Out of Ethiopia: Is international adoption an ethical business?


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International adoption is big business in Ethiopia and the country accounts for almost one in five international adoptions in the US, but how ethical is the process? BBC Africa's Hewete Haileselassie reports in this article which appeared in the latest issue of our Focus on Africa magazine.

Twenty-five years after leaving Ethiopia, Matthews Teshome decided to come home from the United States. This time for good.

He had left much behind in April 2007 - most notably a successful career in IT. But his reason was simple. "There is work to be done," he said at the time.

Soon after returning to the capital, Addis Ababa, he befriended a young boy he saw running errands and shining shoes around his hotel.

Start Quote

As I was in the country to help out, if I couldn't help this boy then I wasn't doing much”

End Quote Matthews Teshome

Zeberga, who was then 13, used the little money he made to clothe and feed himself, pay his uncle rent, put himself through night school and send money back to his mother in rural Ethiopia.

"As I was in the country to help out, if I couldn't help this boy then I wasn't doing much," says Mr Matthews, who was determined that Zeberga should return to school full-time.

After promising to continue the monthly $3 (£2) remittance, he received permission from Zeberga's uncle and his mother to support Zeberga.

Within months the young boy had moved in with Mr Matthews, who employed a lawyer to facilitate the adoption process not only of Zeberga but also of his younger sister who was working as a maid in the capital.

Drawn to Ethiopia

Meanwhile, 8,000 miles (13,000 km) away, in the US, Bridget Shaughnessy gave birth to her daughter Elia. It was also April 2007.

Mrs Shaughnessy (centre) and Teshale at Addis Ababa's airport Photo: Lynsey Epp Peterson It took the Shaughnessy family three years to take Teshale to the United States.

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Mrs Shaughnessy was diagnosed with a rare birth complication which meant that the baby had to be delivered early. Elia arrived safely but her birth was both traumatic and risky for Mrs Shaughnessy.

As she and her husband Luke watched Elia grow up in Denver, Colorado, they decided that adoption was the only way to complete their family.

They both felt drawn to Ethiopia, its culture and history, and so made contact with an agency specialising in international adoptions.

That was the beginning of a three-year process that ended in their bringing their son Teshale home from Ethiopia.

Back in Addis Ababa, Mr Matthews says the biggest obstacle he initially faced in the adoption process was being a single man with no biological children of his own.

But once the authorities were convinced of his motives and character, the process proved less difficult than he had anticipated.

While it is common in Ethiopia for families to incorporate children of relatives into their own households, formal and legal adoptions remain the preserve of foreigners.

Parents vetted

Out of Ethiopia

  • An estimated five million orphans in Ethiopia
  • One out of five children adopted in the US are from Ethiopia*
  • Since 1999, 11,524 Ethiopian children have been adopted by American families*
  • Families in Spain, France and Italy also adopt several hundred Ethiopian children per year

* Source: US Department of State

Official Ethiopian data is hard to come by but Dagnachew Tesfaye, a lawyer who has handled many adoptions for the country's children and youth affairs office, estimates that there are around 5,000 international adoptions a year from Ethiopia.

Almost 19% of all children adopted from abroad and taken to the US come from Ethiopia, according to the US department of State - the most famous case being actress Angelina Jolie and her daughter Zahara.

It costs up to $25,000 to adopt a child to take abroad. In contrast, Mr Matthews says he paid roughly $300 for his own in-country adoption.

Mr Dagnachew, who has also presided as judge in many high profile international adoptions, says that while the fees are high - leading to accusations of impropriety in some cases - the government is in no way profiting.

US actor Angelina Jolie, holds daughter Zahara (2006) Angelina Jolie is probably the most famous person to adopt from Ethiopia

He adds that the amounts paid to the courts in processing fees, for example, were "laughably small", with the difference being taken by the agencies who handled the foreign adoptions.

Mr Dagnachew explains that the Ethiopian government sees international adoption as one of the measures used to tackle the country's large number of orphans - said to be five million, from a population of 85 million.

The United Nations defines an orphan as a child having one or more dead parents.

The Ethiopian ministry of women's affairs is also putting in place various checks to ensure that the adoptive families are thoroughly vetted. This can include visits to children in their new homes abroad.

'Amazing moment'

Mrs Shaughnessy, who blogs at www.stickymangofeet.com, says that she was drawn to Ethiopia because of its "open" and "ethical" adoption process.

She also points out that children maintain access to information about their birth families.

Nigerians keep it in the family

By Chikodili Emelumado

Growing up in the heart of Igboland in Nigeria's Anambra state, adoption was not something one spoke about openly.

Igbo people wishing to marry and start a family must meet certain standards of "purity". There should be no thieves or snitches in the family and no history of mental illness.

Both parties must be free, born not from a lineage of slaves or servants of deities and neither family should have ever begotten changelings, witches or poisoners.

It is no wonder then that many Igbo people are still put off by the idea of a "tainted" gene pool resulting from adoption.

The parents of Chidiebere, an ex-schoolmate currently studying in the US, adopted a boy four years ago in Nigeria after having daughters.

However, her father had to seek the approval of the council of village elders and kinsmen after her grandfather refused permission.

They had several meetings and in the end, they voted on it. Finally they agreed that the days were gone when adoption was taboo.

"They told my dad they had to change the constitution to fit adopted children that will come into the village in the future," she says.

In fact, soon after she contacted the adoption agency in Minnesota that would link her to a government orphanage in Ethiopia, she had a home visit from a government representative.

She describes the moment when she took the telephone call that informed her she had been allocated a child as "surreal - very exciting. A really amazing moment."

The Shaughnessys travelled to Ethiopia in November to meet Teshale and to start the process of taking him to the US.

Mrs Shaughnessy says that by the time they met him in an orphanage in Addis Ababa - where he had been for almost a year since being placed there by his birth mother - "we had already fallen in love with him, but he didn't know who we were."

As for Teshale, who was not yet two at the time, Mrs Shaughnessy says he was scared and overwhelmed.

"He knew something was happening but not what," she says. She spoke of tears each time he left the orphanage to spend time with them.

Once in the US, she kept her son's Ethiopian name as part of honouring what his birth mother had given him.

She added that she keeps in close touch with other adoptive families who also have Ethiopian children.

Controversial practice

But this still remains a highly controversial practice. One high-profile former adoptee is a United Kingdom-based poet and playwright, Lemn Sissay.

Start Quote

Lemn Sissay

Taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression”

End Quote Lemn Sissay Poet and playwright

He entered the British care system in the 1960s having been given up for adoption by his mother who gave birth in England before returning to Ethiopia.

He says that non-Africans should be closely "monitored" when seeking to adopt African children and that while many good adopting parents exist, "having an African baby is often a sign to non-African adopters of their philanthropic, political, familial or religious credentials."

Ultimately, he says, "taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression".

Selamawit (not her real name), an independent consultant who works with women's affairs organisations in Addis Ababa, shares Mr Lemn's concerns about screening adoptive families but says that "adoption in principle is not a bad thing" although it is best for children to remain with their birth families or, failing that, the extended family.

She argues that in Ethiopia adoption has become far too lucrative a business where children's interests seem secondary.

She also says there is a pressing need to monitor internal adoptions, formal or otherwise, as children can be subjected to child labour when sent to live with family members.

These cases tend to fall outside monitoring mechanisms.

Selamawit suggests that the money should be reinvested into the orphanages to help those children left behind.

Five years on from being adopted, Zeberga is legally an adult and his sister is 16.

Their father, Mr Matthews, runs a successful restaurant in Addis Ababa and says that some of his colleagues who were the most wary of his plans to adopt later became the most supportive.

"Adopting has become one of the best experiences of my life," he says.

Mrs Shaughnessy echoes these sentiments saying of her son Teshale: "We are beyond in love with him. I don't even know how to make sense of it, it's amazing what happened."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    My (domestically) adopted children are bi-racial. I can provide them with plenty of good white role models, but in order to provide them with good black role models, I have to go out of my way, out of my element, to expose them to the black community. There simply aren't enough black adoptive couples, partly because of this ethos that their own extended family "should" take care of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    'Mrs Shaughnessy claims Ethiopian adoption is "open" and "ethical." Upon what precisely does she make such a laughable claim? The baloney her agency told her? The process in Ethiopia has been corrupt and rife with trafficking for YEARS. Hence the slowdown. This corruption has been extensively documented in the media, so stop the lies and admit you participated in an UNETHICAL process.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    prices are extreme for adpotion but to be honest at the end of the day those who are willing to help out any child in need of a better life disereves the love and care from anyone who can give it to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    In the U.S., the domestic adoptions work is the birth mother gets profiles of various prospective couples and picks who she wants. China, Russia, etc. orphanages, some bureaucrat pairs up approved adoptive couples with approved adoptees. If you have some physically unattractive features, you could be on a waiting list for years. Some pick international because they will wait a shorter period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Type-O in #17 Ukrane $40,000-$50,000, Russia $45,000-$50,000.

    Let me add it is not all about costs, but after all is said and done, you want to still have enough money to clothe and feed your child. Plus often you've spend a fair amount of money on infertility treatments (not covered by health insurance).

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    As China & Russia impose restrictions, agencies are turning to Africa. With more than 41,000 children sent overseas in past decade, Africa has become seedbed. Ethiopia is 2cd biggest source, soon to overtake China. In some cases, African children can be adopted in weeks (vs years in other countries).
    Danger - adoption can become profit industry with children as the commodity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Adoptions from China cost $30,000-$40,000. Ukraine, 40,000-50,000. Ukraine, $45,000-$55,000 (primarily because you have to go over twice - once for a court proceeding and again for another court proceeding months later). At $25,000 I'm sure Ethiopia is popular because it is more affordable. Only Haiti, at $~20,000, is less expensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Many adoption agencies are good, but there is also evidence of frequent fraud, the sale/abduction of children, falsified documents, bribery, & children being removed from relatives who could care for them. Ethiopia, where a number of orphanages were shut down by govt last year – had children PROMPTLY COLLECTED BY PARENTS/RELATIVES.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I find it dissapointing people will adopt a foreign child rather than a child in need in thier home land A child is not a commodity/accesory,it is a living person with feelings,and who is to say one is more important than another.I feel that a US citizen should adopt a US child, a UK citizen a British child and so on.With so many children "given away",maybe the WHO should give teenagers advice

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Of 5 African countries with most adopted children, NONE HAS RATIFIED THE HAGUE CONVENTION (leading international treaty on protecting children from illegal adoption). Some parents are illiterate; they don’t know what they are signing. Some are told it’s just a sponsorship for their children’s education. They’re often told it’s just foster care for some period of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It is indeed godly humanitarian activity to adopt a helpless child. But there needs to be done much on monitoring the whereabouts of the kids taken from Africa. Chances are these kids are abused in various forms. It has sometimes been reported that some single parents have lost contact with their adopted children. For these parents, to live deplorably is prefererred to losing a child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    What lies behind soaring numbers of African children adopted by foreign families? @ 6,500 children from Africa were adopted by foreigners in 2010 (less than 2,200 in 2003). Growth has seen proliferation of adoption agencies & orphanages, though vast majority of “orphans” ACTUALLY HAVE AT LEAST 1 LIVING PARENT. Some orphanages = profit generation = up to $30,000/ adopted child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What better way to finish of your Jimi Choo's than with an african ornament. Now that Ivory has been black marketed what else is there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    #5 Desiderius:

    Really?! Firstly: there certainly are many who adopt from Russia. Or did you not follow the stories on BBC? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14148431

    Second: You saying that you wouldn't oppose a white US family adopting from Russia, rather than Ethiopia? The culture is "different" even when the race is the same. I find your focus on race, in this matter, disappointing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Do they really expect people to swallow these stories? Facts speak for themselves, it's cheap and so it's used more. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, go knows these kids are far better off, but don't expect anyone to swallow this "drawn to the Ethiopian culture" claptrap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    'Culture' is dynamic, constantly evolving, merging or adopting best practises from others, sometimes just stubbornly clinging onto esoterism.

    History reveals that every culture was influenced by many extinct tribes and nations.

    if a child is brought up with affection, educated to be compassionate, confident and accepting of all cultures, then the adopting parent's ethnicity is irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It is hard to believe the adopters are really doing this out of concern for the children, whatever they may tell themselves. If you really care about the children, help the parents get on their feet and provide a life for them. Splitting up families is hardly an act of charity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I wonder if anyone would have known who Lemn Sissay is if he was not adopted. issues such as this always has its pros and cons. I would rather see a child adopted and out of his culture than staying in an ophanage. It is much better, no doubt.

    An act of agression! C'mon Lamn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Multi-racial designer adoptions are just a sad trend, made 'sexy' by Madonna and Jolie ...there are orphanages bursting in the Russia and Eastern Europe with non ethnic babies, that no one wants. So why pick a child from another race unless its PC trendy? Oddly, in the UK unwanted black babies can't be adopted by whites because of the opposite PC nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It seems fashionable for celebrities to have an adopted kid from Africa these days.


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