Adopting Ethiopian Orphans May Not be the Best Solution

New America Media, News feature, Shane Bauer Posted: Aug 26, 2008

Editor's note: Americans are adopting fewer orphans overseas except in one country: Ethiopia. But social workers are saying adoption is not the best solution to Ethiopia's problems, reports NAM contributing writer, Shane Bauer. Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East and Africa.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - On the outskirts of Addis Ababa a newly built orphanage called Rohobet is hidden among tin-roofed shacks on top of a eucalyptus and pine-covered hill. All around it, dirt roads are turned into muddy rivulets in the midday drizzle.

The inside of the largely empty house has features that are distinctly un-Ethiopian. A large kitchen table and chairs -- the eight children are to eat at a table rather than on the floor. Babies are fed by bottles and sleep in cribs, rather than the large pieces of cloths shaped into tiny hammocks that are the norm in most Ethiopian homes. When they travel, the smallest children sit in car seats. After leaving their home state of Oromo and coming to the orphanage, the children are being prepared for life in the United States.

In the four months that the Rohobet orphanage has existed, it has had five children adopted through the Minnesota-based agency, Better Future Adoption. The director of Rohobet is a man I'll call Tewodros since he asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from the government or the American adoption agency that funds his orphanage.

He had the personality of a non-profit entrepreneur, with a big heart and a mind for expanding his business. His mission was clear: raise more money and have more children adopted. "We have enough orphans, just not enough money," he said.

He also has enough of a demand. For his line of work, business is virtually booming. In recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in adopting children from Ethiopia, a dynamic that a New York Times article last year attributed to the fact that orphanages in Ethiopia are run by foreign agencies and that the country has a relatively efficient and hassle free adoption process. According to Tewodros every week, American families land in Addis Ababa to pick up their new children, usually leaving in less than seven days.

While American adoption of Ethiopians is climbing, international adoption by Americans is declining overall. In 2004, Americans adopted 22,884 children from other countries. In 2007 the number was 19,400. The number of children sent out of Ethiopia to the United States in that same period has more than quadrupled, rising from 289 in 2004 the year before Angelina Jolie's famed adoption of an Ethiopian girl to 1,255 in 2007. This makes Ethiopia the fourth most popular country for Americans to adopt from after China, Guatemala, and Russia, respectively.



But is adoption actually the best strategy for improving the lives of the orphaned children?

ethiopiaMost of Ethiopia's estimated one million orphans have extended family members who, if they only had the money, Tewodros said, would care for the child. Here's where the idea of adoption as a last resort gets tricky: It costs $20 per month to support a child with a foster family in Ethiopia. More often than not, the foster family is one of the child's relatives. An American parent adopting a child through Better Future Adoption will spend between $14,170 - $18,170 in fees and travel costs, according to the Web site.

"To solve the problem of orphaned children, we need solve the problem of HIV," said Teshager Shiferan, director of the Dawn of Hope Ethiopia Association. His organization is an association of people living with HIV/AIDS, the main cause of orphaned children in Ethiopia. Of the country's one million orphans, 700,000 have lost their parents to the disease.

"We can't solve the problem of orphaned children in Ethiopia by sending them abroad," Shiferan said. "We need to focus on the prevention of HIV/AIDS." Ethiopia, he said, is headed in the right direction. Three years ago, the government began offering free anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to 150,000 HIV/AIDS victims. That is still a small fraction of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, but it is already showing results: according to him, the number of people dying from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia has been declining.

"The implication is clear," he said. "An orphan is someone whose parents died. If you increase the number of people who get ART, you decrease the number of orphans."

Dealing with HIV/AIDS might be a long-term solution to curbing the problem of orphaned children, but people like Tewodros are invested in dealing with the immediate problem of kids without parents.

As of late, he's been coming up against the government, which has recently been increasing restrictions and implementing policies that would keep children in the country. For a child to be approved for adoptions, new stipulations require documented confirmation of the death of both parents or the serious illness of the single living parent.

Tewodros said the reason for the policy change is to crack down on child trafficking, but for him, it just creates headaches. Three of the children at his orphanage are waiting to be adopted, but the government has been refusing to approve it, because the children's father is still alive. "We go to the ministry again and again and the government won't give us permission. Their father is a poor man and he can't take care of them," he said.



Tewodros admits that adoption isn't always the best strategy, but like non-profits the world over, he is restricted by funding. The money is in adoption, not in keeping children in their country with their families.

Doing the math, it would cost roughly $5000 to fund the care of 20 orphans by their extended family. While that amount is 26 times the average yearly income of an Ethiopian, it's about a quarter to a third of the amount an American would pay to adopt a single child from the Rohobet orphanage.




Photo credit: Shane Bauer




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Heidi Mehltretter on Sep 11, 2008 at 17:05:27 said:

Another major factor overlooked in this article is the cultural issues around adoption in Ethiopia by Ethiopians. In many areas, should a woman whose husband dies choose to keep her children, she can not re-marry, and have the support of a husband because culturally, her husband\'s family will not accept the children of another man. There are also issues of families of orphans wanting the inheritance of the children - it\'s sad, but true. And, there is the challenge of non-birth children being treated differently than birth children. These are things we don\'t like to look at, but they do happen, and I\'d love to see a concerted effort on the part of the Ethiopian gov\'t and school system, and also the self-run NGOs in changing these aspects of the culture that keep kids from having parents. In terms of the numbers, the clarification has to be made as to single or double orphans. There are obviously many more single orphans (one parent who can\'t properly care for the child), and that may be why the numbers don\'t seem to match up.


Jen on Sep 03, 2008 at 07:11:44 said:

Renee... are you really that racist? Blaming white folks. Wow... take off your blinders.


CeeGee on Sep 01, 2008 at 16:59:07 said:

My issue with these adoptions is not that the money could have been "better" spent in another way, but that it seems many, or most, of these children have parents or relatives still alive in the country. Ethiopian immigrants (and those from many other countries as well) in the United States always seem to have vast extended families who they wish to bring into the country with them, yet when a child loses a parent or is abandoned in Ethiopia, suddenly there is no one to be found!

I do not buy the explanation that others are "too poor" to take care of the child, either. Ethiopian women have, on average, five children apiece, so very large families are the norm despite extreme poverty. More likely, the existence of a well-publicized adoption mechanism will work to undermine in-country adoption, as Ethiopian parents see that more is to be gained by abandoning their children to be adopted by Americans than by caring for it themselves or within the family. I think the reaction of the Ethiopian government is an indication that this may already be happening.


Renee on Aug 29, 2008 at 17:23:08 said:

Is it no surprise to read this story. Whites have been stealing from Africa since they discovered it. They are treating black babies like they are purses that they collect to show how fashionable and progressive they are. It has never been about the best interest of the child. Madonna is the perfect example of the thieving earth mother drive that is at the heart of this.


marelise kruger on Aug 28, 2008 at 15:03:13 said:

It saddens me that people trying to change the lives of one child are criticized for not saving the lives of more. Adoptive parents in North America are not responsible for the social woes of Ethiopia any more than they are responsible for the social conditions leading to unwanted pregnancies in their own countries. It is true that HIV has taken a toll in Ethiopia but the responsibility for dealing with this lies within country; in the hands of the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is still recovering from years of government abuse under Mengistu. Only good government will eventually lead to good healthcare and better conditions for mothers and children. In the mean time help children.. help them by adoption, by giving money and raising awareness of the plight of mothers and children in Africa. It does not need to be an either or situation. People do adopt as well as donate thousands to the country their child is coming from.


Rob on Aug 28, 2008 at 03:12:20 said:

The thing that I don't like in this article is that it treats adoption as aid or charity. The child should never feel that s/he is a part of an aid programme (and in debt to his/her parents).


lulu on Aug 27, 2008 at 18:47:52 said:

UNICEF lists the number of orphans in Ethiopia in 2005 to be 4.8 million. The Ethiopian AIDS Campaign lists 5.4 million orphans in Ethiopia for 2007. Both numbers are considerably higher than the one million quoted in the article.


Suki on Aug 27, 2008 at 15:33:00 said:

Most of the families I know who are adopting from Ethiopia sponsor children and when they go to Ethiopia take donations with them for orphanages, hospitals, schools and so on.

We don't go into this thinking we are "saving the world's children". We do along the way learn how much the children of this and other countries are suffering because people turn their backs.

When will the rest of the world step up and realize this is a global problem and not an adoption problem. We need to understand that when it comes to children there should be no borders or passports to a life filled with hope, love and family.

There are children needing love and parents ready and willing to give it. And I am pretty sure this was the case way before Angelina adopted!


Naomi on Aug 27, 2008 at 14:24:34 said:

I really appreciate reading the other comments...

I am in the process of adopting a daughter from Ethiopia. This article is not surprising since there is such a huge increase of the number of people adopting from Ethiopia. With this increase comes caution and concerns from Ethiopians. But oh my, there are so many benefits of adoption.

Yes, I could have just sponsored children in foster homes. I know that if I didnt take the huge step of adoption, I would not have as much drive and passion to learn about the country and give back (with love gushing out of me like never before). Preparing to raise a child from another country has put me in a world of truly connecting with that country and making a difference for that country. This journey has opened my eyes to famine, diseases, and HIV+ in Africa. I was certainly aware of it before, but I think by deciding to become a mother, I have expanded my life and purpose. It is so easy to not pay attention to world issues, if you dont find that emotional drive and passion to commit to a cause.

Many parents I hear about and meet that have adopted from Ethiopia have either started a non-profit to sponsor orphans and street children living in Ethiopia or advocate and educate people about programs that will make a difference. The commitment is so strong when you are raising Ethiopian-American children who are truly a gift from Ethiopia. Through international adoption, there is an ability to create a worldwide community of support to give back to the country. This just makes sense to me. The adoption agency I chose has a large humanitarian and fundraiser role to give back and make a difference in the country. My hope is that I raise a child who gets a good education and wants to give back to her birth country. Unfortunately, it does come with a loss of her birth country and relatives.

One adoption wont change the world
but it will change the world for that child.


Tasha on Aug 27, 2008 at 12:56:28 said:

I feel compelled to respond to the following: While American adoption of Ethiopians is climbing, international adoption by Americans is declining overall.

Please note that Guatemala adoptions have been halted pending government clearance, Russia is requiring agencies to be Hague compliant (a lengthy and expensive process), and the wait period in China is three to five years. Other countries like Nepal and Vietnam have suspended adoptions and Kazakhstan requires adoptive parents to spend two months in-country during the adoption process.

These are all factors for why Ethiopia is on the rise... not because of Angelina.


Petra on Aug 27, 2008 at 11:13:33 said:

Most adoptive parents have enough sense to know that they are not saving a nation through their actions. However, on an individual level, they wish to have a child, and are meeting the need of a child that needs a family.

I really do wish that people would stop implying that child poverty must be solved by adoptive parents. Unless the same people are willing to tell a woman that she should bypass IVF treatment... or that we should all sell our cars and TV's... and donate the money instead, it seems very inconsistent.

I completely agree that child poverty in Ethiopia will not be solved through adoption. However, the responsibility is not meant for the shoulders of adoptive families alone. It is for anyone who has a heart and wants to help children stay with their families.

It is so easy for writers to note how many children could have been saved with our adoption fees, but not how many could have been saved if we all just made more frugal choices with our available income.


Jay on Aug 27, 2008 at 07:44:16 said:

While I agree that keeping children in country is the best thing to do - I do see the benefits of adoption.

Adoption - in this moment deals with the immediate challenge of providing care and love for the current orphans.

With people from the United States adopting from Ethiopia I believe there will be increased interest in Ethiopia from the US and support for the kind of "keep the family together" programs mentioned in this article will find a passionate and generous support base.

I believe adoption is a wonderful thing, but of course it should be a last resort.


nekogrrl on Aug 27, 2008 at 00:07:31 said:

Well said Channah. You'll never hear an adoptive parent say that adoption is the "best solution." What is IS is ONE solution to a greater issue.

While I do not think Bauer's intent is to malign the adoption process, I did find his last sentence to be particularly offensive. And I do feel that he is inadvertently contributing to a misconception that adoption is some sort of retail therapy for the 21st century; where parents fly into Addis, pick up their cute, brown babies, and then fly on out and back to their wonderful homes (and AGAIN with the Jolie reference!). He makes the process come across as rather callous and shallow where it is anything but that. And how quickly people forget that in the case of a DOMESTIC adoption, a large percentage of the "orphans" have one or BOTH living birth parents, PLUS an extended birth family. I am not sure why international adoption is always scrutinized under a different lens in that respect.

Yes, to an extent, adoption is a business, in that money is exchanged for services rendered. But it is NOT about selling a commodity. We are dealing with real human lives here - the lives of the children, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. And for that basic reason, adoption will never be a trivial, impulsive act of charity. Instead, it will always be an act of love.


nekogrrl on Aug 26, 2008 at 23:10:48 said:

Well said Channah. You'll never hear an adoptive parent say that adoption is the "best solution." What is IS is ONE solution to a greater issue.

While I do not think Bauer's intent is to malign the adoption process, I did find his last sentence to be particularly offensive. And I do feel that he is inadvertently contributing to a misconception that adoption is some sort of retail therapy for the 21st century; where parents fly into Addis, pick up their cute, brown babies, and then fly on out and back to their wonderful homes (and AGAIN with the Jolie reference!). He makes the process come across as rather callous and shallow where it is anything but that. And how quickly people forget that in the case of a DOMESTIC adoption, a large percentage of the "orphans" have one or BOTH living birth parents, PLUS an extended birth family. I am not sure why international adoption is always scrutinized under a different lens in that respect.

Yes, to an extent, adoption is a business, in that money is exchanged for services rendered. But it is NOT about selling a commodity. We are dealing with real human lives here - the lives of the children, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. And for that basic reason, adoption will never be a trivial, impulsive act of charity. Instead, it will always be an act of love.


Channah on Aug 26, 2008 at 05:27:10 said:

"Adopting Ethiopian Orphans May Not be the Best Solution"- to what problem?? I don't think that most adoptive parents out there are thinking that they are going to save the entire nation of Ethiopia. I think this article is interesting, but flawed in that it is forcing together what are in fact two separate issues. Ethiopia has somewhere around 70+ million people...Americans adopted several thousand orphans this year. Even if every single one of those adoptive families flat-out donated every penny of their adoption costs to in-country foster care programs, it wouldn't even begin to make a dent in the problems facing Ethiopia such as homeless orphans, HIV, famine, etc. Adoption is happening on a micro level, the other issues occur on a macro level, and these issues should be analyzed at their appropriate levels and not lumped together. Implying that Westerners adopting Ethiopian orphans should be the solution to Ethiopia's problems is like saying Americans could solve world hunger by eating less. I would love to see Ethiopian adoption examined on a closer level, but not within the bizarre context that the adoption of a few thousand orphans should be the solution to anything other than finding homes for children who need them.

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