Addicted to Orphans: How the Global Orphan Industrial Complex Jeopardizes Local Child Protection Systems

Kristen E. Cheney and Karen Smith Rotabi

While many scholars and activists from multiple disciplines have reported on various aspects of orphan policy and the international adoption industry, there has been little synthesis of this information and its implications for global child protection. This chapter asserts that the misidentification of “orphans” as a category for development and humanitarian intervention has subsequently been misappropriated by many Western individuals and charitable organizations. Promoting a discourse of orphan rescue, they foster the growth of an “orphan industrial complex.” In developing countries like Guatemala and Uganda where children are targeted for “rescue,” the discourse and practice of “orphan rescue” is subsequently jeopardizing child protection and even driving the “production” of orphans as objects for particular kinds of intervention, counter to established international standards of child protection.

This chapter first traces the etymology of the definition of “orphan” and its attendant “crises.” Then, using examples from Guatemala and Uganda, the authors consider how the idea of an “orphan crisis” has traveled from development to charitable responses and what effects this has on local child protection systems. It then weighs the implications of ostensibly humanitarian interventions for orphans and offers some alternative care models based on supporting families and communities in a manner that is economically and socially relevant to local systems and culture, social workforce training on the importance of family preservation, and making deinstitutionalization a policy goal.

This chapter appears in Geographies of Children and Young People: Conflicts, Violence and Peace (2016).