Reimagining alternative childcare in Haiti Parth Upadhyay via Unsplash

Reimagining alternative childcare in Haiti

Thinking about volunteering for an orphanage in Haiti? Make sure you think it through, as volunteers can inadvertently perpetuate the suffering they hope to alleviate. Instead, the country needs systemic change.

Haiti has been the stage of United Nations-led peacekeeping interventions since as far back as the 1990s. By the time a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the country on 12 January 2010, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was already beginning to lose its strength and support. The aftermath of the earthquake saw a deadline extension on the exit plan and unprecedented humanitarian mobilisation efforts. Specifically, as a result of a perceived ‘orphan crisis’, the country saw an estimated 150% increase in the number of orphanages, with approximately 750 of those institutions still in operation today. Shockingly, less than 15% of those institutions meet the minimum standards set by the government to remain in operation, which raises concerns about the legality and standards of care in the others. Alongside these issues, there are constant reports of human rights violations within these facilities, including allegations of sexual abuse. The recent arrest of Michael Geilenfeld, a high-profile American orphanage founder, for the sexual abuse of orphanage children in Haiti, has highlighted the urgent need for reform within Haiti's alternative care system. This brief report will examine what reform should involve from the perspective of children in alternative care, family members and civil society.

The issue of 'voluntourism'

This surge in private philanthropy in Haiti has also fuelled a growing market of ‘voluntourism’ – a quick Google search reveals dozens of ‘visiting opportunities’ and ‘volunteer packages’ available in the country. The academic discourse behind voluntourism is marked by a double movement: on the one hand, supporters of commodified philanthropic interventions argue that it might lead to improved cross-cultural understanding and attract aid that would not otherwise be there. On the other hand, a number of NGOs, intergovernmental and governmental institutions argue that volunteer tourism often reproduces hierarchical distance and colonial dynamics. The current pattern of foreign donors supporting Haitian orphanages, which often also rely on support from ‘voluntourists’, reinforces the arguments put forward by the second movement.

One important detail is constantly missing from orphanage websites and promotional content: four out of five children living in orphanages are not actually orphans. Most children end up in orphanage care due to poverty, as their own family members can no longer continue to raise them at home. A report published by the NGO Lumos found considerable evidence of orphanages coercing families into giving up their children in exchange for money – one of the most common forms of child trafficking found in the country.

A child rights-based approach to alternative care in Haiti

The situation in Haiti clearly shows that a critical view should be taken of institutionalisation. Despite the altruistic motivations of many involved, placing a child in alternative care is usually not the most desirable form of care from a child rights perspective. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that children have the right to know and be cared for by their parents (Art. 7) and the right not to be separated from their parents (Art. 9). States are obliged to support parents in fulfilling the responsibility of raising their children (Art. 18). In addition, the United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children highlights that the decision to place a child in alternative care should be subject to strict criteria concerning necessity and appropriateness, as well as tight procedural safeguards.

For Haiti, close adherence to the principles outlined in the CRC and the Guidelines involves emphasising the child's right to a family life and supporting families in order to prevent unnecessary institutionalisation. In collaboration with NGOs and international organisations, the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has already started implementing policies that restrict the number of orphanages, with the aim of achieving full deinstitutionalisation by 2030, prioritising family reunification where possible and a standardised family and foster care system with rigorous regulatory oversight.

Is decolonising aid the way forward?

It’s impossible to tackle solutions to the orphanage crisis in Haiti without addressing the underlying systemic issues rooted in colonialism, racism and oppressive structures. Haiti and its people are often portrayed as being in crisis by the media and international aid agencies attempting to deliberately erase the population’s collective memory and the rich history of resilience within Haitian civil society. This results in exclusion from high-level decision-making processes within the international aid community. Adopting a decolonial approach in Haiti and prioritising meaningful leadership among local parties may make aid responses both more inclusive and more effective for the Haitian people.

In Haitian Creole, children in institutional care are colloquially referred to as sanfanmi, which literally translates to ‘without family’. There’s a striking paradox in using this term in a country where four out of five children living in orphanages do actually have families. Historically, the people of Haiti have endured multiple hardships ranging from extreme poverty to natural disasters and political exclusion. The country’s orphanage crisis is yet another hardship; one that, similar to the security crisis, can only be solved through humanitarian efforts aimed at empowering Haitian children, families and civil society to stand on their own feet and chart their own course.


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