There is an urgent need to rethink charitable childcare work in Africa, to keep it free from promoting Western ideological or cultural values, says Hugh Pomeroy.

Although most of the world has been independent from direct Western rule for around sixty years, many African countries have never escaped the grasp of Western cultural and economic influence. According to academics such as Anne O’Brien, this is partly because the modern-day third sector at times operates as an effective continuation of colonial-era philanthropy, and there is an urgent need to rethink charitable efforts abroad to keep them free from promoting Western ideological or cultural values.1 Nowhere is this more evident or important than with care for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). Not only does the imposition of Western cultural and societal norms in the field of OVC care maintain an unhealthy acceptance of a postcolonial imbalance that tacitly undermines local development efforts, it also attacks local customs and culture which leads to damaging psychological effects on OVCs.

According to UNICEF’s most recent report on the topic there are around 140 million OVCs globally, fifty-two million of whom live in Africa. Thanks to countless humanitarian projects of the past century, the majority of these children live in some form of alternative care, which for this essay will be defined as all situations of childcare where children are cared for outside of their nuclear family setting: institutionalised care (such as orphanages), kinship care, foster care, other forms of family-based or family-like care, and supervised independent living arrangements. These well-meaning people and organisations have been giving time and money to care for the needy and vulnerable.  This article does not decry the intentions of those generous people. However, the need for a realignment and reassessment of the way in which that good intention is carried out has become increasingly clear; methods of helping OVCs that don’t take into account local customs and cultural practices must be recognised not only as forms of creeping ‘westernisation’, but also as inefficient and insensitive tools for sustainable development.  

it is imperative to recognise that the scope of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does not include the imposition of Western culture

Since the 1960s, Western development programmes in Africa have been evolving in numerous ways to be as effective and as culturally sensitive as possible. Today, development programmes are centred around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which set out a series of universally accepted standards for basic human rights and markers of a developed country. However, it is imperative to recognise that the scope of these goals does not include the imposition of Western culture onto other nations. These goals are distinct from “rescue” approaches of development (which imply that development must include a total shift away from the local way of dealing with problems), as they aim to develop basic human rights and improved standards of living while respecting local customs and values. As much as is possible, this ensures that they avoid the trap of westernisation, where, knowingly or not, development is tied to the dissemination of Western cultural values. Institutionalised care often falls into this trap. 

A 1995 report from the Minnesota Department of Human Services gives a detailed history of the evolution of orphanages in the United States, and explains how these institutions were culturally specific to the changing nature of caring for North American parentless children, from their origins in caring for children orphaned by conflicts between European settlers and Native Americans to their expansion in response to growing urbanisation in the mid-nineteenth century.2 However, as Yendork and Somhlaba point out, the spread of orphanages across Africa was in response to a very different set of problems than the American evolution of such institutions, such as the spike in orphanhood since the HIV crisis and the shift in rural-urban migration trends, making their existence across Africa not only an unsuitable and foreign method of dealing with OVCs, but a form of imposition of Western cultural values, whether intentional or not.3 Strategies of care that may have worked at the time in the United States or Britain are not necessarily transferable to dealing with a similar issue in Africa. Ensuring the best possible care for OVCs in Africa does not mean the imposition of foreign culture and solutions, but rather any solution should entail fundamental respect for local customs; if the funds exist to support institutional care then they should be redirected to support more appropriate, culturally sensitive ways of caring for OVCs. 

It seems hugely counter-cultural to take children out of their familial home and put them in an institution with little or no connection to the child’s cultural heritage. This is contrary to the accepted cultural norms of communities across many African countries

This has been slowly recognised by the international community. More actors have recognised that orphanages and similar childcare institutions promote cultural insensitivity by forcing the Western concept of institutionalised care onto other cultures. This was highlighted in a 2003 UNICEF report carried out in association with the Innocenti Research Centre which called for a change in attitude and approach, encouraging more cultural sensitivity when developing  alternative care solutions for OVCs. This has been echoed since then in studies that have examined the care of vulnerable children in Africa in the context of traditional approaches to caring for vulnerable children in the community. The extended family in South Africa, for example, traditionally took the place of a social security system where the responsibility to look after and protect orphans and vulnerable family members was shared across many.4 Some, such as AB Ocholla-Ayayo from the University of Nairobi, have gone as far as to argue that this responsibility was one of pride for the extended family and fitted into a larger understanding of raising children to be the collective responsibility of the extended family group whether or not the children have living parents.5 It therefore seems hugely counter-cultural to take children out of their familial and cultural home and put them in an institution with little or no connection to the child’s cultural heritage. This is contrary to the accepted cultural norms of communities across many African countries and in many ways is a reflection of the imposition of Western ideals and cultural norms on ex-colonies. 

Photo taken by Hugh Pomeroy in Madagascar, 2018

The call for more culturally-appropriate forms of institutionalised care has been answered in many forms across the continent, for example in Rwanda which is on track to meet its target of reducing the official number of institutions for OVC care from a total of thirty-three in 2013 to zero. Dominic Misomali, the chief social welfare officer in the Zambian Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare has publicly recognised that the “best place to raise a child is a family home and not in an institution”; and the Daily Monitor in Uganda ran an article last year claiming that the Ugandan government will soon change their policy to reflect research into the long-term damage to OVCs in institutions, and explores the possibility of closing orphanages in the country. 

In a country that has had more than its fair share of OVCs since the 1994 genocide, small organisations such as the Rwanda Orphans Project exemplify the possibility of implementing culturally sensitive OVC care that does not impose Western cultural values

This shift in approach is in light of the successful implementation of alternative care which takes place in spite of the challenges of deinstitutionalisation. Small organisations such as the Rwanda Orphans Project exemplify the possibility of implementing culturally sensitive OVC care that does not impose Western cultural values onto the children it supports. In a country that has had more than its fair share of OVCs since the 1994 genocide, over the past twenty years the Rwanda Orphans Project has supported OVCs from over 500 families in  child-headed households – independent living arrangements where children are responsible for running the household, including caring for younger siblings and family members. This is achieved in a cost-effective way by assigning social workers to groups of households to give emotional and day-to-day support to the children and finance the children’s needs. This shows how the practicalities and challenges of this type of care can be overcome, and how alternative care need not be another creeping imposition of Western cultural norms and values.

Even if one ignores the cultural issues behind the institutionalisation of OVC, the operational issues are immense. A 2016 UNICEF report highlighted the following concerns as common issues found in care institutions across the continent: inappropriate admissions, lack of planning and evaluation, non-compliance with national standards and licensing requirements, assurance of safety of children from various forms of abuse, under-qualified staff in low numbers, neglect of family contacts, and inadequate preparation for leaving care. Clearly, it would be wrong to claim that all institutions across the continent struggle with all of these issues, but those stated above are just a few that were highlighted as frequently recurring, and therefore must be considered seriously. A 2014 global study by SOS Children’s Village on violence against children concluded that institutionalised care “does not inherently perpetuate violence, but rather the incidence of violence is inextricably linked to the overall quality of care.” This confirms the danger that certain OVC institutions can pose to the children in their care: the large scale of the organisations and the low care-giver-to-child ratio heightens the risk of maltreatment or low quality care for the children. The types of institutions which are highlighted by these reports often fit into the “rescue” development approach which draws their ideals from decades-old Western understanding, contributing to the operational issues of these centres, let alone their cultural implications. A more sustainable approach which would help to reduce operational issues must take into account the cultural understanding of childcare without forcing Western traditions onto the people whom the approach is trying to help. Development will always be at its most effective when it is culturally integrated with the local communities it serves. The lack of cultural sensitivity is not only a key issue of institutionalised care in itself, but also creates further operational issues.

OVCs in institutionalised care lack a maternal figure, and the often ‘professional’ relationship between child and care-giver that is so frequent in these institutions lowers the self-esteem and confidence of OVCs.

Despite these challenges facing institutionalised care, it is often praised for its provision of high-quality education and for the way it integrates children with others of a similar age group, both of which are often harder for OVCs to achieve outside of institutionalised care due to their lack of money and connections.6 Education is widely accepted as the key to poverty alleviation and at the heart of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals; therefore, one must recognise the strength of institutional caregivers who provide this education. The socialisation with fellow children and the psychological benefits this brings are also hugely beneficial, and alternative forms of OVC care often struggle to provide this. However, many have argued that the damaging emotional effects of institutionalised care outweigh the stated benefits. Abdulla et al (2007) highlighted the emotional gaps that are brought about by placing OVCs in institutionalised care, mainly from the lack of a maternal figure, and that the often ‘professional’ relationship between child and care-giver that is so frequent in these institutions lowers the self-esteem and confidence of OVCs. On top of individual psychological issues, OVCs in institutionalised care often face routine dislocation from extended family, community and cultural background.7 These serious and long-lasting effects on OVCs cast yet more doubts over the suitability of large institutions as effective care-givers. 

Despite these issues with institutionalised care, the successful implementation of deinstitutionalised care is subject to a wide range of challenges, from lack of local willingness to be involved, to poor governmental policy on the issue, to ineffective or non-existent monitoring and evaluation. The monitoring and record-keeping of large institutions has historically been very poor across the continent, and thus the monitoring of multiple smaller homes and community-care schemes is much harder to regulate in order to ensure that OVCs are receiving the highest quality of care. As a 2013 report by SOS Children’s Village highlighted with regard to existing alternative care in Kenya, the lack of centralised documentation and differing standards and levels of detail in each centre’s records makes it challenging to effectively monitor standards across the centres.8 The problem of monitoring and evaluation is particularly controversial in the case of kinship care, where there are often few or no formal arrangements in place. The answer to this issue is in a strong central government, equipped with money, time and a willingness to regulate standards, but clearly it is difficult to actualise this solution. Adam Szirmai argues that a certain amount of westernisation is inevitable with development as the parameters of what “developed” versus “undeveloped” means are, broadly speaking, set by the countries that classify themselves as the former, i.e. the Western countries of Europe and North America.9 This is no excuse to allow unnecessary westernisation to sneak into practices of sustainable development in relation to the “rescue” approach of helping OVCs in Africa; the cultural, operational and psychological effects of westernised institutionalised care detract from the worthy aim of aiding the poorest in society. Although it may be impossible to wholly eliminate westernisation from development, alternative care options such as foster care and family or community-based projects give an opportunity to help pull apart the unnecessarily and uncomfortably intertwined threads of westernisation and development.

Hugh Pomeroy is currently studying History and French at the University of York. After spending some of his childhood living in Rwanda, he recently returned to Africa to volunteer with HoverAid, an medical NGO based in Madagascar. He has also spent time teaching in an orphanage in India.

Online sources hyperlinked in-text, and all accessed October 2019.

  1. Anne O’Brien, Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
  2. Minnesota Department of Human Services, Orphanages: An Historical Overview, Minnesota, 1995.
  3. Joana Salifu Yendork and Nceba Z. Somhlaba, “Exiled Life, or Home Away from Home? Exploring Ghanaian Orphan Narratives of Orphanage Placement,” Africa Today 62, no. 2 (Winter 2015): 28.
  4. M. Freeman and N. Nkomo, “Guardianship of orphans and vulnerable children. A survey of current and prospective South African caregivers,” AIDS Care 18, no. 4 (2006): 302.
  5. AB Ocholla-Ayayo, “The African Family: Between Tradition and Modernity,” Family, population and development in Africa, ed. Aderanti Adepoju (London: ZedBooks, 1997): 60-77.
  6. S. M Kang’ethe and Abigail Makuyana, “Re-Thinking and Reconceptualizing Child Care Institutionalisation in South Africa: Effects and Impacts on Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs),” Journal of Social Sciences 40, no. 1-2 (2015).
  7. Helen Meintjes, Sue Moses, Lizette Berry & Ruth Mampane, Home Truths: The Phenomenon of Residential Care for Children in a Time of AIDS, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town & Centre for the Study of AIDS: University of Pretoria, 2007.
  8. SOS Children’s Village, A Snapshot of Alternative Care Arrangements in Kenya, 2013, SOS Children’s Villages International, 2013.
  9. Adam Szirmai, Socio-Economic Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

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