South Africa’s impending orphan crisis

I have said how much I hate it when one of the international “child welfare” bodies places the word orphan in inverted commas, as if to inform us of what we in fact know only too well–that most of the world’s children who find themselves living out of parental care actually have living parents. This story from South Africa is about orphans who fit a more traditional definition–they have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The numbers are astonishing, shocking…

The idea that local communities can absorb so many children is completely fanciful. Some of the older adolescents may, with support, be able to fend for the family. But many thousands will find themselves vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds.

JOHANNESBURG — While South Africa’s HIV infection rate may have stabilised experts warn that the country’s slow AIDS response has triggered a time bomb that may leave one in three children orphaned.

“Estimates show that by 2015, some 5,700,000 or 32 percent of all children in South Africa would have lost one or both parents due to HIV/AIDS,” said Gail Eddy, a researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, told AFP.

In 2008 there were 1.5 million AIDS orphans according to the country’s health department.

She said as the epidemic continues to shorten the lives of parents more children were going to be orphaned and the number of child-headed households would also increase.

The government currently provides support to about 238,000 AIDS orphans and to more than 20,000 homes where older children care for younger siblings after their parents die from the virus.

Eddy said orphans needed additional support that was not necessarily monetary in nature as these children had also lost their primary caregiver.

“What exacerbates the lack of support for these children, is that South Africa has a shortage of social workers who are responsible for identifying vulnerable children and providing them with the necessary support,” she said.

As a followup to my earlier post on criticism by Save the Children of orphanages,  I note that the New York Times ran a piece the other day that builds on this theme–that orphanages are not the way to go in dealing with the African orphan crisis.  See

It also notes that millions in foreign aid meant for these children could not be accounted for….Surprise?!

The NYT piece presents the recently expressed view of a group of international child welfare people–to the effect that families who take the orphans in should receive direct cash payments. I am all for this as one piece of the puzzle. However, I feel that we keep going around on this very dysfunctional merry go round–everything is corrupt in this view except foster care–International adoption, and now orphanages, are tainted (so the argument goes) by self-interest. Foreign aid gets gobbled up by the wrong people and never reaches the children. So, let’s pay families to take in multiple orphans. Again, this can work in some cases–in other cases, it is clearly not a good model. I appreciate the fact that Africa has a proud tradition of villagers taking on orphaned children and raising them. But there are many tales of how this can go wrong, and where the children are not well treated. I fear that the child welfare bodies assume that as long as they can put the “community” label on the mode of care, all will be well…. I find this very hard to accept. The doctrinaire approach to this crisis bothers me a good deal.