For the past thirty years, I have worked to prevent and address one of the world’s least well-known injustices against children. In the name of care and protection, countries the world over separate children from their families and place them in institutions. Global evidence has proven that children will be harmed by the experience of institutionalisation and that it is an expensive solution. Family care has better outcomes and costs less. Supporting families to care for their own children usually costs about 10% of keeping a child in a harmful institution.
What problem is institutionalisation trying to solve? Sometimes, there is a concern that parents are abusive or deliberately neglectful and that leaving the child at home places them at imminent risk of serious harm. But evidence from many countries shows these cases are the minority. Most children are separated from their families due to poverty or discrimination. This is not a simple formula where cruel states remove a child from a family because they are poor or indigenous. Instead, there are few support services that respond to poverty. Single mothers cannot afford childcare and so cannot go out to work to support themselves and their families. When they run out of food, or cannot heat their homes and worry their children will freeze or starve to death; or when they fall into rent arrears and are about to be evicted, they approach the state, or churches, or NGOs for help. In many cases, the only help on offer is to put their children in the orphanage. At least, the parents think, my children will have food, shelter and warmth. And they make the terrible children to give their children up. The cost to care for one child for two months would fund the family to stay together safely for a year. The children are traumatised by the separation – and many are then exposed to harsh punishments, hunger, cold, and even sexual abuse in the institution.
Whilst funding for these expensive harmful institutions is abundant, programmes to eradicate poverty and support families to stay together are less popular with donors. Moreover, many programmes addressing poverty are inefficiently run, largely because the response is rarely what the family needs. Part of the reason for that is the stigmatisation and suspicion of people living in poverty. There is a tendency to blame people for their poverty, to believe they are personally responsible for their poverty. There is a concern that they are people who cannot be trusted with money. People might be happy to donate livestock or pay to have a well drilled in a village. These are laudable gifts, but an inefficient way to distribute aid money.
The simple solution to poverty is to provide people with cash. Most people living in poverty are perfectly capable of making wise decisions about how to spend any additional funds they might have. Rigorous research has proven that providing enough cash to raise families above the extreme poverty line significantly improves health and developmental outcomes for children. It also does not require the layers of administration that make global aid so inefficient.
If the aid industry would change its approach and provide the poorest people in the world the cash they need to lift them out of extreme poverty, much of my work to prevent harmful institutionalisation of children would be unnecessary.
Addressing the climate crisis is going to require us to think radically about how we deliver aid across the world. Communities affected by climate change will see increased poverty, which will almost certainly lead to increased migration, as millions seek basic security of food and water supplies. This could be mitigated by prioritising ending global poverty the simple way – by giving aid directly to the people who need it most and empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty.