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 43.

    I am against child adoption from Ethiopia for several reasons:

    I know both cultures, Ethiopian and Western and I would never choose to have children brought here for comfort and material goods while they lose their sense of self. Ethiopia has that magic of giving one the identity.

    Ethiopia as a country hasn't done its due diligence to accommodate the needs of the orphans yet and needs to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    the title is somewhat misleading; most US adoptions draw from Russia and China, where almost five times as many children are adopted as from Ethiopia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    My wife and I are training junkies and took every training NCHS offered. We read many books by adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, etc. I find it sad that our experience isn't that common. I'm sorry that that happened to you, Orlando - your experience is not the norm either. Too many agencies don't put enough effort into filtering out adoptive & birth parents doing it for the wrong reasons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    I'm very sorry that adoption was so traumatic for you. I do believe some of the reasons that you mentioned are part of the driving force behind the open adoption movement in America. I think any parents who do due diligence while adopting also do their best to help their children through the grief associated with adoption, as they should know that it will bring up intense emotions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Adoption is fragmentation and I had to work my whole life (now 42) at becoming whole again. I experienced suicide multiple time in my teenage years & adult life. It's shocking in 2012 how much ignorance persists among adopted parents, social workers, therapists, etc about the trauma of adoption & about the grief and loss associated with the experience of adoption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    What does it say about people who would rather children stay orphaned, unwanted and unloved for the sake of cultural purity, than to be adopted into a family of another culture? Who is the bigot in that argument?

    Yes, there are difficulties with multicultural adoptions, but isn't it better for those kids to at least be given a chance to live and flourish, than to die of malnutrition or neglect?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    @35 "and kept me from speaking my original language so I could "fit-in."

    That's not unusual. I'm third generation and my parents wouldn't teach me the languages of my grandparents in order to make sure that I would "fit in" with the kids who were not of the same ethnic heritage as me. It's a product of time and community, and of parents trying to make their kids less of a target for bullies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Sounds like Lem Sissay, with his comment that foreign adoption is essentially an act of aggression, is transferring some personal issues of his own onto people who adopt children from other cultures. He seems to be unable to comprehend that most people adopt out of love, not for public relations reasons. How selfish to put culture before love and nurturing, when talking about a child's life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    As an older international double-adoptee, I can say that adoption was the most traumatic thing I have ever experienced (more traumatic than sexual & physical abuse by my 1st adoption family). Both families even changed my first and last name at age 10 (when I was adopted) and kept me from speaking my original language so I could "fit-in."

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.


    You can't post long messages here. The "Post Comment" button will turn from white lettering to gray when you've run out of space. Other forums have a running count of how many characters you have left, which IMHO is better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I wrote a long post and can't find it. where is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Sometimes adoptees feel angry because all these life changing decisions were made by well meaning adults, but nobody asked them (can't ask a newborn). Too many adoptive parents don't expose their children to the culture of their ancestry, which is sad, but hardly aggression. If someone gives me flack about my transracial family, I ask them how many children they have adopted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I can't believe Mr Sissay thinks it is better for a child to grow up in institutions than in a loving family. The argument about culture is an aggression against the babies who will be abandoned to a life in institutions because the colour of their skin doesn't match that of the many people who are longing to be parents and who might form wonderful families.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    It's difficult to comprehend this animosity towards families who would adopt. The families I know seek to adopt to because they have the means to provide a great life and love for a child. I have to wonder if the anger and distrust in some of the commentary stems from an inability to comprehend the motive for adopting, to love a child that that is not your own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.


    In Nebraska, the average cost is $~23,500. I've heard that Alabama, you might find something closer to $18,000. Nebraska Children's Home Society http://www.nchs.org/ does not charge for their services. They are the only agency in the U.S. that does this, but they are only licensed in Nebraska. They operate by donations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Our family adopted a little girl from Sierra Leone in 1997 in the midst of war. If we had not adopted her - she would have died. We live in a very multiracial community, and endeavoured to expose our daughter to culture of Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa - including being with African friends. If we don't help these children, we are dooming them to reoccurring trauma and death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I live in Africa and have been trying to adopt here for the last 5 years, so far with no success. Those who say it's 'easy' here clearly don't have all the facts. Of course having a strict system in place to protect the child is important, but that should be balanced so that it's at least possible for people to adopt at some stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Adoption isn't the best possible scenario, but often it is the best scenario that's possible (given the circumstances). Some international agencies are ethical, some are not. The same is true of domestic adoption (particularly when you get into adoptions brokered by a lawyer and not an agency, IMHO). Do your homework about the agencies you are working with, or don't adopt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I myself believe adoption benefits both parties if it's done in accordance with the law & ppl u say calture , bla bla etc that's because u don't believe
    in integration

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    As a US citizen researching adoption, I would like to point out that it can cost as much or more to adopt from the US as internationally, unless one adopts a special-needs child.This is because the adoptive parents are often responsible for paying the medical costs for the birth mother, as well as fees to the agency, legal costs, etc. Then one has to hope the birth mother doesn't change her mind.


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