Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What About Vulnerable Children?, Rwanda Dispatch, March 17, 2009


I've gone on a long journey for many years wrestling with what is our responsibility for vulnerable children. I've adopted 2 children, been an advocate for more adoptions, at one time sponsored 200 children to attend school, employed lots of people, facilitated many university scholarships, and started a school. I could make a nice CV about what I've done, but I find it has been short.

Though I've done what some may consider a great amount I emotionally avoid engagement. I don't go to orphanages and pretend I don't see street children. I've grown weary of unending problems and dependency. I'm weary of short sighted projects. I'm weary of expatriates who are unwilling to commit themselves, but put band aids on problems and snap photos to send back home as they request more money.

I've thrown my life in Rwanda into a vision of developing leadership that will be a source of transformation for generations. I'm convinced I can't be an advocate of the poor if I am not for the establishment of the middle class.

I tend to work with statistics to discern if my intuition is correct. I put some startling statistics together 2 months ago.

• 1 % of population has attended any type of Post-Secondary Education.
• 3% of Rwanda's population could be considered middle class (A/B audience) by Rwanda's media. (About 300,000 people or 50,000 households)

• 34 % of households are headed by widows.
• 13 % of households are headed by children.
• 26 % of the population under the age of 14 are orphans (Somewhere between 825,000 and 1,000,000 children).

Do you see the problem? I don't think it will be possible for Rwanda to become a middle income nation if we don't effectively deal with these vulnerable children. They will become an economic weight that will break all gains. Also, many are under the age of 15 and thus were born after 1994. Given the genocide was a major factor that created this dilemma, but we are now dealing with the second generation of this phenomena and a cyclical problem is developing.

Though some may consider me seasoned, I’m not an expert. However, let me offer three principles that may have some merit in addressing the issue of vulnerable children.

The first comes from the UN Geneva Convention. It is “Every child has a right to a family.” This seems to make perfect sense. In fact a popular African proverb states, “There are no orphans in Africa.” The extended family is to take care of all. None should fall through the cracks. However, children are falling through the cracks. I advocate adoption as a partial answer to the problem of vulnerable children in Rwanda. However, raising the issue of adoption raises certain questions. A few may even whisper, “Can a parent love his adopted children as much as his biological children?” Let me from experience say clearly, “No. Jana and I love our adopted children, Ruth and Timothy, much more than our three biological children.” (Please tolerate my humor, but I really am proud of my adopted kids.)

My second principle is programs can not undermine community institutions such as families, churches, and schools. It is far too easy to in a hurry set up a program that inadvertently undermines the community institutions that have the capacity to solve the problem. A few years ago, a colleague of mine said, “If you want to increase the number of orphans in a community start an orphanage.” Though we may chose that a new institution is required to solve this problem, we cannot in any way set in course a chain of events that undermine the fundamental institutions of community.

The last uncompromising principle is that this problem requires commitment for the full education of children and their incorporation as proactive members of society. We should do no projects that are not comprehensive in scope. Thus my solutions would be about the building of three basic institutions – families, schools, and businesses. Vulnerable children can not be isolated from community. Values are taught in families and we must creatively find ways for vulnerable children to become part of families. Schools provide the intellectual tools of knowledge and creativity. Vulnerable children must be in school and learn the tools of self-reliance instead of despair and dependency. Lastly, this issue will not be solved quickly. The creation of new businesses to generate wealth, jobs, and cycles of economic growth are fundamental. Donor dollars, emotional appeals, and short-term projects have failed. It’s time to find an answer within our community with our own resources.


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  2. The difficulties you describe can be multiplied by many more nations, I'm afraid, and this only makes stretching resources with strategy more necessary. I think a necessary (but not sufficient) thing is getting information and social resources to the caregivers who remain--hence I boost the heaven out of building the great global grid (even though I am aware it brings with it opportunities for grave evil). I saw this just before I saw your FB notice--Why is Philanthropy So Unsophisticated? by Peter Diamandis, Chairman & CEO, X Prize Foundation