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Worldwide Orphan numbers: how many or how few?

Worldwide Orphan numbers: how many or how few?

An editorial discussing the difficulty in establishing accurate consistent stats for orphans worldwide and some reflection on whether the number is actually large or small

This is an editorial by Andrew Cates, previous CEO of SOS Children. 

World Orphan Week, when we remember orphans around the globe, is fast approaching and a recurring question arises about how big the challenge of all the children in the world with no one to care for them really is. However, as we will see below, the surprising thing is perhaps not how many children are orphaned worldwide but how few: helping them all is well within the resources of the developed world if we wanted to.

We conclude below that although the sub Saharan Africa in particular has too many orphaned children for their population to support, there is only one orphan worldwide for about every 50 adults in the developing world and if we were prepared to each make a small contribution it would be possible to provide a decent childhood for all these children fairly easily.

Why are orphan statistics hard to give?

There were questions about the definition of an orphan both in terms of maximum age to be included (15, 16, 17, or 18?) and also in terms of whether a child needs to be permanently separated from both parents (which tends to be the definition in immigration law), or just from the mother, or whether one parent needs to be dead (which is the favoured definition for UNICEF and UNAIDS) or whether both parents need to be dead.

When I started in the charitable sector, USAID, UNAIDS and UNICEF had just completed a fairly comprehensive report called "Children on the Brink 2004", including forward extrapolations. These figures are probably the best available, where I have assumed growth, rates are uniform:

of Children
Number of
Maternal Orphans
Number of
Paternal Orphans
Percentage of
children who have
lost a parent
Number of
Double Orphans
Sub-Saharan Africa 400m 27.6m 32m 12.5% 9.6m
Asia 1.2bn 28.4m 57.7m 6.7% 6.1m
Latin American
& Caribbean
200m 3.3m 9.1m 6% 500,000
Total in these regions 1.8bn 59.3m 98.8m 7.9% 16.2m

One other comment: globally the proportion of orphans in the world is about static. The number in Asia has been falling as fast as the number in Africa has been rising.

What does this mean for us? In these regions there are perhaps 140m children living in families who have lost at least one parent and whom society should support. Many of these families are being supported by their extended family and relatives, or local communities.

There are 16m who have lost both parents, again some of whom will be already properly cared for, but there are others whose parents have not died but been separated by war etc. who will need more help. Overall 16m is probably a fair guide for children needing a loving home.

Many of these families are struggling to provide any decent childhood to these children. It costs about £10/month to make an intervention which has a serious impact on the life of a child who has lost one parent and is struggling in the developing world. Providing an entire new family life for them costs about £40-80/month in the developing world depending on the country, exchange rate etc. So 1m child sponsors paying £20 a month would fund a new life for 100,000 children with nothing and programmes to help a million more on the brink.

That is exactly SOS Children's realistic 2016/17 target, with your help. By comparison 160m child sponsors (which is not impossible amongst 1.2bn people living in the developing world) between them would pretty much sort the needs of children everywhere who had lost a parent. Of course, they may wish to contribute to other charitable causes too, but if they contributed to orphans that would sort the problem. Amazingly, it only requires one person in eight to stand up and help, and what a great world it would be if we did not leave orphaned children to find scraps on rubbish heaps.