Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Operation Waterwheel

I'm going to be out of touch for the next little while. A bunch of us are leaving Sunday on our most ambitious up-country venture to date, an epic 1,000-mile journey covering eight counties via the worst (read: most fun) roads in Liberia. The plan is two days down, five days in Harper, a beautiful old city isolated near the border of Côte D'Ivoire, then two days back.
Have a merry Christmas, everyone, and a joyous new year. I hope you get plenty of time, plenty of family and friends and FOOD. Remember the reason for the season, and I'll be back with stories and photos soon. Love to all!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Crash course on orphan politics

Last week I tweeted my way through an all-day workshop hosted by Liberia's social welfare department and UNICEF. The goal was to validate a framework for a three-year program to de-institutionalize 50% of the more than 5,000 children living in Liberia's orphanages.

I got some questions from my tweeting, so this is my attempt to provide a brief overview. [Disclaimer: If you're not interested in the drier, more politico-technical aspects of orphan care, I'd consider skipping this one.]

First, some context in point form:
  • Liberia endured 14 years of civil conflict from 1989 to 2003.
  • Before the war, there were ten orphanages. Now there are at least 142.
  • Before the war, orphans were cared for by extended family (kinship care) or the community at large (foster care), making orphanages almost obsolete. This intrinsic cultural safety net was degraded by the conflict. While it is still present, it has been overshadowed by a mean entrepreneurial spirit that's noticed the international aid and attention that an orphanage can attract.
  • Among groups like ours, the generally accepted number of actual orphans in orphanages is 33-50%, the rest having either been recruited away from their families up-country, or residing at the orphanage under a boarding school arrangement (but under the false pretense or being an orphan).
  • This huge proportion of non-orphans diverts aid and attention away from the real orphans, and relieves parents' responsibility to care for their own children. This program is predicated on the finding that children thrive under individualized attention that they simply don't receive in an orphanage setting.
  • The goal of the program is to reduce the total number of non-orphans, then reduce the number of orphanages by closing those homes with abusive, neglectful, trafficking, and profiteering directors. This will allow the government and its helping hands to focus resources on the remaining orphan(age)s with excellent directors committed to raising healthy, successful children.
So that's the situation, more or less. Now, the solution is complex, multi-faceted, and gradual. Much as we'd all love to scoop ALL the children out of those poor, broken orphanages and get them into safe, loving, dry, clean homes... Well, we have to prioritize: the worst orphanages closed first.

Top to bottom: Introduction to the framework by Ina, the consultant and spearheader; Breakaway groups to identify and address gaps; Group presentations to the plenary.

The first step is to reunify as many children as have families -- immediate or extended -- able to provide care. This is incredibly difficult and time-consuming, and never really ends. Assessment and follow-up monitoring are needed to ensure children are welcomed, safe, and don't become domestic servants to their own families. Likewise, there will need to be a fine balance struck between providing a "welcome home" package and creating expectations of continued external assistance.

The second best option would seem to be foster care, though this requires intense pre-evaluation and monitoring. In this scheme, government would be expected to share in much of the financial cost of raising these children--particularly school fees. Still, growing up in a home with one-on-one attention, discipline, and love is almost always better than growing up in an institution.

Where children are found to have no living relatives and foster care isn't possible, it's left to place them in the best institution available -- either another, better orphanage, or a boarding school.

The other consideration is to move the children as little as possible, to reduce the trauma of multiple relocations. So while we need to act urgently, we also need to be sure-footed, as confident as possible in the safety and durability of the end situation--whether it's a family or foster home, boarding school, or another orphanage.

Finally, I'll just say this: I've been sitting in government meetings for almost three years, repeating many of the same planning meetings without ever getting around to the implementation. This one, I hope and pray, is actually going to fly--thanks mostly to financial backing from UNICEF. My role within this process is not at all central, but to be an active participant in the process, to provide expertise and momentum, resources and accountability throughout -- essentially, to do whatever I can to ensure it actually happens.

There you have it--my crash course on de-institutionalization. Questions? Comments? Recommendations? I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The bright side of hectic

I picked up some colleagues from the airport the other day whom I'd seen just two weeks ago in Texas, yet it feels like it had been months. Such has been these last two weeks--hitting the ground running, raising the bar for myself, and (well above and beyond all that) watching God line up mini-miracles each day.

I'm explosively happy to be back in Liberia, home, after three and a half wonderful months with, well, the rest of the world. With many of you.

Last night I was telling a friend what I want in life -- roots, community, love and support. And that led me to realize how much life has changed in the three years I've been here. My first trip here, it was just four of us camping out in a big empty house, sleeping on the floor -- didn't have much to offer, didn't know many people, just learning and doing and growing each day. Now, I have roots here. Real community. I have my people. My team is great at what they do. I have a immensely (and equally) challenging and rewarding job. It's still life on a submarine, in a sense--everything in common, no secrets, the good/bad/ugly--but it's become my real life, and I love it. I really love it.

Now, I hesitate to say this; it's not to glorify myself, I just don't want you to misunderstand me: this is hard. Children are sick, skinny, robbed, given away, used, exploited, abused, all but crushed. Adults are lazy, corrupt, mean, hotheaded, selfish and greedy. The country is broken. The healing (while substantial) is still so superficial. They fixed the roads, sure, but there's still the crooked cop cheating a taxi driver out of $0.17 to get through his pylons.

Corruption is called friendship, and everybody's friendly.

What I love is the deep and abiding satisfaction of being right where I'm supposed to be, and that I get to do it with vibrant, deeply loving people. So many of you have been asking me, recently and for three years now, How long are you going to do this? The answer I'm not sure of. I'm thrilled that God called me here, where He knew I'd thrive; but I hope I would go wherever He called me next, Africa or Canada or Space. All I know is, when I follow Him, it always seems to get I can't wait.

Finally, I just have to celebrate two amazing facts: Elena (an old high school friend recently rediscovered) has joined ORR full-time, and just got to Liberia. (Check her blog here) And secondly, another couple, both very close friends from elementary school, are coming in February! I've finally managed to export Huntsville to Liberia, the best of both worlds!! :)