First World Materialism and the Poverty Orphan– Connected or Not?

So, if you want to read some of the other things that we’ve discussed about poverty orphans, go to and to

Today we’re going to jump a good bit further into the poverty orphan issue and discuss the relationship between First World Materialism and the Poverty Orphan.   It’s not an easy subject to understand, so grab a cup of coffee and let’s jump into it.

Let me start by framing the two terms for the purpose of this discussion:

  • First World Materialism – the definition is pretty easy – the first world is a very very wealthy world in comparison to the remaining portions of the world.   All you need to do is look in the cupboards of the home of any one of us in the first world and compare that to a cupboard (if they have one) of the house (if they have one) in Haiti or Uganda or Somalia or the DRC……..
  • Poverty Orphan – my definition of a poverty orphan is a child who has one or more parents who WANT to take care of their child(ren) but for one or more of a wide variety of reasons is unable to.

How does First World Materialism leak over into the 3rd world and create Poverty Orphans?

Consider a few thoughts:

  • A short term missions team shows up with really nice hiking sandals, top quality back packs, expensive cameras and phones that cost more than many of the people from that area will make in a year.
  • A member of a short term team makes friends with a neighborhood kid.    The kid asks/begs for a new bike.    The team member feels  like he wants to help and buys him one.   An hour after the proud neighbor kid rides off on new bike, bullies beat him up, steal the bike and leave the kid traumatized and in worse shape than he was.   (True story from a friend of mine)
  • Adoptive families send their waiting children a photo album.   Rather than pictures of the family that focus on the family and what “life” looks like, the  pictures in the album include pictures at a baseball game, at Disney World, tubing behind a big boat, on vacation in the Rocky Mountains and the like.    Now, ask yourself, if you were a nanny helping “your kids” look through their album and you saw those type of pictures, what sort of picture would it give you of America?   Yep – it’s a place where everyone goes on vacation, goes to baseball games, lives in huge houses and does really exciting things.   So, a nanny has a friend who is struggling to care for her children, nanny says, “you should consider adoption – I’ve seen pictures of what America is like and your daughter would be walking streets of gold and living in luxury and doing all kinds of amazing things.”    A totally true but culturally biased and skewed view of the first world.
  • Most of the cars that native people from that country drive are older, rather beat up (bad roads do that) and not running real well (I know I’m generalizing, but bear with me).   In Haiti (I don’t know about other places), many of the big NGOs that work there are driving around in $50,000 plus SUVs.  I know, I’ve seen them with the logos of the big NGOS.
  • Many of the charities that operate in 3rd world countries operate under the “give a man a fish” scenario rather than the “teach a man to fish.”   You know the saying, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day.   If you teach a man to fish, he can eat for a lifetime.”   Programs that create dependency, programs that, with the exception of emergencies/disasters and medical care, promote dependency rather than independency (I know that’s not a real word) are programs that create and encourage a mindset which says, “I can’t provide for my child(ren) as well as they could in ________, so I’ll give them a better life and send them to an orphanage that will find them a family in “America.”

All of these are purely anecdotal but I believe that they show a very important principle.  

First world materialism does have an impact on the creation of poverty orphans.

And that means that it’s crucial that those organizations who operate in 3rd world countries do so with a couple of principles in mind:

  • Value the people and the culture.   While it’s very common and acceptable to speak ill of the frustrations and difficulties of living and working in a 3rd world country, a very clear line needs to be drawn between complaining about the frustrations and complaining about the people.   
  • In my 20 plus years in banking, I had the opportunity to work with some very wealthy clients.   One thing that I learned from working with them was that they were no happier even though they were making 5 to 10 times what I was.    The same thing goes the other way.   The fact that my house is nicer than most in Haiti doesn’t make me happier or more content.   We all need to remember that more possessions doesn’t make us more content or more joy filled.
  • Do short term missions right – do them in a way that respects the culture, respects the people and helps the long term staff build relationships.  Downplay the wealth of the team.   Rather than showing home movies on your iPad to the nannies, bring pictures of your adopted kids on the swing set – printed pictures that can be passed around.
  • Encourage the local economy whenever possible.    Buy souvenirs, buy things locally so that it helps the local economy.    More on that later.

It’s a difficult link, it’s part of the “messy” that we’ve talked about (and will be more – read  But it’s something that we need to wrestle with.

If we’re going to do anything about the poverty orphan syndrome.  

And we need to do something about the poverty orphan syndrome  – because there are families who depend on us.


Why? And Why a Poverty Orphan Isn’t Always Who You Think…….

Why would someone consider voluntarily relinquishing their child and putting them up for adoption?   A horribly difficult decision and one that too many parents face too often. It almost always comes down to resources – but not always the resources that you might think. Economic Resources – there are some who bring their child(ren) to an orphanage for strictly economic reasons.   They don’t have the ability to provide food and the basic necessities of life for their child.   Now a couple of questions that come with that:

  • Is their inability to provide the economic necessities of life a long term situation or is it because of a short term event?    Short term event – like a drought or a hurricane wiping out their crops?   Or the death of a parent?   Or the loss of a job?   Is it something where relatively short term assistance could help them get back on their feet?
  • Or is the inability to provide a bigger issue?   Like a lack of industry?   A lack of the ability to read?   A lack of job training?  The unaffordability of decent housing (decent according to that country’s standards?

The answer to those questions determine, in many ways, the appropriate way to help.    If it’s a short term “thing,” then helping with short term assistance of food etc. might be appropriate.   If it’s a bigger issue, then job training, education, housing assistance might be the way to help. Emotional Resources – lets face it, being a parent is hard work.    And living in a place like Haiti or Uganda or the Congo is hard work.    So when you are a parent in one of these countries, it’s doubly hard.    Now throw in the fact that many of these parents are single parents due to a wide variety of reasons and it’s even harder. Many times biological parents need emotional support.   They need to know they aren’t in this alone.   They need to know that there are people and ways they can get help when they need it.   Just knowing that provides them with the support they need to keep going. Medical Resources – in places like Haiti, 20% of the children don’t live to celebrate their 5th birthday.   Unfortunately many of them die from diseases that could be prevented or cured in the first world.    So many biological parents are forced to bring their children to an orphanage if they get seriously ill.    If there were more hospitals and more access to affordable health care in the 3rd world, more children could be cured medically AND be able to stay with their birth family. Safety Resources – consider the impact of homelessness on safety.   Consider the impact of living under a tarp in a “tent city” that is “ruled” by gangs.    Consider not having the ability to keep your young daughters safe from sexual violence?   That’s another one of the resources that causes birth parents to bring their children to an orphanage.    They don’t feel like they can keep them safe, so they bring them to someone who they feel/hope/think can keep them safe. Each of these categories of need can be addressed. But it’s messy.    And hard. We’ll talk more about that coming up in the future. Tom

Poverty Orphan?

I have to admit that it was years after I first got involved in adoption that I heard the term “poverty orphan.”    It was even longer until I truly understood and accepted it as a reality.

I think that part of the reason it took so long is because it is painful and it is messy.

What’s a poverty orphan?   Very simply, a poverty orphan is an orphan who became an orphan, not through the death of his or her parents but through the inability of his or her parents to provide the necessary care to keep them alive.  Not to keep them in luxury like even the middle class in America lives, but to keep them alive.

That means that his/her parents were faced with an excruciating choice…….

  • Do I give up my child so that another family can raise them and do what I can’t – provide for them and make sure they live to see a future?
  • Or do I continue to attempt to care for my child(ren) and keep them with me and run the very significant chance that they won’t survive?

That’s a choice that is messy.

It’s painful.   Painful for the parents – they will forever be wondering if they made the right choice.

Painful for the children – “my mom gave me up because she didn’t want me.”   I know first hand (actually 2nd hand) how difficult those questions can be for an adopted child.

If you had asked me 15 years ago, “what’s the definition of an orphan?”   I would have told you that it was a child who had no parents.

Unfortunately, this world is a lot messier and more painful than we’d like.   Many of the children in orphanages and in foster care are indeed orphans in the true sense of the word – their parents are both dead or gone.   But many of them are there even though they have biological parents.   However their biological parents can’t take care of them.

And in many cases it’s because the parents are in a hard place and just don’t have the means to care for them.  

Poverty orphan – a glimpse at the sad fallen state of this world and how sin has made life so much of a struggle.