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Orphanages – Lessons from the Cane Toad (1)

Orphanages – Lessons from the Cane Toad 1

Orphanages – Lessons from the Cane Toad (1)


Sugar cane is an alien species to Australia, imported here to exploit a perceived lucrative economic opportunity. However, the tiny native Grey-Backed Cane Beetle almost put an end to that dream as it decimated the new plantations. The proposed solution? The American Cane Toad. Despite biosecurity concerns which initially limited its introduction in 1935, only one year later the possible wealth to be had proved irresistible, the flood gates were opened and the toads spread rapidly. They are now considered an exemplar invasive pest. They have devastated the biodiversity of North East Australia, and continue to spread west with no plausible eradication plan in sight.

There’s much we can learn from this sad story. But this article applies these lessons specifically to institutional care in developing nations, a.k.a. orphanages.

Orphanages had a long history in Europe prior to western colonialism, but were a foreign concept in non-western nations. Traditionally, non-western cultures are what’s known as collectivist cultures, i.e. they have a significantly higher view of family and community than individualist western cultures. So much so, that the idea of isolating a child from its extended family and community as a solution to poverty would never have even entered their minds.

So where did orphanages in the developing world come from? Westerners imported them. Generally they did so as a sincere expression of compassion in response to the poverty (or at least perceived poverty) they witnessed. Orphanages seemed like a “normal” and rational solution. However, like sugar cane, in most cases this poverty wasn’t native either. Rather, it was the direct result of colonialisation which set out to exploit the lucrative economic opportunities of the developing world. In so doing, it wreaked havoc on the health, cultural, economic, and social fabric of these nations leaving many natives in a state of poverty or vulnerability to it.

Unfortunately, orphanages, rather than solving these problems, only exacerbated them. Orphanages isolated the children from extended family and community, removing the latter groups’ ability to provide care. This often caused irreparable damage to all parties given their identity and self confidence are grounded in these relationships and functions. They also significantly impaired the children’s mental, social and educational development. This meant that even as adults, they could not contribute to the community as well as they would have. Nor could they pass on traditional skills to future generations, thus entrenching cycles of poverty. This was simply never anticipated by the well-meaning-folk who imported the orphanages.

What’s worse, is that all of these affected areas are now recognised as core ingredients required for empowering communities to overcome poverty. This, in conjunction with acknowledged human rights issues, has led to the global consensus that children should only ever be put in institutional care as an absolute last resort, and even then, only on a temporary basis (Cf. UN’s Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children esp. section II. B Alternative care).

The lesson here is that like the Cane Toad, orphanages are a foreign solution to a problem caused by foreign interference. And like the toad, despite good intentions, the damage they caused has been severe.

Undoubtedly this article has made some readers uncomfortable, perhaps even angry. This is understandable, and a response will be made to this issue in the follow up article.

This post was written by Matthew Jarlett. Photo by Samuel Zeller.

Jarlett, M. (2016, July 01). Orphanages – Lessons from the Cane Toad (1). Retrieved April 2018, from the HBC Web Site.


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