Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – On the outskirts of Addis Ababa a newly built orphanage called Rohobet is hidden among tin-roofed shacks on top of a eucalyptus and pine-covered hill. All around it, dirt roads are turned into muddy rivulets in the midday drizzle.
The inside of the largely empty house has features that are distinctly un-Ethiopian. A large kitchen table and chairs — the eight children are to eat at a table rather than on the floor. Babies are fed by bottles and sleep in cribs, rather than the large pieces of cloths shaped into tiny hammocks that are the norm in most Ethiopian homes. When they travel, the smallest children sit in car seats. After leaving their home state of Oromo and coming to the orphanage, the children are being prepared for life in the United States.
In the four months that the Rohobet orphanage has existed, it has had five children adopted through the Minnesota-based agency, Better Future Adoption. The director of Rohobet is a man I’ll call Tewodros since he asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from the government or the American adoption agency that funds his orphanage.
He had the personality of a non-profit entrepreneur, with a big heart and a mind for expanding his business. His mission was clear: raise more money and have more children adopted. We have enough orphans, just not enough money, he said.
He also has enough of a demand. For his line of work, business is virtually booming. In recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in adopting children from Ethiopia, a dynamic that a New York Times article last year attributed to the fact that orphanages in Ethiopia are run by foreign agencies and that the country has a relatively efficient and hassle free adoption process. According to Tewodros every week, American families land in Addis Ababa to pick up their new children, usually leaving in less than seven days.
While American adoption of Ethiopians is climbing, international adoption by Americans is declining overall. In 2004, Americans adopted 22,884 children from other countries. In 2007 the number was 19,400. The number of children sent out of Ethiopia to the United States in that same period has more than quadrupled, rising from 289 in 2004 —the year before Angelina Jolie’s famed adoption of an Ethiopian girl— to 1,255 in 2007. This makes Ethiopia the fourth most popular country for Americans to adopt from after China, Guatemala, and Russia, respectively.
But is adoption actually the best strategy for improving the lives of the orphaned children?
Most of Ethiopia’s estimated one million orphans have extended family members who, if they only had the money, Tewodros said, would care for the child. Here’s where the idea of adoption as a last resort gets tricky: It costs $20 per month to support a child with a foster family in Ethiopia. More often than not, the foster family is one of the child’s relatives. An American parent adopting a child through Better Future Adoption will spend between $14,170 – $18,170 in fees and travel costs, according to the Web site.
To solve the problem of orphaned children, we need solve the problem of HIV, said Teshager Shiferan, director of the Dawn of Hope Ethiopia Association. His organization is an association of people living with HIV/AIDS, the main cause of orphaned children in Ethiopia. Of the country’s one million orphans, 700,000 have lost their parents to the disease.
We can’t solve the problem of orphaned children in Ethiopia by sending them abroad, Shiferan said. We need to focus on the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Ethiopia, he said, is headed in the right direction. Three years ago, the government began offering free anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to 150,000 HIV/AIDS victims. That is still a small fraction of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, but it is already showing results: according to him, the number of people dying from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia has been declining.
The implication is clear, he said. An orphan is someone whose parents died. If you increase the number of people who get ART, you decrease the number of orphans.
Dealing with HIV/AIDS might be a long-term solution to curbing the problem of orphaned children, but people like Tewodros are invested in dealing with the immediate problem of kids without parents.
As of late, he’s been coming up against the government, which has recently been increasing restrictions and implementing policies that would keep children in the country. For a child to be approved for adoptions, new stipulations require documented confirmation of the death of both parents or the serious illness of the single living parent.
Tewodros said the reason for the policy change is to crack down on child trafficking, but for him, it just creates headaches. Three of the children at his orphanage are waiting to be adopted, but the government has been refusing to approve it, because the children’s father is still alive. We go to the ministry again and again and the government won’t give us permission. Their father is a poor man and he can’t take care of them, he said.
Tewodros admits that adoption isn’t always the best strategy, but like non-profits the world over, he is restricted by funding. The money is in adoption, not in keeping children in their country with their families.
Doing the math, it would cost roughly $5000 to fund the care of 20 orphans by their extended family. While that amount is 26 times the average yearly income of an Ethiopian, it’s about a quarter to a third of the amount an American would pay to adopt a single child from the Rohobet orphanage.