In a country as desperately poor as Malawi, children placed in institutions are often seen as the lucky ones.

The Home of Hope orphanage in Mchinji District, Malawi, provides Chikodano Lupanga, 15, with three nutritious meals a day, new school uniforms, sensible black shoes and a decent education.

Her orphaned cousin Jean, 11, who balked at entering the orphanage and lives with her grown sister, has no shoes, raggedy clothes and an often-empty belly. Repeating third grade for the third time, Jean said she bitterly regretted that she did not grow up in the orphanage where Madonna adopted a boy. Had she stayed, she whispered, “I would have learned to read.”

In a country as desperately poor as Malawi, children placed in institutions are often seen as the lucky ones. But even as orphanages have sprung up across Africa with donations from western churches and charities, the families who care for the vast majority of the continent’s orphans have got no help at all, household surveys show.

Researchers now say a far better way to assist these bereft children is with simple allocations of cash — $4 to $20 a month in an experimental programme under way in Malawi — given directly to the destitute extended families who take them in. That programme could provide grants to eight families looking after some two dozen children for the $1,500 a year it costs to sponsor one child at the Home of Hope, estimated Candace M. Miller, a Boston University professor and a lead researcher in the project.

Experts and child advocates maintain that orphanages are expensive and often harm children’s development by separating them from their families. Most of the children living in institutions around the world have a surviving parent or close relative, and they most commonly entered orphanages because of poverty, according to new reports by UNICEF and Save the Children.

“Because there’s money in orphanages, people are creating them and getting children in them,” said Dr. Biziwick Mwale, executive director of Malawi’s National AIDS Commission.

The Home of Hope’s founder, the Reverend Thomson Chipeta, 80, said children needed the orphanage because their families were so poor. “If the children can be given the privilege of a home like this one, it’s much better,” he said.

Madonna’s charity, Raising Malawi, pays for most of Home of Hope’s operating budget and also supports community centres where orphans who remain with their families can go for food and services, said the charity’s executive director, Philippe van den Bossche. He said orphanages were not the best solution but were needed when families could not or would not care for children.

In Madonna’s video on AIDS orphans in Malawi, I Am Because We Are, she says she was drawn to the country when she was told such children “were everywhere, living on the streets, sleeping under bridges, hiding in abandoned buildings, being abducted, kidnapped, raped.”

But across Africa, demographic data show that even the poorest extended families usually take in children whose parents have died. And while AIDS has worsened the orphan crisis in Africa, the United Nations recently estimated that of 55.3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who have lost at least one parent, AIDS accounted for 14.7 million of them.

The Joint Learning Initiative on Children and HIV/AIDS, which brought together dozens of international experts to review hundreds of studies, this year strongly endorsed programmes that give the poorest families modest financial support, including cash transfer programmes like Malawi’s.

More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has been spent over the past five years for orphans and vulnerable children, but some major donors cannot break down how their contributions were spent. Researchers say donors need to weed out ineffective, misconceived programmes, scrutinising those that are managed by international non-governmental organisations but that rely on volunteers in villages to do the work.

“An enormous amount of money is going into these efforts with very little return,” said Linda Richter, who runs the children’s programmes at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council.

Here in Malawi, hundreds of community groups have won small grants to start small labour-intensive businesses and are expected to donate all the profits to orphans. Pauline Peters, a Harvard University anthropologist, and Susan Watkins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who have independently done years of field work in Malawian villages, say orphans have received few benefits from the millions spent.

“The donors have fantasies of the way things work — that you can mobilise villagers to care for children who aren’t theirs without paying them to do it,” Watkins said.

In Kandikiti, where Jean Lupanga’s family lives, a group of 20 villagers won a $4,000 grant last year to start a pig farm to help orphans. The group bought nine pure-bred hogs, built them a residence nicer than those of most people and posted volunteers to guard it round the clock. They also bought 10 bicycles, vaccines for the pigs and paid their members to attend training sessions.

More than a year later, they have not sold a single one of the white, floppy-eared, European-bred pigs. In a village where scruffy local pigs trot freely among the huts, the group’s leader fell silent when asked who could afford such expensive pork.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Selina Sakala, 47, chairwoman of Mmasomuyere Orphan Care.

Malawi’s cash transfer experiment, financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and supported by UNICEF, directly helps destitute families who care for many children or have no able-bodied adult to earn a living. Children whose families got the grants were healthier, better fed and clothed and more likely to be in school than children in families that got none, according to a randomised community trial conducted by Boston University and the University of Malawi and paid for by UNICEF and the U.S. government.

Miller said the programme had yielded “fabulous benefits” but cautioned that the country needed better safeguards to prevent corruption and fraud in the future.

Throngs of Malawians gathered one recent day under shade trees to collect the cash. Many grandparents walked miles on bare feet as cracked and parched as the earth. Officials in plastic chairs checked photo identity cards. Recipients unable to read or write left an inky thumb print, then twisted the precious bills into the hem of a skirt or tucked them in a pocket.

Families who have been collecting the grants for a year or two say they have made a difference. Velenasi Jackson spends the $20 she gets each month on staple foods and clothes for the 10 orphaned grandchildren who share her two-room mud hut in the village of Nyoka. They no longer go whole days with nothing to eat, she said.

“A gift is never too small,” she said.

The Home of Hope looks after 653 children, from infants to teenagers. Its founder, Chipeta, leaning on a hand-carved wooden staff, gestured to each building on a tour of the grounds and proudly named the donor who paid for it. Among them were churches and individuals from the United States, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, South Korea and Germany.

In a letter Chipeta gives visitors, he says the home needs their prayers, love and support — with the phrase “See Our Budget” in parentheses.

Chikodano Lupanga has lived at the home since she was six. Her house mother, Enelesi Chiduka, 59, said she was responsible for looking after 80 girls, making sure they showered twice a day, attended daily prayer sessions and did their chores.

Quiet and serious, Chikodano said her family could never have afforded to send her to high school or to give her a diet that included chicken and fish. “I have lots of friends, and the other needs not met at home are met here — school fees, clothes, shoes,” she said.

Nine years ago, Chikodano’s cousin Alice, now 31, took her and Jean to the Home of Hope. Chikodano went quietly, but Jean, only 2 or 3 years old and deeply attached to her big sister Alice, sobbed inconsolably and remained with Alice. The family has recently started getting the monthly cash grant, but it is too soon for it to have made much impact.

Jean, a shy, expressive girl with a heart-shaped face, lives the arduous life common to poor rural children across Africa. She fetches water, pounds maize and cooks over smoky fires. At last glance, she was scrubbing Alice’s little boy with soapy well water sloshed from a plastic bucket. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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