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Save the Children

Save the Children

By Mitiku Adisu

No one knows what actually happened to finally force Ethiopian government to clampdown on international adoption. No one can tell if details of scams that have been going on since the late-1990s will ever come to light. Is it ok to be part of a scam in order to do some good? Does the end ever justify the means? Unfortunately, those who dispense information are the same ones with a stake in the adoption ‘business’ now busy sanitizing their side of the story. Having endured emotional and financial hardships, adoptive parents would be defensive and not easily swayed to want to undergo another round of scrutiny. Much is at stake; above all, at stake is hopes and dreams of a motherless child and a mother without a child.

Several factors have come into play to result in what appears an interminable problem in Ethiopian adoptions. First, numerous agencies are authorized to deal with children with little or no coordination among themselves. There are agencies for Civil Societies; for Women, Children, and Youth; for Social Affairs; and for Justice. In just few years, the number of orphanages has mushroomed to over 200 – many below acceptable level of operation with little to moderate oversight. Orphanages are run like cottage industries and the intense competition for funds often meant finding that one "beautiful" child. The gap within governmental agencies has virtually granted free rein to local and foreign recruiters. Children lured to Addis Ababa from rural areas are often cleared for adoption on the grounds that they were ‘found’ unattended. The ‘find’ is followed up with forged documents, cash payments and false promises that adoptee will return after completing their education. Zahara’s birth mother resurfaced after Angelina Jolie adopted the child. A little later, someone came up with a new version to the story that the child was conceived in rape. And then there was the allegation that Angelina “was lied to”. Is Angelina or her contacts incapable of lying? Was the birth mother “lied to”? How much money was involved to negotiate the turns and the twists?

Attempts to point out systemic flaws over the past decade have been effectively drowned out by more aggressive agencies and their public relations outfit. It appears the issue is finally out in the open. Local witnesses and international surveys continue to confirm descent into the quicksand of corrupt practices. In the absence of proper oversight and clear and enforceable accountability structure, measures by the government have simply failed to make a dent. Where corruption is rampant rules will also be routinely broken. No wonder, Ethiopia is the preferred destination for adoption consequent to the short duration and the low cost. [It is a lot cheaper to adopt Ethiopian child than Peruvian, Chinese, or Russian.] Alas, this has now produced a new image of Ethiopia [in addition to those of famine and conflicts] as the orphan capital of the world. “Dinner fundraiser slated to help Ethiopian orphans” read a recent headline.

It is universally agreed that only a radical measure could even begin to slow let alone arrest a process made worse by illegal and nontransparent activity. The good thing is that Ethiopian and US governments have come to recognize the gravity of the situation and are calling for urgent action. Ethiopia has now ordered a moratorium of sorts on adoptions. Some agencies are crying foul. One look, however, at executive pay for adoption agency owners [often run by families and relatives] would explain the reason for such a relentless uproar! Temporary measures may be in order but it would be the height of hypocrisy if that advised a return to the status quo.

It is unfortunate that, in the name of defenseless children, gullible parents and often in the name of Christ, adoption has turned into a racket. Obviously, there are those who will differ with our assessment that the situation has not gone this bad. We will concede there is an element of truth in such assertions. We will even go further to not make a blanket statement and acknowledge that there are good [gullible, uninformed and zealous] individuals involved in this. Our concern is, first and foremost, on policy and not necessarily nitpicking individual efforts. Secondly, we are incensed by spin-meisters and agencies whose revenues will shrink in the event policy changes are made. In the world such groups inhabit the order of business is, they come first, adoptive parents come second, and adoptees come last. This is evident in how adoption is being promoted by linking it to, among others, celebrities Angelina Jolie and Madonna - two individuals not particularly model families in the biblical sense or in Ethiopian society [we’re referring to lifestyle and not to being a single parent]. Here are some rationales for putting everyone else off balance and making any who raise their voices feel guilty:

What is the alternative to seeing a child live in abject squalor?
Adoptive parents are individuals with a big heart.
Those who criticize have no sense of the gravity of the situation and should get down from their ivory tower and do something meaningful.
Did you know there are 5 million orphans needing homes? [The figure is taken at face value without ever questioning that it could be arbitrary – which it is!]
This is a temporary measure [but for how long]?
This is a problem we inherited from the previous government [are you referring to the orphanages or the children who have remained under pre-teens for three decades]?
There is a problem and we are already doing something about it – some officials have been relieved of their duties and agencies both local and expatriates have been closed.
Of course, a work of this nature is fraught with spots; you should not be expecting a flawless operation; this is a third world country!
This work has provided us with a learning experience which will be enriched by experiences of others; a progress is being made with partners such as the US.
A criminal investigation is already underway and report will be made soon.
Everyone should not be incriminated because of few bad apples.
This is a [Christian] ‘calling’.
The adoptee has a better chance to succeed with his or her adoptive parents than rotting in an orphanage! And so on.

And here is what we propose. Ethiopian adoption is no longer a local matter and, hence, any attempt to find remedies must be situated within its international context. Which aspects of The Hague Convention and UN Child Rights were violated? There is no reason why the investigation should be left to local authorities and agencies both in the source country and countries of destination. The US, Britain, Germany, Canada, France, etc, are obligated by international law to come clean, and to demand the same of source country. Defenseless children and cheated mothers and the general public are entitled to know what actually took place. Bits and pieces of information coming out more recently are implicating wives of influential personalities, advocacy groups, medical professionals and middlemen of every stripe whose sole concern, it appears, was the money-making side of the equation [see, for example, Awramba Times, vol.4, #159, p.21, in Amharic]. There is ample paper and money trail to hunt down. Someone needs to get to the bottom of it and tell the international community how $192,840,000 [for 6,428 adoptees] was disbursed! The issue, as suggested earlier, is not one that we should quietly delegate to one group; rather, it ought to be a coordinated effort of rights groups, investigative journalists, guardians/parents, etc. There will be a fierce battle because vested interests will mobilize legal professionals, PR agencies, and even church leaders to not allow the investigation to take its course and will make every effort to hide their tracks. Surely, there will be a lot of finger-pointing. We insist no cover-up should be allowed because a young illiterate and nameless mother had been cheated out of her baby and a defenseless baby is forced to learn to live the life of the motherless.

A specific time-table should be incorporated in the upcoming adoption regime to permanently put a stop to the whole operation. Should foreign adoption define Ethiopian national character? Should not Ethiopians clean up their own mess and make opportunities possible for each other? What led to safety nets breaking in the first place to create dependency of this magnitude and from foreign resources at that? Now that we hear reports of high economic growth in Ethiopia what is being done to allocate funds and prioritize issues of such urgency. Which national policies contributed to the squandering of social capital the kind of which was not seen in previous regimes? It is worth remembering here that prior to 1991 international adoption was a rarity in the country and orphan population was nowhere near current figures. How do we explain the fact that Ethiopia, compared to neighboring Sudan and Kenya, dismally failed to care for its young [not to mean the two nations have no problems of their own]? What needs to happen for instituting well-managed orphanages and foster-care locally?

We hope adoptive parents understand the situation before calling us whiners. We don’t believe we are lacking in compassion either. Compassion does have more than one face and our statement thus far is an attempt to show that face. Another way to look at our proposal would be to hypothetically reverse roles whereby Ethiopians adopt North American and European children. Would you not say the child is better off to grow close to his or her habitat? Obviously, where a person lives as an adult is a personal choice and subject to inter-country laws and not one that we have a right to dictate. Here, however, we are talking about adults making choices on behalf of children. What percentage of the $200 million will it have taken to do a better job of rectifying the present problem? May we suggest that it might be biblically sounder to enter into the world of the needy and remain engaged for the long haul than to sneak in, rescue one and run for the exit. Rescuing one [by one] takes individual effort and has its merits; addressing the structure that produced the problem, on the other hand, requires coordinating individual efforts with fundamentally different and far-reaching results. We hope the final goal of adoption is not to perpetuate the social problem but to disrupt the root causes!

In an earlier post we addressed the issue of name-changes. We will not repeat the point here. Nonetheless, we strongly suggest that for those adoptees already outside the country birth names be maintained to help identify their region, religion, and ethnicity. That should give policy planners ideas as to which items are a priority. Even more importantly, birth names will be one of the ways the child will develop a cultural frame of reference for his or her identity in a future filled with questions, doubts and, hopefully, resolution. Read More.