World Vision's Child's Rights Advisor on Madonna and Inter-Country Adoption

World Vision's Child's Rights Advisor speaks to Christian Today on Madonna's planned adoption of a Malawian boy and the latest celebrity trend of adopting children from poor countries.

The one-year-old boy that Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie plan to adopt has spent his first night in the couple's London townhouse last night after he arrived at Heathrow yesterday following a long flight from his native Malawi via South Africa.

The couple have come under fire from media commentators as well as numerous aid agencies which have criticised their actions as selfish.

The move has raised further eyebrows after the child's father revealed he had placed his son in an orphanage because of his poverty and there is further speculation that Madonna has jumped through several legal loopholes putting their keenness to adopt above the best interests of the child.

Yesterday, Madonna and Guy defended their planned adoption of David Banda, saying it would help one child to "escape an extreme life of hardship and poverty".

Philippa Lei is World Vision's Child's Rights Advisor. She spoke to Christian Today about the charity's response to Madonna's planned adoption, the growing trend of inter-country adoption, and the welfare of children in poor children.

CT: In terms of celebrities and inter-country adoption, Angelina Jolie has already set that precedent but when she did it she didn't get half the reaction that Madonna's planned adoption has gotten. What is it about Madonna's case that is so particularly explosive this time, do you think?

PL: It's hard to say. I was thinking the same thing myself. I think there are probably a number of factors. I guess because it's becoming more of a trend and people are picking up on it more every time a new celebrity does it. There is also the status of Madonna; obviously she is a massive name, known by everyone. I think that probably has an impact.

But also, we as a charity have been given quite a lot of information about the actual case that we haven't been heard before and there are certain irregularities to it that have caused concern among some parties, ourselves included.

What are those concerns?

The major two concerns centre around World Vision's belief that children are best brought up in their families and communities where that's possible; that that's the best option for them. And in this case we know the child being adopted does actually have a living relative; he has a father, grandparents, uncles, who are willing to look after the child but can't because of poverty.

So what we would actually like to see happen is to see the family enabled by Madonna or by some other agency or state provision to be able to look after the child themselves in that family rather than shipping the child out.

What do you think about the role of aid agencies? Surely there must have been some reason why Madonna felt so compelled to go to this extreme level of action to help a poor child. Do you think this is a challenge for aid agencies like World Vision?

I think it's a challenge for aid agencies and for governments. It just raises the issue again of the extreme poverty faced by many across the world and the extreme vulnerability of children.

According to reports, the orphanage Madonna chose her child from had 4,000 children. And we know that across Sub-Saharan Africa there are over 12 million children orphaned and in the next four or five years that is going to be raised to over 20 million. So it highlights the issue and highlighting the issue also highlights the challenges.

I think certainly it challenges governments to look at how they can better protect children and keep families together, how they can provide for children's education and healthcare and provide families with the livelihoods necessary to keep these families together.

It also challenges us as aid agencies in terms of how do we respond to this, what do we do. And World Vision's response is very much community based. It's looking at how we can support communities to care for children within them.

How will you be advising individuals, perhaps individuals who come to you for advice, who desperately want to help a child in poverty but who feel that normal measures are not enough?

Our guiding principle is the best interests of the child and we believe in most circumstances that the best interest of the child is keeping the child within their family and community environment.

World Vision offers child sponsorship whereby a person can sponsor a child within a community and give an amount each month toward that community and fund education and healthcare and sanitation and clean water within that community so that the child is able to grow up in a healthy environment and is able to stay with their parents. And we'll fund parents within those communities through loans to actually make a living themselves so that they can look after their children themselves and not have to put their children in orphanages or foster or adopt them out.

And you think that is the route that Madonna should have gone down? You think she should have helped the wider community?

Definitely, that would be what we believe. And we don't know whether she did look at these alternative means of helping but it would seem from what we have read that this would have been a good alternative, probably a better alternative for the child.

And what about the people who support this action, who are thinking that this is someone who is taking direct action, they have the means to do it, and actually it's going to give this child a wonderful start in life?

Well, there are a number of issues. The first is that there seems to be an assumption going around that a life in the West is better than a life in Africa and I think we are not in any place to make that assumption. I have colleagues from Zimbabwe and Zambia who grew up there and they certainly would not concur with that opinion. So that is something we need to look at.

Also we know that children who have been separated from their birth families are those most vulnerable to abuse, to exploitation, to neglect. We know that most times the birth family is the best place for a child. They can offer the best protection and the long-term commitment to provide for their care.

So we need to be seeking ways of keeping children with their families where that is possible.

If this is becoming a trend what kind of impact is this going to have on these communities which are likely to be 'targeted' as it were for child adoption by Westerners?

There's a couple of answers. One of them is not much unfortunately because you can only adopt one or two children at a time. And as I said, there's currently 12 million orphans in Sub-Sahara. So just going through adoption doesn't actually help that many children. It is not a long-term, sustainable solution for African children in these communities. That is why we would advocate a better solution than that - actually developing the communities to be able to look after the children themselves.

The other answer is that there is a danger that these communities could be seen as places where children are easily available. Obviously there are many child protection issues that come with that. Not everyone who is looking for a child oversees is looking for them to care for them but to exploit them. We have to be very careful about painting children as commodities and saying these children are available for fees to pay.

In the majority of cases people want to look after the child out of a desire to do good but we know that is not always the case.

So what kind of strategy are you going to be pursuing now to respond to this?

We are going to be keeping our eye on the case. One of our main concerns is that the legislation that is in place in Malawi doesn't seem to have been followed. There seems to have been an exception to the rule in Madonna's case. So that is something we are going to continue to challenge.

As far as I'm aware the UK Government here can only let the child in to the country if they are happy that the correct procedures have been followed. Obviously they are in a legal sense but the spirit of the legislation that has been put in place hasn't been followed because it's been contravened so we may look at challenging the UK Government to its response to this adoption but we are in very early stages in terms of where we think we will go and we will continue monitoring the case.

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