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Rethinking Orphanages 1

Rethinking Orphanages

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TEAR's CEO Matthew Maury shares his insights into the much-debated issue of orphanages and the problem of 'voluntourism'.

For Christians who have spent any time reading what the scriptures say about money, its dangerous power should come as no surprise. The ‘fullness of life’ (John 10:10) that Jesus proclaimed was never, ever linked to having lots of money.

In fact, I would argue it is the opposite. Perhaps too often our view of ‘fullness of life’ is more shaped by our culture’s understanding of a successful life?

I remember hearing about a long-term study that showed the effect that winning the lottery had on people The researchers found that it was exceptionally rare for past ‘winners’ to be positive about the experience. Rather, in the vast majority of cases, the ‘winners’ felt like ‘losers’ when the damage to relationships with friends and family was taken into consideration.

These findings are clearly counterintuitive for most people. The common belief endures that new-found wealth will instantly improve our lives. To this end, I also wonder how our understanding of healthy mission and Christian development work are impacted by our understanding about money, power and relationship.

In TEAR’s Christian community development work we strive to consider the interplay of these three forces as we shape our work with local partners. Too often in this type of ministry, the fact that money flows from us to our partners means that the linked power dynamics distort our ability to have healthy relationships. TEAR’s attempts to foster healthy relationships are strongly linked with our core value of “partnership”. TEAR believes that our mission of building a just and compassionate world – of seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – is fostered through our commitment to work for healthy partnerships which are not distorted by money and power. But it doesn’t happen naturally, and thus to achieve this we put in place several practical methodologies and practices which aim to balance power and mitigate the way money can negatively skew relationship.

TEAR is certainly not perfect and we are on a continuous journey to try and do partnership well. We get it wrong at times, but we continue to invest our efforts in listening, learning and making changes that will help us get it right more than we get it wrong. A recent external review across the breadth of TEAR’s work (conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) came back with a positive report from the evaluators who said that TEAR is an agency that “walks the walk” in the outworking of our commitment to healthy partnership.

Regarding Orphanages

I have become increasingly concerned about the impact of volunteers from the Australian Christian community visiting and supporting orphanages. To me, it is one of the most significant examples of forgetting the toxic mix of money, power, and unhealthy relationships. The impact is hurting children.

I have found it very confronting to learn that Christians involved in orphanages – particularly across Southeast Asia – have actually contributed to the trafficking of children by creating a growth industry for fake orphanages in a context where the actual number of orphans is on the decline. We must stop this. Now.

To raise awareness about this modern day injustice perpetuated by the church, I have been actively involved in work that is being done in our sector to try and protect children from significant harm created by the “orphanage industry” and the outworking of damaging “voluntourism”.

Rarely, if ever, has it proved helpful for Australian short-term mission trips and volunteers to go and spend time in orphanages. More and more research is showing that the psychological damage for children already experiencing attachment issues is made worse by the interaction with short-term teams.

Matthew Maury TEAR Australia National Director

I am pleased that there are several Christian organisations at the forefront of this campaign to bring about positive change – but also deeply concerned that it is Christians who are perpetuating much of the harm.

Rarely, if ever, has it proved helpful for Australian short- term missions trips and volunteers to go and spend time in orphanages. More and more research is showing that the psychological damage for children already experiencing attachment issues is made worse by the interaction with short-term teams. Research also shows that some children are in orphanages because they have been trafficked for economic gain – often taken from their families in order to get money that Australian Christians are keen to spend on orphan care.

Our money gives us power, but is relationally damaging. Please stop.

I realise that, for churches and individuals who have been involved in orphan work, this can be quite a confronting message and hard to hear. I strongly encourage anyone involved in the support of orphanages to visit and learn more about this campaign TEAR is supporting. The resources produced by this campaign will help show how well intentioned use of power and money is hurting kids, families and communities.

Let’s commit to use our money, power and relationships in ways that reflect the values of the Kingdom of Heaven – not our culture. On earth as it is in heaven.

ReThink Orphanages

Rethink Orphanages is a cross-sector network that aims to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children by shifting the way Australia engages with overseas aid and development.

More than 8 million children live in institutions globally. This is despite the fact that over 80% of these children have parents or family. Children who grow up in orphanages experience attachment disorders, developmental delays, and have difficultly forming relationships in adulthood. The effects of institutionalisation can last a lifetime and even impact upon following generations.

Unfortunately, the institutionalisation of children is, in many cases driven by the well-meaning but uninformed support of foreign donors, orphanage voluntourism, and the supply chain of people, money and resources that drive the orphanage industry.


Matthew Maury is TEAR's CEO.