Taiza: Formalising foster care system in Madagascar is a bit like digging out an abandoned gold mine.

We currently have possibly over 10,000 children living in institutional care in the capital city, with all centres full, or over-crowded.   

Tradition of informal kinship care

For years, before large orphanages were created by religious or western organisations, and before the crisis of urbanisation caused the break up of smaller rural communities, children who needed alternative care were cared for by friends or family in their local community and this was known as “Taiza”…which simply means “taking care of a child”.  It was a respected tradition, promoting the Malagasy culture of “fihavanana” which is “looking out for the needs of others”.  Due to its informality, it was unmonitored and supported, which resulted in a few abuse cases which unfortunately gave the name “taiza” a bad connotation.  But at its root and core, and in the right hands, it is a life-saving answer for children who can not live with birth parents.  I see it as an abandoned gold mine, and in this case the gold are the potential “taiza” carers, with their potential to be the answer to our current “orphanage” crisis, providing Malagasy children with their fundamental right to grow up in a family with secure attachments and individualised care.

The golden value of foster care!

Digging out an abandoned gold mine is hard work, and many say you are crazy.  Gold is a commodity that many people want to get their hands on in Africa, and there is the big question of whose gold is it?  The joy of Taiza is that the gold is Malagasy.  Malagasy foster carers, caring for Malagasy kids.  Malagasy families being the answer to our current social problem.  This gold doesn’t belong to any other nation, not does it need to rely on outside help.  As such, it is necessary to convince my fellow Malagasy that foster care is not another western idea.  There are things we can learn about how other countries have established a formal, safe, monitored and supported foster care system, but it is at core, not a western idea but is rather an ancient Malagasy tradition.   And that is the abandoned gold mine that needs digging out and re-discovering.

 Professional, nationally recognised social workers are the key to, finding, digging out and putting this gold to good use.  It is only relatively recently that social workers are beginning to be recognised as important members of our society, not kind volunteers, but professionals with important responsibilities, whose reports, assessments and work is valued and carries weight in society.  Up until now foreign-financed NGO’s have carried most of the weight of alternative child care, and they are not obligated to employ or use nationally qualified social workers to do the work.  The tragedy with the system is that the root causes of a child ending up in alternative care begin within Malagasy community, and nationally qualified Malagasy social workers have the tools to get to these roots to find solutions BEFORE children end up in alternative care.   This is why my colleagues and I have worked hard to create a national syndicate of social workers, to promote and give value to our work and role in society.

The important work of developing foster care

As I continue in this work of helping to establish a safe, monitored, supported national Taiza (foster care) system here in Madagascar, a bird’s eye view of the current child-care crisis is necessary.  The bigger picture not only reveals the necessity of community-based social work and family strengthening to prevent child abandonment from occurring, but it also reveals the need for greater coordination between all stakeholders and this is exactly what a national foster care system has the potential to achieve.  

As Director on the board of IFCO, I hope to be part of inspiring other African countries to fully embrace the rights of the child to grow up in the family, not to copy a new western idea, but to get back to their roots of community-based family care.  IFCO has enormous potential to be a platform for African international partnership and coordination, an opportunity for countries to share best practice and training.  Our cultures and languages are different, but the needs of children to grow up in families are universal.

I have recently been involved in the final approval of the new law for foster care here in Madagascar, and the creation of a national foster care handbook.  We are just at the start of our gold mining adventure, and soon we will be putting the gold to good use to serve Malagasy children.  And surely our children deserve nothing less than gold?

Lanto Robivelo, IFCO Board member/National Director of FAMadagascar, Madagascar

Photo by mishainik