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The issue of Madonna adopting a Malawian Child made worldwide news. Human Rights groups have protested the adoption, claiming that it is against the law for a person who is not a Malawi resident to adopt a child from their country. Adotey Bing-Pappoe deals with the issue by analysing carefully the possible pitfalls of inter-country adoption.

What is at issue?

How is one supposed to begin to un-pick the Madonna adoption issue? Is there an issue to be un-picked at all? An individual with means has adopted a child from a poor family who was living in an orphanage. What is the problem? Presumably unless one has an objection to adoption in principle, this should not cause one to lose any sleep. So why the fuss?

First, we only know about the story because it is Madonna - an ‘international superstar’. What Madonna does is newsworthy. It has provided us with an opportunity to discuss something that may have been very common for all we know. We are now able to express a timely opinion about it. But what exactly do we have an opportunity to express an opinion about?

David Banda is a one-year-old African child who has been living in an orphanage since he was two weeks old. His father placed him there because he felt he was not able to look after him. Before doing so, we can assume that he had exhausted all possible avenues of caring for his son from within the extended family. David’s grandmother supported his decision and has said so publicly. However, there is a suggestion that one of David’s uncles does not support the adoption. But was he party to placing David in the orphanage? We may want to criticise David’s father and those family members who were responsible for placing him in an orphanage but do we really have the right to? In any event that is not the issue. Additionally, one can assume that by placing him in an orphanage, David’s father understood that he was making his son available for adoption by a family based inside or outside Malawi, with all that that would entail.

Then along comes Madonna who for reasons we do not know, wishes to adopt a child. We do not know if she is willing to adopt any child or is instead committed to adopting a particular child, perhaps an African one. There are of course children in England, where Madonna is currently domiciled, awaiting adoption. Why Madonna did not adopt one of these children we cannot say. But of course the fact that there are children in England needing adoption is not a reason for someone resident in England to adopt one of them. If Madonna had tried to adopt a child in England before commencing the process of adopting a child from Malawi what was the result of that effort and why? But let us assume that she had not and that for reasons of her own, she wished to adopt a child from Africa or even more specifically, from Malawi. It could be argued, with some plausibility that to adopt a child from Africa is in some way more worthy or morally justified than adopting one from England. Children in African or Malawian orphanages are more likely to remain there un-adopted, and are more likely to have a harder time of it than a child so left in an English orphanage. Even if David had been adopted by a family in resident in Malawi, few such families would have been able to give him the material opportunities that an average family from England would be able to offer, let alone Madonna’s. Finally, life expectancy in Malawi is 39. Surely this is reason enough to justify seeking to adopt a child from an African or Malawian orphanage? In Madonna’s words, she wanted to “open up our home and help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases death". Certainly this cannot be said about children living in orphanages in England.

Undue process?

The current bone of contention is whether or not the inter-country adoption regulations in Malawi have been adhered to. Because there are no adoption agencies in Malawi, all adoptions are dealt with by the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Community Services. Penston Kilembe, director of child welfare in that ministry is reported to have said that Madonna and her husband had broken no laws. Nevertheless Maxwell Matewere, Executive Director of the child rights group Eye of the Child, appealed to the Malawian government to make sure the letter of the law had been adhered to. While inter-country adoptions are provided for in Malawian law, the rules are quite demanding. Among other things the adoption process requires not only that prospective adoptive parents must be resident in Malawi, but also that they must foster a prospective adoptive child for 24 months inside Malawi before an adoption may be finalised. The Human Rights Consultative Committee of 67 organisations went further than Maxwell Matewere and went to court seeking an injunction to halt the adoption process on the grounds that Malawi’s adoption rules were being flouted. In the event a magistrate awarded Madonna an 18-month interim adoption order which was used to allow Madonna to take David to England. The action by the Human Rights Consultative Committee is continuing with its action meaning that the legal process has yet to run its course.

But let us put aside for the moment the issue of whether or not the process so far used in this case conformed not only to provisions for inter-country adoption in England, but also to those in Malawi. Assume that all provisions have been fully complied with up to this point, and that they will be, well into the future. We may of course have a view about the legal provisions governing adoption in either country, but let us also put those aside for a moment, and concern ourselves with whether or not existing provisions in the two countries have been adhered to. If so, there would appear to be no reason for the adoption process that has commenced not to proceed to its’ final and ‘successful’ conclusion.

If however, any of the assumptions above prove not to have been met, then clearly this particular adoption will be open to contestation on a number of procedural and technical grounds. If on the other hand these assumptions hold, what then would be wrong with such an outcome, that is Madonna adopting David? Both the child and the family appear to have complementary attributes and needs. So nothing should worry us. But something clearly does worry us, and not a few of us at that.

Possible pitfalls of inter-country adoption

Adopted children who have any living parent and close relatives have to deal with why they were given up for adoption, in addition to the normal issues of growing up. Coming to terms with this involves a process of varying degrees of complexity and duration. In the case of inter-country adoptions, issues of race, class, history and culture, as dictated by circumstance may also have to be contended with. In countries where inter-country adoptions are allowed attempts are made to place children with families from the same racial or cultural background. In South Africa however, perhaps not surprisingly given its’ recent history, this is not permitted by law. In a society where one race is socially, economically, politically or otherwise predominant, it is always problematic when there are trans-racial adoptions. But people clearly have very different views of the issue. For as one commentator observed, David should not have any issues of cultural assimilation, because given his age, he does not have any culture to lose! But he will have to deal with issues of racial identity, as he grows up in Madonna’s white English world. Another unknown to us and possibly to Madonna also, is which permutation from among the following identities intends to bring him up as: Malawian, African, Black, English, or White. She apparently promised to bring David up on his father’s behalf.

In most countries prospective adopters have to show that they have the means to take care of the child they wish to adopt. Thus one has to be of the appropriate class. Now this would not normally be an issue even if there were differences of income between the family of the adopter and the adopted. David will however have to deal with something a little more acute. One of the reasons he appears to have been chosen is his poverty or more precisely the poverty of his family. To what extent will this issue be of concern, as he becomes globally aware? Madonna is not just rich, she is super rich. So there is no question of her being able to look after David in the manner to which she is accustomed. Will David feel guilty about his situation or will he just take it in his stride?

Finally, Madonna is a successful and wealthy American woman born and living in a not entirely post Imperial Britain. She is a citizen of the world’s current Imperial power domiciled in the world’s previous Imperial power. David is an African boy born and, until Madonna was given temporary custody of him and took him to London, surviving in a not so post colonial Malawi. It is possible, though not likely, that these twin facts may be totally irrelevant with respect to how Madonna treats David now or in the future. Malawi had a historically structured relationship with Britain, and has a similar one with the US, though mediated by financial rather than direct political dominance.

It would be extremely unlikely therefore, that it would be a successful and wealthy Malawian woman who would be adopting a poor English or American boy. While inter-county adoptions in America are not forbidden, in England the situation is a little different. The English “Adoptions and Children’s Act 2002 “only provides for inter-country adoption from another country into England. In the words of the Act, the section on inter-country adoption “explains the additional duties of an agency where it is preparing, assessing and approving a prospective inter-country adopter where the UK is the receiving State”. There appears to be no provision for a wealthy Malawian or anyone else for that matter, to adopt and take a child out of England. For some this Imperial-Empire axis of the relationship is one of the main sources of their disquiet.

Nevertheless others argue that even after taking all the above into account, there are not good enough reasons for this and any other ‘David’ not to be adopted by this or any other ‘Madonna’. What matters, they contend, is the care and sensitivity that she will take in bringing him up. The question is, given the structured relationship between the two countries and cultures, how sure can we be that this and any other Madonna will include issues of race, class history and culture within the ambit of their caring and sensitive upbringing?

What hope for the other Davids of Malawi and Africa?

Inter-country adoptions into England and elsewhere are in fact very rare, and make a very small impact on the 48 million children in sub-Saharan Africa estimated to be orphans, 12 million of whom have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Last year there were 313 inter-country adoptions into the UK. In the US there were 22,700, up from around 7,000 in 1990. Of the total in 2005, 441 were adopted from Ethiopia, some by their extended families resident in the US. So, even if there was a rush of Madonnas and Angelina Jolies adopting African orphans (the latter adopted an Ethiopian child last year), this is unlikely to resolve the African orphan problem.

Africa faces many challenges, and coping with orphans is not something that, as a rule, attracts the extended focussed attention of African governments. But institutional life, even in the most caring society, is difficult at the best if times, harder, if the society is also poor. Institutional life in modern day Africa must be bleak indeed. A sizeable chunk of expenditure on orphaned children in Africa comes from agencies financed externally. Madonna is one such agent. It is reported that she has pledged £1.6m to support orphanages that look after the estimated 900,000 orphans in Malawi. Given the size of the orphan problem in Africa, and the problems associated with living in institutions, is it a good idea to institutionalise the solution? One of the concerns of those who have to plan for these things are mindful of, is the impact of so many young people on the future development of Africa. How will African societies cope when so many of its population will be coming into adulthood after years of institutionalised living?

Irene Mureithi, the head of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya, is on record as having suggested that focus instead should be placed on assisting the family to look after the Davids of Africa. In some societies family credit is used to underpin and support poor and socially excluded children. As a first step, the fathers and mothers of the many Davids in Malawi and elsewhere on the continent might be supported to look after their children, using the funds made available by external agents, and one hopes increasingly from internal sources. David has a father. He also has at least one grandparent, and an uncle. Is it too far fetched to think that one of David’s relatives, if they had been provided with regular income support, would have assumed responsibility for looking after David? What benefit cost analyses have been done to see if this would not be a better way of addressing the problem, than institutionalising so many children? The funds coming into the continent to help combat AIDS and its effects might well be better spent on a programme similar to this. Finally, in addition to the extended family, a scheme such as this might be broadened to include people of appropriate standing not related to the potential adoptee. Maybe African governments and concerned others should take ideas like Irene Mureithi’s more seriously.

• Adotey Bing-Pappoe is a development economist and founding partner of Renaissance Associates LLP, a management and development consultancy

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