East African bluebird: the passionate Welshman helping Uganda's most vulnerable children
When GlobalWelsh asked me to write a little about my work in Uganda and other parts of the world, I wondered if this was a dangerous request to make to such a brash, passionate and opinionated Welshman! I don’t mince my words. But I have good reason for that.
For many years, I worked on Welsh Assembly Government programmes - and thoroughly enjoyed it. I met such diverse and wonderful people. However, I had a long-term plan and desire to use my skills to help others in particular, vulnerable children and families in countries less fortunate than ours. Eventually, in 2010, my family and I moved to Uganda to work for a Street Child project, helping children move from the street and back into communities.
Why ‘voluntourism’ in orphanages must stop
I lasted just a few months with that organisation. It was clear that they preferred institutionalising the children and were covering up widespread sexual abuse and neglect. I whistle-blew and called the Ugandan authorities and I worked with them to try and address the issues. Some years later the place closed down, mercifully.
Through this process however, the Ugandan Government were interested in my foster care blueprints and plans for reuniting children with their families. They’d already recognised they had a problem with so many illegal orphanages’ - most of whom shouldn’t be there. UNICEF recruited me and placed me in the Ugandan Government for 3 years to help them expand these ideas into a national policy.
I remember the day when UNICEF asked me which office I would prefer to work from, the air-conditioned, spacious, coffee-on-tap, safe UNICEF office or the cramped, often electricity-less, disorganised office with the Assistant Commissioner for Children in the Government building. I chose the latter with the words of my old boss, Bryn Williams, running through my ears “Go where the most trouble is”. Thanks Bryn!
During my first week in the department, I met families whose children had been ‘stolen’ from them by orphanages or by lawyers for International Adoption. We started to uncover and report widespread corruption, abuse and child trafficking - in ‘orphanages’ and inter-country adoption systems in Uganda.
We also discovered, something that is replicable over the world, that around 85 to 90% of children in these ‘orphanages’ had at least one living parent and that for the others, there were family or communities members who could be mobilised to care for them. The orphanages would actively recruit children, but the main reason why the children were there was due to them offering ‘free’ services such as food and education. Few of the orphanages offered any support to struggling families. We exposed ‘orphanages’ being run as businesses and found them completely lacking in the most basic ability to provide care for vulnerable children, resulting in widespread abuse and neglect.
We developed policies, tools, and systems to start combating these issues. Working with the Ugandan Government, while frustrating at times - was critical in making progress. These days I have a ‘robust’ relationship with them, borne out of many years of taking this journey together. You really have to be in it for the long haul and stand shoulder to shoulder with Government - while remaining critical of and holding them to account when you need to.
Joel Serwadda from Uganda believes that he has a family but the orphanage failed to trace them. He is calling upon the @commonwealthsec to support initiatives in Uganda to ensure children grow up in families not orphanages.@ComSecYouth @CHOGMCEO #CHOGM2018 #TransformingCare pic.twitter.com/YOnx34b1TT— Transform Alliance Africa (@T_A_Africa) April 2, 2018
As we got to work on these projects and time went on, we’d experience death threats, intimidation, abuse, trolling and even poisoning as people profiting from orphanages and child trafficking started to panic that their businesses, or worse – ‘egos’, were being adversely affected.
I don’t think they had realised that us Welsh can be very stubborn, belligerent and uncompromising (some would say stupid, which in my case may be true!).
While in Uganda I have worked with a close friend, Lucy Buck, founder of Child’s I Foundation. Together, we advocate that with the right commitment and approach to family-based care, children can not only be prevented from being separated from their families, but safely reunited with them.
Culturally appropriate foster care really is a much better way of caring for children temporarily. There are now thousands of projects throughout the world showing that family and community care is not only better for children, families, and communities - but it’s also cheaper. Every pound you spend keeping a child institutionalised would go a lot further in a community.
People often say ‘but my orphanage is different…’. It’s not.
Institutionalising children, whether in traditional dormitory-style orphanages or even in well-funded group homes/children’s villages, has been proven to be damaging for children, damaging for their families and should not be a part of a child protection system.
Residential care should be limited and community-based. I am blessed to have worked with governments around the world and work with some great child protection organisations in promoting family and community-based care.
‘Alternative care’ - a radical new approach
The truth is, family care works better and is more cost-effective than keeping children in institutions. There is so much evidence demonstrating that institutionalising children is harmful to their development, well-being, and future. Save the Children summarised the problems with ‘orphanages’ in a compelling paper.
Everything we promote and do is in line with the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care, which states that
“… the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”
On a lighter note, a few years ago I was watching my beloved Cardiff City play on TV in a bar in Kampala. When Cardiff scored, a rare occurrence at that time, I was surprised to see a few other people jump up and celebrate. This was a group of Ugandans and Kenyans who had been to University in Cardiff and become ‘bluebird’ supporters. So there is now a small group of East African Bluebirds. It’s these rare moments that surprise me - and keep me going.
My challenge now is to the First Minister of Wales, who was very interested in this work when we met in Kampala a few years ago. I told him: “Let’s make Wales an ‘orphanage’-supporting free zone.” I stand by this as a challenge.
I’d love the GlobalWelsh community and pioneers around the world to support our movement Transform Alliance Africa - a multiple country initiative to end institutionalisation of children in Africa.
Mark currently works for a number of organisations working globally on child protection projects and supporting ‘deinstitutionalisation’. He is an advisor for Hope and Homes for Children, a Senior Associate for Maestral International and founder of Uganda based NGO Alternative Care Initiates.
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