As Commander of the British UN Contingent during the Balkans War, Mark Cook has witnessed some things he would probably rather forget. But nothing prepared him for seeing an orphanage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, its many filthy, lonely children abandoned in a bombed-out building, without electricity, sanitation and with very little food. “In unimaginable conditions,” as he puts it, bluntly. On the spot he promised the children that he would re-build the orphanage — and immediately one of them called him on his rash words. “When by?” he asked. “By Christmas,” Cook replied. “Then I got in my Land Rover and thought, ‘oh shit, what have I done?’”
What Cook had done, in fact, was take the first step towards founding an organisation whose work would define his life, and his contribution to society, far more than his 30 years with the Gurkhas. He made good on his promise — indeed, it was the doubt he repeatedly met, from city mayors and children alike, that bloody-mindedly made him all the more determined to always do so. But, more than that, he and his wife Caroline realised that fixing up orphanages around the world — from Romania to the Sudan, Rwanda and seven other countries — was not enough.
Some 18 years on, and his organisation, Hope and Homes for Children, has become the world leader in the extreme specialism of what Cook calls ‘de-institutionalisation’, recognised by bodies such as UNICEF. Rather than focus on housing children in better conditions, Hope and Homes aims, through some impressive detective work, to re-unite the 90 percent of ‘orphan’ children with the biological relatives they do in fact have and from whom they have been separated by war or poverty — problems only increasing around the world — or sometimes state intervention. Why so?
“Because one day it dawned on us that we’d never asked the children what they want,” says Cook. “And what they all wanted, regardless of race, colour or creed, was a family. And one boy in the Sudan defined that to me as ‘love’, which of course it is. Being totally alone is unimaginable to most of us. We knew then we shouldn’t be supporting orphanages, because one thing you won’t find in them is any kind of love. We should be getting the children out of them.”
That works for the children, of course. In blunt economic terms, it also works for nations — orphanages, even the most horrible, cost money, so in closing over 60 orphanages to date, as Hope and Homes for Children has, it is offering a cost saving. But it also works for society at large: an estimated 10 percent of those children who grow up in orphanages later commit suicide; the rest invariably “don’t make it in life”, as Cook has it, turning to drugs or crime and ending up in prisons. “So the ongoing damage is enormous — and, equally, just saving one child, the positive impact is enormous too,” says Cook.
Of the seriously dispossessed, abandoned children Hope and Homes for Children has so far dealt with, some 30 to 40 percent have been re-united with their families; others are fostered within their home country; the rest — “so badly damaged by the experience, they can’t be re-introduced to the family or society,” says Cook — are re-housed in conditions that at least allow some hope of progress.
Thankfully, more governments are recognising the need to tackle what is a huge international problem — with untold millions of children in this dire situation and myriad more, in the likes of North Korea, Russia and China, probably facing the same predicament. Indeed, Hope and Homes’ long-term objective now is no less than the eradication of institutionalised care worldwide and its replacement with family-based care.
“That might sound pie-in-the-sky for such a small charity, but we’re making great progress,” says Cook, who has been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to humanitarianism. But Hope and Homes for Children has gone some way to getting the outlawing of institutionalised childcare enshrined in EU law, and aims to persuade UNICEF to adopt the same as part of its International Convention on the Rights of Children, which already outlaws such heinous activities as child prostitution and slavery.
Of course, all of this costs money. Last year Hope and Homes for Children raised some £8million. But within a decade it wants to build a working capital of £25million to allow it to roll out its activities globally. That is small change to some people. And what makes Hope and Homes so philanthropically attractive is that that sum could radically change the situation for all orphaned children. “People with money could actually make this happen and fast,” says Cook, “and, if they wished, they could get properly involved. To have helped achieve this is a far better thing to have on one’s gravestone than having spent one’s wealth on footballers’ salaries.”
Money is not Hope and Homes for Children’s only problem: there is simply getting people to grasp how acute the issue is; state bureaucracy piling up red tape; and the simple question of nations not giving it sufficient priority — “just getting governments willing to put children to the fore in a country like Rwanda that has just been blown apart and is not sure where to start the re-building,” says Cook. “The answer is to start with the children — the next generation — because otherwise that country’s problems will only be perpetuated.
“What these children need is a family, and the love that embodies,” Cook adds. “Love is the most powerful force to change the world for the better. I know in saying that I come across as something of a missionary preacher. But you don’t change (the world) though guns and bullets, which may have been the way I understood the world as a soldier. We’d be on missions somewhere to stop illegal immigrants who would be swimming through shark-infested waters, so desperate were they to escape what was behind them, and we’d just pick them up and send them back. It wasn’t good. And what I have seen in orphanages around the world is far, far worse that anything I’ve seen in the army. We need to change that.”