Ebola orphans in Africa do not need saviours

Western aid needs to support home-grown solutions to create a new generation of African leaders.

West Africa's Ebola epidemic has produced no shortage of heartrending stories, writes Arinaitwe [Reuters]

West Africa’s Ebola epidemic has produced no shortage of heartrending stories. Recently, a number of these have focused on the so-called “Ebola orphans” – The New York Times’ pitiful account of four-year old “Sweetie Sweetie” in Sierra Leone is one striking example – who are presented as the littlest victims of a global public health emergency.

I know a thing or two about orphanhood. I grew up in rural Uganda, and by my 10th birthday, I had lost seven of my immediate family members. My mother died of cancer. My father died of AIDS. And my four siblings all died of preventable diseases, such as measles and malaria. I was transformed from the proud son of a respected farmer and a schoolteacher to a helpless “AIDS orphan” in the eyes of international aid workers and western sympathisers.

The western media’s portrayal of Sweetie and her brethren as abandoned waifs reinforces the persistent “Save Africa” narrative of a hopeless continent. These are the type of stories which spur handout contributions, or prompt well-meaning couples to hop on a plane to Sierra Leone in hopes of saving “Sweetie” and her wretched siblings from their West African misery one orphan at a time.  

What it means to be an orphan

This type of coverage excels at generating pity for the victim to interest westerners, but gives little dignity to the child and the community in which she has been raised. 

It’s important to recognise that there is a cultural difference at play when we discuss orphans. More often than not children in Africa are raised by extended families and their village communities, unlike in western societies where it is the sole responsibility of the parents.

It’s important to recognise that there is a cultural difference at play when we discuss orphans. More often than not children in Africa are raised by extended families and their village communities, unlike in western societies where it is the sole responsibility of the parents.

I know of two young men who lost both their parents to AIDS in a small impoverished Kenyan village close to the Ugandan border. The village, having been part of these children’s upbringing, knew their dreams just as well as their own parents.

The young men had set out to be doctors. After receiving college scholarships from Brown University, they had no money to afford their tickets to the US. The village organised, sold everything from goats, chickens to agricultural produce to send the young men to school.

The “Sons of Lwala,” named after their village, have returned after their medical education and built the first medical clinic in their village; a testament of a community raising its own future leaders.

The story of the “Sons of Lwala” is not unique to this village, similar stories exist across Africa.

In my case, it was my extended family and a few local organisations, not aid organisations that served me most powerfully.

I witnessed a flood of well-intentioned, but often misguided western NGOs and volunteers infiltrate the town closest to my village in the 1990s – just as my family began to die off.

At the time, home-grown Ugandan organisations, such as The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO), were the sole reason my father was able to live two years beyond his HIV diagnosis. My mornings were often spent walking miles to TASO headquarters to pick up his anti-retroviral medications and food rations.

But organisations like TASO were few and soon they were overwhelmed by international aid. The organisations quickly surrounded “AIDS orphans” like me, and used us to tell with their own narratives and advance their own agendas.

Instead of supporting local communities and relatives, like my grandmother, to care for orphans like me, international organisations and donors poured resources into orphanages that were often poorly staffed and ill-equipped.

Rethinking how to provide aid

An unintended consequence of this situation – which we see time and again – was a flood of eager and well-intentioned international volunteers who fuelled the rise of the orphanages. This orphanage industry soon became a tourist attraction.

These volunteers often raise the hopes of the orphans, and then after quickly departing, leave the orphans even more vulnerable in the emotional aftermath of abandonment. The children left behind after their counterparts are whisked off by adoption wonder if they were not chosen because there is something inherently wrong with them. Their self-confidence is battered.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child highlights that institutionalised care should never replace home-based care, and studies have shown the promise of child villages instead. In the worst cases, the unregulated orphanage industry has sometimes led to child-trafficking and illegal adoptions. Abundant western aid has actually made these child protection crises profitable for some.

Sierra Leone orders lockdown over Ebola

Ironically, too much aid can actually make things worse.

The countries in West Africa that best responded to containing Ebola were those with the least aid.

Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – the countries that have failed to stop Ebola – receive western aid to the tune of 73 percent of their GDP and house thousands of NGO workers in their capital cities.

This counterintuitive relationship between aid and good healthcare systems and governance is an example of the deeply and troubling wider narrative of aid failures in Africa, where depending heavily on western aid and patronage for sustenance leads to corruption, cronyism, and failed governance structures.

William Easterly, a professor of economics at NYU, has shown that countries that receive copious aid are less likely to be democratic and more likely to nurture autocrats and have weak institutions. 

The answer to these crises is home-grown African solutions, with the right, strategic support from the international community to ensure that children are not left waiting for a benevolent, and often elusive, western saviour. Most importantly, this help does not have to uproot the child from their community, or transform them into “victims”.

To be sure, no orphan can survive in a place without family, psychological and social support. Without my own grandmother and countless other individuals both at home and abroad who have supported me, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

Community versus institution

Part of what helped me was having a great and affordable elementary education. What these children need is early childhood education centres with supportive caretakers, nutrition, and stimulation. This can only happen if aid programmes focus on institution building, and structural changes rather than one-time solutions or saving children one at a time.

For every Sweetie, there are countless children left wondering why they weren’t plucked away.

I dream of an Africa where all Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, seek accountability and transparency from our governments, aid agencies and corporations with our votes and our voices. We have already started to unite to work together across ideological and geographical backgrounds to invest our resources, skills, and ideas to drive our own economic and social agenda.

Only then can we ensure that the child survivors of Ebola are born in an Africa where they are not seen as victims or beggars, but as captains of their own fate and the next generation of drivers for our social and economic development.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a 2015 Acumen Global Fellow working in Bangalore, India. He is currently working with LabourNet in India to improve livelihoods, and solve poverty challenges that face India’s poorest of the poor. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.