Malawi’s Orphans: The Role of Transnational Humanitarian Organizations

Deborah J. Johnson, DeBrenna LaFa Agbényiga and Robert K. Hitchcock (eds.)Vulnerable Children2013Global Challenges in Education, Health, Well-Being, and Child Rights10.1007/978-1-4614-6780-9_14© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

14. Malawi’s Orphans: The Role of Transnational Humanitarian Organizations

Andrea Freidus  and Anne Ferguson 

James Madison College, Michigan State University, Case Hall, 842 Chestnut Road, Room S352, East Lansing, MI 48824-1118, USA

Anthropology and Center for Gender in Global Context, Michigan State University, Baker Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1118, USA



Andrea Freidus (Corresponding author)


Anne Ferguson


Emerging literature on the new humanitarianism, presented in this chapter, provides a lens to consider the work of transnational orphan care organizations. We draw on this literature to examine the images and discourses transnational orphan care organizations in Malawi use to enlist support for their endeavors. These include the websites, picture galleries, fund-raisers, and volunteer tours of orphanages that they purposely construct, using sentiments of compassion in order to enlist international contributors and volunteers in their activities. Our study draws upon research conducted during 2006 and 2008 in Malawi and the United States (USA).

“I Am Because We Are,” Madonna’s documentary focused on orphans in Malawi, begins with a disturbing description of what is happening to children in Southern Africa as a result of the AIDS pandemic. She recounts a story in which a local Malawian woman, Victoria Keelan, calls her for assistance, pleading the case that there are over a million children orphaned by AIDS. Victoria says there are not enough orphanages, and children are sleeping on the streets, in abandoned buildings, and under bridges. Children are being abducted, kidnapped, and raped. We are told, “this is a state of emergency.” Throughout the course of the documentary, a vivid picture emerges of Malawian children in despair, facing malnutrition, physical and emotional suffering, discrimination, exploitation, and vulnerability. We are encouraged to contribute to the cause of orphans for the sake of humanity and in recognition of a new global consciousness and connectedness. This is effective. Who would not want to support innocent children in such dire circumstances? In this chapter, we examine these pleas for support. Who responds? What assumptions do they bring with them as they support orphan care programs in Malawi?

In her article, “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France,” Miriam Ticktin (2006) draws attention to the emergence of a new form of humanitarianism. Ticktin and others (Nguyen, 2009; Pandolfi, 2003; Ticktin, 2006) suggest that humanitarianism today often functions as a transnational system of governance that creates new subjectivities adapted to the neoliberal global order. Humanitarian efforts can be conceptualized as “mobile or migrant sovereignties,” transcending the boundaries of the nation state. Depicted as a humanitarian crisis or emergency, these programs create a legitimate space for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to govern populations (Appadurai, 1996; Nguyen, 2009; Pandolfi, 2003).

Emerging literature on the new humanitarianism, outlined in this chapter, provides a lens to consider the work of transnational orphan care organizations. We draw on this literature to examine the images and discourses transnational orphan care organizations in Malawi use to enlist support for their endeavors. These included the websites, picture galleries, fund-raisers, and volunteer tours of orphanages that they develop, using sentiments of compassion in order to enlist international contributors and volunteers in their activities. Our chapter is based on research conducted between 2006 and 2008 in Malawi and the United States (USA).

The New Humanitarianism

Ticktin (2006) traces the emergence of what she terms the new humanitarianism to the 1970s, particularly the founding of Doctors Without Borders and the emergence of the NGO industry. She suggests that humanitarianism functions as a political regime, or way of governing, with a logic that differs from that of human rights.1 Human rights institutions are grounded in law and are constructed for furthering legal claims, responsibility, and accountability. Humanitarianism, on the other hand, is about the moral imperative to bring relief to the suffering and to save lives. The morality of humanitarianism emphasizes benevolence, charity, and generosity more so than justice, obligation, and entitlement (Ticktin, 2006, p. 45). Both are universalistic discourses, but they employ different logics—one juridical and the other the ethics of compassion—and they give rise to different ideas of humanity (Ticktin, 2006, p. 35). Thus, humanitarianism is an emergent discourse that coexists with human rights discourses and is becoming increasingly powerful as neoliberalism advances.

Drawing on Agamben’s (1995) conceptualization of zoe, or “bare life,” Ticktin argues that the humanity produced by the politics of compassion is often a limited or circumscribed one, focused on suffering and its alleviation. As such, it may be devoid of the political and social content that distinguishes humankind from other types of life (Redfield, 2005). Ticktin’s article examines illegal immigrants in France who trade in biological integrity for political recognition. Due to new legal clauses granting residency to those with life-threatening conditions not treatable in their home country, she found that illegal immigrants embraced an illness identity as a means of gaining immigration papers. Malkki (1996) has made similar observations, pointing out how humanitarianism may reduce refugees to passive and innocent victims who are objects of charity rather than active subjects with particular rights.

Malawi is a good context in which to examine these issues. The country has nearly one million orphaned children, many of whom face poverty, stigmatization, food insecurity, and limited access to education and health care (Conroy, Blackie, Whiteside, Malewezi, & Sachs, 2006; UNICEF, 2006). UNAIDS (2004) defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents to death and who is under the age of 18. In the past, children who lost a parent or parents were usually taken in by extended family members and remained integrated in their communities. Even today, only in unusual circumstances do children fall through these local safety nets. In Southern Africa, only 1–3% of orphaned children are in formal orphanages or other residential care centers (Subbarao & Coury, 2004). However, a growing number of those who remain in communities in Malawi are assisted by community-­based childcare centers (CBCC), many of which depend on funding from transnational humanitarian sources. Thus, the reach of humanitarian organizations extends well beyond children in orphanages to include many of those who continue to reside in their communities of origin.

In 1991, the Malawian government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and in 1992 it published its first orphan care policy (National Plan of Action, 2005; UN, 2000; UNICEF, 2006). However, humanitarianism is assuming a primary role in the governance of vulnerable children, largely eclipsing the rights-based approach found in many of the government policies. Because of decades of neoliberal reform and the resulting increase in poverty, the Malawian state does not have the human or financial resources needed to implement its own plans and visions regarding vulnerable children (Conroy et al., 2006). Instead, it has turned to a variety of humanitarian-oriented groups, ranging from locally based community-based organizations (CBOs) and churches through transnational organizations with differing ideologies that support orphan care programs.

Transnational Orphan Care Programs in Malawi

There are numerous transnational orphan care organizations operating in Malawi today, many of them faith-based in nature. Our research focuses on four of them as described in this chapter.2 The first is the Miracles Complex headed by a Malawian entrepreneur but supported principally by an evangelical, faith-based organization headquartered in the southern part of the United States. It provides a hospital, orphanage, and food distribution program targeting CBOs. Miracles has ties to US churches, carries out fund-raising, and hosts over 200 international volunteers annually. Its projects are designed and initiated by the transnational community and are implemented by Malawian counterparts.

Based in the western region of the United States, the second organization we examine, Interfaith Coalition (IC), supports Malawian-led grassroots projects on HIV/AIDS-related orphan care and nutrition programs. In contrast to the top-down orientation used in Miracles, it follows a liberal, nondenominational, community-­oriented, participatory approach that draws on development ideologies of empowering women by creating income-generating activities meant to promote sustainability.

The third organization is Madonna’s orphan project, Raising Malawi, inspired by the Kabala faith. Madonna supports a variety of projects, including CBOs, community centers focused on orphans and vulnerable children, and the orphanage where she found her adopted son, David Banda. Madonna relies on her position as a prominent celebrity to raise awareness about the issue of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi. She hosts concerts, appears at various celebrity events and on television shows, and produced a documentary to demonstrate “the plight of Malawi’s orphans.” As illustrated below, she draws heavily on modernity ideology and constructs images of the poor, diseased, unloved, and desperate African orphans in need of the modern, saving, advanced, and benevolent hand of the West.

The fourth organization, Rescue Children’s Home, had no overt religious affiliation. Rescue, the world’s largest orphan and abandoned children’s charity, has built orphanages throughout Africa meant to simulate rural village communities and is founded on four principles—mother, brothers and sisters, house, and village. The director is referred to as bambo (father), and the children are supervised by housemothers. Children who entered Rescue generally relinquished ties to their village of origin as Rescue gains legal custody of them. In the Malawian context, this orphanage is considered the deluxe model of orphan care. The children receive some of the best health care (including access to anti-retroviral drugs) and education in the country; some even go on to attend high school or the university in Ghana or Germany.

The case studies described in this chapter illustrate that transnational humanitarianism has many faces—it does not constitute a single homogenous governance system. The appeals these organizations make to recruit funders and volunteers differ in many ways from one another, but nonetheless they retain certain key elements of humanitarian discourse and governance discussed above. We explored three features of this new transnational humanitarianism—the use of compassion and a moral imperative, the creation or reinforcement of unequal power relations, and the concept of bare life, particularly how children become marginalized from their families and communities. To explore these features, we examine the images and discourses of compassion these organizations use, particularly in fund-raising in the United States. This included the kinds of subjectivities they invite donors and volunteers to ascribe to via websites, orphan tours, picture galleries, and fund-raisers.

The Moral Imperative

Humanitarian responses rely on and are ultimately supported by compassion (Malkki, 1996; Manzo, 2008). Suffering must be palpable enough to spur action, and such action requires compassionate funders and volunteers. Moreover, the feelings of compassion and morality evoked by this humanitarianism often depoliticize the circumstances that lead to suffering (Malkki, 1996). In Southern Africa, orphaned children have increasingly become an ideal trope for humanitarian appeals (Manzo, 2008; Meintjes & Giese, 2006).

One of the reasons for this is related to dominant Western constructions of childhood rooted in modernity ideology (Zelizer, 1985). In the West today, children are viewed as innocent, pure, and passive beings who occupy a sacred or secure space—childhood (Christensen & Prout, 2005). They are imagined as naive, unsocialized, and biologized beings, which often relegates them to the status of victims in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Rescue House’s website draws on the idea of an innocent victim left isolated. The following story was highlighted on their central webpage:

Mary shares her sad fate with thousands of children, but at the same time it was a stroke of good fortune that gave her a new home at Rescue House. A wicker basket is the only relic recalling her past. A local woman found Mary hidden behind a pile of firewood, so she put her into a wicker basket and took her to the local hospital. She then came to live at Rescue House. Enquiries made by the social authorities about the child’s family led to a village near Lilongwe, where it turned out that both parents had died, probably of AIDS.

In the meantime, Mary is developing in a marvellous [sic] way. The little bundle whose provisional home had once been a basket, has turned into a happy 5-year-old girl who loves walking around Rescue House with her friend Tikondani. She knows already a few words in English, and every Saturday, she helps her housemother clean and tidy up.

Arendt (1990, quoted in Ticktin, 2006) noted that compassion is most effective in intimate interactions between those who suffer and those who do not. This is also illustrated by the Miracles Complex’s webpage, which contains pictures of individual children and compelling stories of their suffering. Children speak about hunger, illness, exposure to the suffering of dying parents, abuse, sadness, and lack—lack of education, health care, and love. These appeals are constructed to draw potential contributors into face-to-face virtual encounters/relationships with children. In one fund-raising pamphlet, the story is told of a young child who has no parents, does not know her birth date, and has “mental problems.” “Nothing else is known about her.” We then learn in the pamphlet that she died:

“We knew the day would come. It had to. It was inevitable. It was just a matter of who, when, and why. But even though we knew it would come, this fact did not take away the suddenness, or the pain with which it came into our lives.” The bed near the door contained the little girl’s body wrapped in a green blanket. It was so tiny, and seemed to fill such a small amount of space in the big hospital bed. Everyone waited as though by some chance Mphatso would move the blanket that covered her head and look up at us and smile. There was no movement. “Today,” the speaker at the funeral said, “Mphatso speaks a new language; a language that does not contain the words such as pain, hunger, darkness, fear, disease, or death. For in the language of heaven, none of these words exist.”

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