Had to happen, you know. Because those kids, with the big eyes and the bandages, they’re just so danged cute. All of a sudden, people all over the interwebs are popping up to say how much they would love to have a Haitian orphan of their own.
Don’t believe me? Read the comments here, for one.
It’s an impulse born of a noble instinct – that core desire to help, to rescue, to save. But inside, the core is a little rotten. Rotten with naivete, for one. The base assumption that an adopted child will be awash and aglow with the generosity of their benefactors - a la Annie, or Diff’rent Strokes – belies the reality that kids orphaned in the earthquake are not going to be easy to take care of. Many are going to have PTSD; many are going to have issues with blunt-force displacement; many adopted into American homes (unless they are adopted by black families) are going to be sudden minorities in their own bedrooms – which is not an insurmountable object, but is a much greater boulder in the road than many starry-eyed idealists are actually prepared for. But naivete is only the least sinister of the motivations underlying the fetishization of Haitian orphans.
The real evil is the fact that orphan-hood is a very rare condition. Especially in developing nations where the nuclear family is not the culture-bound norm, finding a child who truly has no living relatives is a rarity. Even after a catastrophic disaster, a more common problem is displacement and disconnection, not the true lack of a family who could take a child in if they had the resources to do so.
In fact, orphanages in the developing world are often not populated by orphans. Nowhere was this more apparent – or more mind-boggling – than in the case of Madonna’s adoption of a Malawian boy nicknamed Baby David. She picked him out of an orphanage, and then the confusion began: David, it seemed, had a father living and breathing a few blocks down the city street. Why would a child with a father be rotting away in an orphanage?, amateur pundits all over the celeb gossip world fumed.
It turns out that “orphaned” children in third-world institutions often have living parents. The popularity of orphanages on the international charity stage makes them a relatively cushy place to drop off a child one cannot care for because of the crushing economics of third-world parenting. Orphanages, it has been argued, create orphans. The charitable emphasis on orphanages has become such a problem that UNICEF has intervened in some areas to prevent the erosion of families when institutional orphanages become a more attractive alternative than keeping children in a parented home, offering food and education that lure parents into believe their children will have a better life in an institution. It goes without saying that charity funneled toward orphanages is charity that is not funneled toward causes that keep families intact: economic empowerment, education, and heck, even a little access to birth control so that each child is not trying to out-compete their own siblings. (It is notable, ironic, and tragic that Madonna’s response to criticism about David’s adoption was to…you guessed it…generously fund orphanages in Malawi: more supply for the first-world demand, of course.)
Whatsmore, orphanages are hardly a safe haven. Orphans are used for panhandling (if you think Slumdog Millionaire was all fiction, try out this UN report on Liberian orphanages). Orphanages are rarely staffed by vetted professionals, and thus orphans are fair game for all number of predators. Even more horrifying, orphanages are a ripe locus of activity for all manner of fundamentalists from wealthy nations to go impose their firebrand of discipline onto children who cannot protect themselves and are not counted under the hand of US or European law. Among the most bizarre stories out of Haiti in the last week is that of the Love A Child orphanage which was featured on MSNBC: the American proprietor asked a television crew member if she could borrow his belt during an interview because one of the children needed a leather-backed talking to. She justified the corporeal approach to discipline in terms of cultural relativity, chalking it up to local customs and expectations. The implicit racism there – that poor black children need a beating to get along in the world – would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t so banal.
Orphanages are not a neutral thing of good in the world. They contribute to the displacement of children, and detract from real family-building programs. They are a convenient target for charity, the kind of charity that conveniently caters to first-world aesthetics while devaluing real families.
So, resist the temptation. Don’t give to orphanages, and for the love of all things holy, don’t be one of those people who fantasizes about bringing home one of those wide-eyed darlings. Their country needs them: this is Haiti’s opportunity to rebuild, from the ground up, fast and strong. Working men and women are the backbone of that opportunity, but intact families are the meat on those bones. Haitian families need to be made whole, supported in their entirety, fed as units, given a economic future – not seen as another commodity for lonely first-worlders to get their charity-jones fix on.