earn a reputation for standing also at the forefront of innovation and best practice as well. I’ve seen many faith-based organizations that are indeed pioneering that road. May we all strive to join them.