Monday, May 21, 2007

Fake orphans in Liberia

The UN's IRIN news service has a troubling story on corruption by orphanages in Liberia.

Orphanages are big businesses in Liberia attracting millions of dollars in international assistance every year, yet thousands of the so-called orphans living there are not parentless at all, according to Liberian government officials and child rights activists, it reports.

"Most of the children living in almost all of the orphanages in this country are not actual orphans, but have been used by orphanage owners to seek external funding for their personal gains,” explained Liberia's deputy health minister for social welfare.

The number of orphanages in the country has increased more than tenfold since the eruption of civil war in the country in 1989. An investigation conducted jointly by the health ministry and UNICEF revealed that some percent of children in orphanges still have parents or family members who are alive.

“There was a case reported to the health ministry in 2006 involving an orphanage owner where a foreign philanthropist had provided thousands of American dollars for the upkeep of the orphanage, but the donor later discovered that those children were not orphans,” the deputy minister said. “Instead they were taken from families within surrounding neighbourhoods.”

In other circumstances, some of these problems might be attributed to the general chaos of war. But the report reveals that orphanges routinely block efforts to reunite children with their families, because it would mean the institutions would lose some funding.

“The more children that an orphanage has the better they can solicit external funding,” said Jerolinmek Piah, coordinator of the National Child Rights Observation Group (NACROG). "Based on assessments we have been carrying out those orphanage owners have established ties with some philanthropic organisations abroad - sometimes in the United States - seeking and receiving funding for children who they have taken from their families and describing them as orphans whereas they are not."

But despite the funding, conditions in many orphanges are not good.

“Children living in Liberia’s orphanages are denied basic rights – ranging from the right to development and health, to the right to identity, family, education, leisure and participation in cultural activities,” says a report issued by UNMIL, the UN mission in the country.

This phenomenon is extremely disturbing, as it certainly raises doubt in the minds of donors about all orphanages. I don't think many donors would have serious problems with their money being used to help children separated from their families, but I'm sure most would expect attempts to be made to reunite children with their families. A tip of the cap to the health ministry for taking this problem seriously.

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