When large amounts of money are exchanged between a wealthy country and a poor country, here’s what happens.
Miriam Jordan at The Wall Street Journal has published an investigative article about adoption from Ethiopia, which has for several years been riddled with allegations of fraud and unethical practices. This article tells the deceptively simple story of Melesech Roth, whose Ethiopian birthmother died of malaria, and whose birthfather (who lives in stone-age poverty) gave her up for adoption when someone came through his village, offering to take children to America who would later help support their families. The writing is so straightforward that you may not realize how extraordinary it is unless you’ve tried to write a similar piece. Persuading an adoptive family to talk with you on the record, and also finding the biological family and getting them to talk on the record, is a significant feat.
The accompanying ten-minute video is even more powerful than the written story. You can see for yourself that Melesech, by any material measure, is far better off than her siblings, who are pounding grain and building fires in the dirt-floor, mud-walled hut where they live alongside their chickens. But you also see her biological father’s face and hearing his voice as he explains that of course he did not give away his child forever; she will support him and come back again. In fact, he says, at around 7:15 into the video, he’s thinking of giving up more children because he’s still poor:
I will be giving up the children but not to become someone else’s child. It’s to help me. Not to become someone else’s child. What good would that be to me if I give them away?
Here is the dilemma of international adoption in a nutshell. Melesech has a life that, to American eyes, looks far better than the life she had at home. The Roths clearly love her, and adopted her for the right reasons: they wanted to help needy orphans who had no family and no home. They chose one of the most upstanding and reputable adoption agencies, one of the three biggest players in the field: Children’s Home Society & Family Services, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, which says that it doesn’t pay its orphanages per child, but rather supports them unconditionally, no matter how many children are actually adoptable.
And yet when absurdly large amounts of money are exchanged between a wealthy country and a devastatingly poor country, here’s what happens: unscrupulous middlemen scour the countryside and defraud poor families out of their children. Melesech clearly had a family. She was not an orphan (except by UNICEF’s oddly expansive definition, which counts as an orphan any child who has lost either parent, even if that child is still living with the other parent). Some adoption solicitor either actively misled Melesech’s father, or passively accepted the fact that the man was unable to comprehend the foreign concepts behind Western adoption, with its extremely counterintuitive idea of permanently severing family ties. Melesech’s father’s experience with child exchange would have been like that of most traditional cultures; he would be familiar with the model in which families send their children to live with richer families so that those children can later come home to help their birthfamilies. Poor nations often live on remittances. Promising family members are sent abroad on the understanding that that relative will send money back to help support the rest of the family.
Melesech’s father’s expectation was entirely reasonable. So was the Roths’ expectation that they were saving a poor child whose family could no longer raise her, as that’s the myth that gets perpetuated in the U.S.: the myth that there are millions of healthy orphans under age five who need new homes. Someone profited by exploiting the mismatch between the two.
Ethiopia’s adoption program has had some serious scandals over the past few years. About a year and a half ago, I met and spoke with a minister from its Ministry of Women, Children, and Families, who seemed dedicated to cleaning the program up—but the minister may not have had enough internal support to overcome whatever profiteering or bribes might be circulating in the system. Similar things have happened in a series of countries, recently including Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and most notoriously, Guatemala.
I reported on the problems in international adoption for several years, in a series of articles in publications that included Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Democracy Journal, and Slate. (You can read more about particular countries’ adoption programs here.)
While Melesech’s life is materially better, her adoption has not helped those left behind. Her birth family is still, quite literally, dirt poor. So is her country. Other parents are still at risk for dying of malaria, dysentery, and other preventable and treatable illnesses. What Ethiopians really need is a government that is not strangling its development, and forms of aid that actually reach and help individual families. Failing that, is it right to spirit some of their children away?
Here’s the rule of thumb: If you can get a healthy infant or toddler within a year, don’t adopt from that country. Adopt, instead, from American foster care, or from countries that send abroad very few children, and when they do, the children who are available are older, or disabled, or come in sibling groups, or otherwise have had trouble finding new local homes. Or if you’re adopting for humanitarian reasons, donate that money an organization that helps children stay with their families, or brings clean water and mosquito nets and medicines to their villages.
It’s far more rewarding to love an individual child than to give to anonymous foreigners. I know; I’m parenting an adopted child. But no one wants to be complicit, even unknowingly, in defrauding a father out of his daughter.