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Orphanages in developing countries are often run as profit centres, and Bali is sadly no exception to this evil practice.  These facilities can be a lucrative business for the people who run them.  Many solicit donations in cash or kind from sympathetic tourists and expats which go directly into the pockets of the owners or to benefit their families.  Some orphanages use the children as slave labour, forcing them to work on construction sites and beg in the street instead of sending them to school.  Most of the orphanages here operate under religious banners; sadly, even a clerical collar is no guarantee that donations will not be misappropriated.   How to tell the good ones from the bad?

Over 4,000 children in Bali are housed in 71 orphanages, up from 38 in the early 1990s.  Only about 10% of them are technically orphans. The balance are children whose parents are too poor to care for them, or whose mothers are unmarried or who have re-married and whose husbands don’t want the kids.  Because the government provides one million rupiah a year for each child in full-time care, the facilities sometimes misrepresent the number of kids they house.  These orphanages make most of their money from international NGOs and sympathetic visitors/tourists, who see the poor infrastructure and skinny, ragged children and want to do something to help.  Often, these visitors make on-the-spot cash donations, bring clothing and books from their home countries or pledge money for repairs and school fees. Direct gifts of books, clothing or school supplies to the children are often taken away to be sold as soon as the donor leaves.  In all but a few cases, the money goes directly into the director’s pocket; several boast of sending their own children to university.

The worst-case scenario is represented by two facilities in Bali run by the same owner.  He sends scouts out to approach poor families on the island, offering to provide free food and education for their children which the parents can’t afford.  Once the children enter the facility, they are not fed properly and the older ones are not allowed to go to school.  They are forced to get up before dawn to operate mobile foods stalls or to work on a building site which has been under construction for over 10 years.  One of the buildings is alleged to be a home for the ‘orphanage’ owner, built with unpaid child labour; one child fell to his death from the site this year. Other kids are sent out to beg at night in tourist areas.  If the parents try to remove their children or the kids try to leave, they are threatened.  If a visitor gives a present to child, it has to be handed over to the director. 

I talked to Brenton Whittaker, Founder of the NGO Bali Kids. Brent has worked here since 1993 and is intimately aware of the situation in all of Bali’s ‘orphanages’.  “The only way to monitor them is to keep a close and continuing association,” he explains.   “We do this with our mobile medical vehicle, which visits all the facilities in rotation and cares for approximately 5,000 children – about 600 kids a month.  We’ve had to find ways around the corruption to deliver health education and medical care directly to the children.  Our staff knows all the kids and all the facilities well; the kids know and trust our staff, talk to them and tell them what’s really going on.  We learn a lot this way but we have to be careful, or the owners will deny our medical care to the kids.”  It’s like something out of Dickens.

Brent reports that some of these places have not improved in his 17 years of observation, but have actually become worse in spite of the fact that many foreigners are supporting them. Many owners want the orphanages to look run down and the kids needy so visitors will be moved to give money.  “Don’t dismiss an orphanage because it looks good, is clean, painted, tidy and the kids look OK,” he points out.  “If it’s well-run then at least some of the money is going to improvements and to help the kids.  If you choose to help such an orphanage then you should become a regular visitor and monitor its improvements; if you don’t see improvement, then you have to ask where is the money going?”

The worst ’orphanages’ are appalling.  The children live in squalor and filth, with rats everywhere.  Malnutrition is common.  Sometimes the Bali Kids doctor has to really push to have sick children released to the clinic for treatment,    because the owner wants the kids to work.   In the worst case scenarios, when children are seriously ill and the owners won’t call a doctor, the kids themselves will find a way to contact the NGO and ask them to come. In this facility, the doctor can’t even leave medicine for sick kids or staff will sell it.  Most are not that bad -- the kids at least go to school -- but the orphanages are still run as businesses.  

Owners spend as little as possible on school or education in order to pocket the profits.  They frequently solicit tourists and overseas charities for large amounts of money.  Well-meaning foreigners seeing these run-down orphanages don’t realize that several organizations may have donated large amounts of money for a kitchen that might never eventuate, while the director drives a new car.  “Westerners are especially taken in by the Christian orphanages, but many of them are also corrupt.  We hear stories from many westerners who have been ripped off,” says Brent.
I talked to Jan Harvey, a generous Australian woman who was deeply moved by the poor conditions of a Christian orphanage she visited on one of her frequent holidays here.  “It was very run down.  The common room was hung with wooden crosses and had a lectern with a Bible. The Director asked for sponsorship and uniforms, and the children asked for a computer. The Director emailed constantly with a long list of equipment including a laptop for the office, asking for payment via Western Union in his name. Costs were greatly inflated from the real costs. Once I sent the money, contact ceased despite my repeated requests for a receipt.” Several months later she asked a trusted friend to drop into the orphanage unannounced and ask to see the equipment she’d donated. The Director was caught out… most of the equipment on the list was not in the office and when pressed to explain where the laptop was, he finally confessed that his son was using it at university in Denpasar. The Director recently contacted Jan again requesting $5,000 towards a new office building for the orphanage, but the plans look very much like a family home.  For whose family, one can but wonder?

These stories are all too common.  Jan has been coming to Bali four times a year since 2008, has visited many orphanages and sponsors several children to attend school through the John Fawcett Foundation.  She has set up a Balinese Support Program in Queensland to raise money for Bali’s orphans, but she won’t be making any more direct donations. “The money I raise will be going to Bali Kids from now on.  Brent is doing wonderful work,” she said to me.

Scams are often discovered when visitors to Bali make a donation then return to the orphanage on their next trip to check on their contribution, of which there is usually no sign.  Directors hope donors will never come back.  And directors often move around between orphanages so by the time the donor realizes she’s been scammed, the ‘minister’ has moved on.  Bali Kids staff is constantly visiting orphanages, sometimes without warning.  Besides providing medical care, they check whether donated equipment or materials have disappeared.  They also learn from the children themselves whether equipment or even kids’ medicines have disappeared. 

Bali Kids became an official Yayasan in 2005 after a 12 year presence in Bali.  It has its own doctors, three nurses and a nursing assistant as well as using volunteer foreign dentists.  Its mobile clinic goes out on rotation to almost 60 facilities, and staff also treat kids in villages which have been pre-screened as genuinely poor by other charities. (Bali Kids does not visit eight Christian ‘orphanages’ which are partly operated as paid child care facilities for working, middle-class parents.  When potential donors arrive at these facilities, the kids are told to hide their iPhones. )  Bali Kids also avoids overseas-operated projects where the key intention of the Director is to convert the child to Christianity.  The children are treated on-site when possible or brought to the clinic.  If they need blood tests, specialists or surgery Bali Kids organizes it and pays for it, seeking help from other organizations for the more expensive procedures.  The orphanages can bring sick kids to the Bali Kids clinic at any time. “We don’t get as many sick kids as we used to because our constant medical vigilance is paying off,” Brent tells me. “We see a lot of malnutrition and related thyroid problems, flu, skin and respiratory problems, ear and eye  infections, fractures, congenital  defects, dental issues, cancer and, increasingly, HIV.”

I corresponded with one girl who had been rescued from  one of the worst ‘orphanages’.  She told me, “I went to the orphanage when I was 13 years old and stayed there nearly for 3 years because I wanted to go to school. Every day we only ate rice and instant noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner; sometimes for lunch we’d have some vegetables with it.  The owner slapped us often.  It didn’t matter if we were boy or girl, he would hit our faces. I knew that kids my age should go to school and not be working on the building site, but I didn’t have a choice.  It was like a bad dream. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. There was no staff there. I was afraid all the time. The orphanage didn’t send us to school. We stayed in the orphanage and the teacher came to us three times a week for an hour or two. The primary kids went to public school near the orphanage. We spent most our time working on the building site.”

Brent has his to say about the following orphanages, “When their kids are sick they seek medical attention from Bali Kids or others straight away.  They embrace health education and do care about the kids under their care.  These orphanages are always in reasonable condition or always improving.”
* Sidhi Astu (Franciscan) at Tuka
* Maria Goretti at Palasari(Catholic)
* Miftahul in Singaraja (Muslim),
* Salam Orphanage in Tabanan
* Jody O’Shea in Denpasar
* Salvation Army Girls in Denpasar,
* Elisma in Denpasar and Singaraja

The best way to help other orphanages is by donation in cash and kind to transparent and ethical organizations like Bali Kids, the John Fawcett Foundation, Bumi Sehat and High 5 These organizations never give money to the facilities but provide services directly to the children.

Bali Kids is in the process of building a new centre in Mengwi with two dental suites built to western standards, two medical examination rooms and accommodation for up to 30 kids with room for 30 more in full-time care in a separate infectious diseases facility.  Over 60% of the project is funded but more support is needed.    Funding is mostly from Holland, Canada, Australia, UK and the US. Bali Kids also produces and distributes booklets for the children on hygiene, girls’ health, HIV and recognizing and reporting sexual abuse. Visit  for details.

Dragons in the Bath, a collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, it is available at Ganesha Books in Ubud and at Biku in Seminyak, and at Periplus bookstores in Bali. It can be ordered nationally and internationally through           <>


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