Orphans and Widows Part 3: Widows and Orphans: Rethinking Orphan Care

by | Aug 10, 2015 | Unraveling Unhealthy Dependency | 0 comments

By Jean Johnson

From Western-Style Residential Care

In past years, residential care has been the Western answer to the orphan crisis in lower income countries. Presently, researchers and practitioners are earnestly encouraging better care alternatives for four key reasons: 1) residential care is seriously ineffective for the overall well-being of the children and even harmful; 2) residential care often clashes with the values of the local people; 3) residential care is too expensive; 4) care of orphans and widows needs to be put back into the hands of the communities.

Evidence shows that orphanages “consistently fail to meet children’s development needs for attachment, acculturation, and social integration.”1 Making improvements such as increasing adult caretaker-to-orphan ratio, providing nutritious meals, and quality education did not lessen the consequences.

To Grassroots and Community-Led Care

As early as 1994, the Department of Paediatrics of the University of Zimbabwe and the Department of Social Welfare determined that “Programmes to keep children with the community, surrounded by leaders and peers they know and love, are ultimately less costly, both in terms of finance and the emotional cost to the child.”2 Ample faith-based organizations agree that “the family is the most important source of love, attention, emotional support, material sustenance, and moral guidance in a child’s life.”3 I imagine that the above dynamics relate to care of widows, as well.

In part 3 of this blog, it is not my goal to rehash the negative consequences of orphanages, but rather provide a list of resources for alternative methods such as community-led care for orphans and widows. Perhaps, this description of a grassroots solution to orphan care will inspire you:

Community members are taking up the challenge by sustaining life and giving love—providing home-based care and visitation. Moreover, they are providing hours of their time without compensation and donating their own scarce resources…as good neighbors and caring people, they have responded to the inhumane gap in access to care and support in poor communities.4
~ Esther Mwaura Muiru, GROOTS, Kenya

There are efforts underway in regard to mobilizing and encouraging the elderly, such as Older People’s Associations (OPA), as well:

Older people are an asset to their families, communities and society. Their contribution – as carers, advisers, mediators, mentors and breadwinners – is invaluable, but frequently unrecognised. Harnessing and nurturing such capacities through older people’s associations has proven to be a decisive contribution to development theory and practice.5

Beyond all the evidence that Western-style, institutional orphan and widow care is insufficient, I am a firm believer that care for the vulnerable is both the privilege and the mandate of local communities. Foreigners taking the responsibility out of the hands of local people is unethical and unbiblical. Merely hiring caretakers from the local community doesn’t count. Even Paul taught that families and local churches were suppose to respect and care for their elders and widows (1 Timothy 5:1-8).

Additionally, I am convinced that local initiatives that are supported by local resources is the best approach, otherwise local care for orphans and widows becomes dependent on foreign practitioners and foreign donors.

At the least, let’s inspire local faith communities to rise to the challenge and find creative ways to pool their human and material resources.


Here are several resources to get you started:

“From Faith to Action: Strengthening Family and Community Care For Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

A Resource for Faith-Based Groups and Donors Seeking to Help Children and Families Affected by HIV/AIDS, Second Edition.


“Older People In Community Development: The Role Of Older People’s Associations (OPAs) In Enhancing Local Development,” HelpAge International.


The Urban Halo: A Story of Hope for Orphans of the Poor by Craig Greenfield.

“Community-Based Orphan Care: Africa Models a New Approach to its Orphan Crisis” by Steve Roa, November-December 2011 Mission Frontiers.


“Families, Not Orphanages,” Better Care Network Working Paper.


1. John Williamson and Aaron Greenberg, Families, Not Orphanages, Better Care Network

2. Ibid.

3. From Faith to Action: A Resource for Faith-Based Groups and Donors Seeking to Help Children and Families Affected by HIV/AIDS

4. Ibid.

5. HelpAge International, Older People in Community Development: The Role Of Older People’s Associations (OPAs) In Enhancing Local Development, 2009.


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