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Essay

Backstory: The Forces Behind the Groundswell

“I remember being at the store and seeing Angelina on the cover of, I think it was People magazine, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh! We can do this.’”
– Adoptive mother of Ethiopian child on “Good Morning America,” 2005

African adoption has been thrust into the international spotlight. The last seven years saw 41,000 African children adopted overseas, predominantly by French and American families. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the larger global slump in transnational adoption. While intercountry adoption rates on the whole have plummeted to a fifteen year low, Africa has witnessed a threefold rise in foreign adoption. Celebrity publicity aside, what explains the sudden influx of Westerners adopting African children?

Perhaps it’s as simple as supply and demand. Worldwide there are 50 prospective parents for every adoptable child. And in recent years, previous go-to destinations for families looking to adopt—Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Central America—have tightened restrictions or closed borders completely. Simultaneously, ravaged by famines, civil wars, and epidemics, Africa has developed a full-blown orphan crisis. Experts estimate that there are 58 million orphans on the continent, or 12% of all African children. Over 30% of those are due to the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic. Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS are at a higher risk of illiteracy, malnourishment, disease contraction, and childhood mortality. Many end up in underfunded government institutions or with overburdened caretakers. Historically speaking, the American inclination to adopt from a certain country follows a major crisis, evidenced by the deluge of inquiries sent to Vietnam after the war, Indonesia after the tsunami, Haiti after the earthquake. Although it’s impossible to parse out the multifaceted decision to adopt, this oft-repeated pattern points to the humanitarian urge to give a traumatized, destitute child a second chance with a loving family. 

Unfortunately, the flood of inquiring parents outpaced Africa’s ability to build adequate regulations, making Africa the Wild West of international adoption. After all, an adoption is a matter of international law, a legal agreement between two states transferring citizenship and guardianship. And an overwhelming majority of adopted African children come from nations, like Ethiopia and Nigeria, that have yet to ratify a crucial international adoption protocol. The 1993 Hague Convention obligates states to meet protective measures to safeguard the best interests of the child: an extensive vetting process of the adoptive parents, and a comprehensive search for any domestic guardians for the child. Only thirteen African countries have signed the Hague Convention, and of those, only South Africa ranks among the most popular adoption destinations. Without the social services or legal framework necessary to ensure thorough regulation, many African nations unwillingly provide a streamlined path to adoption. Although this may speed the process for impatient, deserving parents, reports abound of nefarious practices that flagrantly disregard a child’s basic human rights. From child trafficking to sexual slavery, or mothers hawking newborn babies in the classifieds, or even unlicensed agencies coercing grandparents into releasing guardianship of their beloved grandchild—such is the seedy underbelly of unregulated international adoption in Africa. 

In the end, adoption comes down to this: a parent wants a child. Yet this basic, good-willed, essentially human desire sets off a minefield of international consequences. Is it in a child’s best interest to be raised in a foreign country, in a culture and language not their own? Will the adoptive parents offer a brighter future, greater access to education, health services, and a warm and loving family? Or is it neocolonialist to even assume that the West can offer the child a better future? With bold, attentive steps, Tanya Barfield skillfully traverses this rugged ethical terrain in The Call

Sarah DeLappe, Literary Resident
December 2012