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A Calculation: The 'Orphan Crisis' in Ethiopia

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A Unicef report states that in Ethiopia there are at this moment 4.5 million orphans on a population of some 90 million. The 4.5 million means that 5 percent of the total population is an orphan. Orphans are in Ethiopia defined as children under 18 whose both parents died. They died of AIDS, untreated illnesses, hunger, draught and war.

Ethiopia is one example of the many countries where a newly formed US Foreign Affairs agency will work if the Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation is passed in congress. The law aims to connect these orphans through family reunification, domestic, kinship or inter country adoption. A great idea, because it stresses the importance of child welfare in dealing with what is called the world orphan crisis.

There is a lot of criticism on the law from adoptee organizations and individual adoptees, not only because they, who are in a certain way the subject of the bill, were not a party in the development of it, but also for many other reasons which are comprehensively described in an article in the Daily Kos. One of the concerns of the adoptees and their non-adopted supporters is that adoption regulations are loosened in an international adoption climate that asks right now for stronger regulations: child trafficking, baby stealing and corruption are rampant in the worldwide 'adoption industry.' Another argument is that the law, more than dealing with the problems of the orphans, essentially supports the interests of American families who want to adopt. DeLeith Duke Gossett of the Texas Tech University School of Law wrote among other things about that in an article for the Hawaii Law Review.

I think that the numbers support this last criticism. Elsewhere I calculated that the law can probably invest a maximum of 22.5 cents per orphan. The budget for Ethiopia through CHIFF for those four issues of family reunification, domestic, kinship or inter country adoption will be $1,012,500. Let us compare that to the planned Ethiopia investments of Unicef for 2014. It has for child protection $2,700,000 alone and with that money they think to reach 1.4 million kids. Next to that Unicef has budgeted more than $28,000,000 for food, healthcare, water, education and coordination. The CHIFF money is not very impressive in this context: a million for 4 million kids.

The comparison also shows that Unicef spends its money in coordination with other problems which children in Ethiopia are confronted with: hunger, health care and so forth. The CHIFF orphan seems to be an orphan with no other context than family, which is not only technically limited but also a rather foreign concept in big parts of the Ethiopian society. The idea that the American government would set up an organization in Ethiopia outside the international community is already unusual, but if that organization only has a budget of just over a million dollars we are nearing the realm of the ridiculous.

Americans adopt about 2,000 children annually from Ethiopia. If we calculate the median costs for each adoption at $46,000 (Adoptive Families, Winter 2014), then we have a total of $92,000,000, that is 92 times the sum CHIFF has available. Money talks, and money talks in many languages. In Ethiopia 78 percent of the population struggles with an income below $2 a day. So a bribe of $1,000 is a year's income for many poor Ethiopians. If the adoption industry is not carefully regulated it will result in more adoption coercion, baby stealing, child trafficking and corruption.

CHIFF doesn't address these difficult issues and focuses on the bright side of adoptions on their Facebook page. I don't deny that there can be a bright side, but that brightness is, to put it mildly, severely dimmed by the darkness that broods underneath it.

Three more things about CHIFF. First mathematical: imagine CHIFF would pass congress and the new regulations would raise the total annual adoptions to 4,000 or 10,000 or even a million: the problem of the orphans in Ethiopia is not at all solved. To solve the 'orphan crisis' bigger and probably more economically painful measures have to be taken. Secondly the US has to do its work in a Foreign Affairs context. Third it must focus on the psychological aspect of adoption. If you were adopted from Ethiopia and at a certain point in life you would understand that your existence in the US depended on cheating out your first parents by a system that was supported and condoned by your by now home country, how would you feel about that country, your adoptive parents, the adoption industry? How would you feel about yourself and who you are?

Ethiopia is but one example of the many countries where the 'orphan crisis' plays out. There are, says the CHIFF website, 200,000,000 orphans. As in Ethiopia in all those other countries CHIFF will not make any difference in that crisis. It will make a difference for American families who want to adopt and who, sorry to say, don't care about the origins of their child.