What's the future for African orphans?

By  Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, Catholic Register Special
  • November 10, 2006

The controversy over Madonna's adoption of a one-year-old Malawian orphan, David, raises important questions about adoptions of African orphans to Europe and North America. Our concern here is not the morality or legality of the adoption of baby David, even though these have some implications for his future happiness, fundamental rights, stability and cultural integration. Our concern is whether adoption of African orphans to Western countries offers any meaningful answer to the challenges that the high number of African orphans pose to African societies.

Madonna's adoption of baby David, for all the controversy, has brought once more to international consciousness the unanswered questions: What do we do about the millions of African orphans whose numbers are growing by the day as poverty, HIV/AIDS and civil unrest continue to take their heavy toll on their parents who are often cut down in the prime of life? Why are there so many orphans in Africa? How can we radically address the unacceptable situation which is making many Africans escape from their countries and become refugees in Western countries? What caused the death of baby David's mother and what should be done to prevent African mothers from the high mortality rate associated with childbirth and the high incidence of HIV/AIDS infection? Why is baby David's father so helpless that he is gladly giving away his son for adoption in a society where male children are valued as the guarantee for one's ancestral life? Why is baby David's grandmother so poor that she could not support her grandson?

Africa is home to more than 48 million orphans. According to UNICEF, 12 per cent of children living in Africa are orphans and the number is expected to rise to 20 per cent in about five years time. Baby David is one of 900,000 orphans living in Malawi. There are about 12 million African orphans who have lost one parent to AIDS, while half the number are double orphans who have lost both parents to this pandemic. The rest of the African orphans are those who have lost either or both parents through wars and civil unrest, diseases like malaria, typhoid fever and the high rate of maternal mortality in Africa.

What is the future of these children? The answer to this challenge cannot be found in Madonna's adoption of baby David or Angelina Jolie's adoption of an Ethiopian orphan last year. Something more fundamental is required.

The challenge of constructing coherent, balanced and sustainable development for Africa cannot be met by random interventionist involvement by Westerners with the African condition. Such approaches are attempts to respond to crises resulting from the failure by Africans and the international community to evolve a long-term development policy and program for Africa. They are similar to addressing the symptoms of a disease while ignoring its root causes. Sustainable development in Africa can only come about through a conscious approach on the part of Africans and Western governments and agencies to develop and promote the basic institutional framework for agriculture, education, health and governance in Africa. The absence of these frameworks gives rise to this ever-revolving chain of crises and dependency that have beleaguered African nations since their independence over four decades ago.

The questions need to be asked then why the various donor initiatives in Africa have not helped in laying a solid foundation for sustainable development. When will the African continent stand on her feet? What contributions should churches, donor agencies and Western governments make to help stimulate sustained growth and development in Africa? I believe that Africans should take responsibility for themselves by addressing the many internal challenges that Africa needs to overcome, in order to create an enabling environment for development in the continent. Africa as constituted today, with the lopsided dynamics of globalization weighted against the South, cannot by herself rebuild.

Africa, however, does not need sympathy but solidarity. Africa would cease to be the emergency spot of the world if her land and peoples were supported to take responsibility for themselves through capacity-building and the dismantling of the international system that has held African countries in perpetual peonage and dependency. To make poverty history in Africa, this forgotten continent should become the centrepiece of global action targeted at building up African institutions at the grassroots level. In this regard, both Africans and Westerners have great responsibility. However, Westerners who raise all the funds or whose governments channel a part of their taxes to development initiatives in Africa should begin to hold their governments, donor agencies and churches to account on how they are realizing the objectives they set out to achieve.

The African condition demands what I have called "a total picture approach" model. It means that no single problem that we experience in Africa should be seen or addressed in isolation, because each challenge or crisis in a given African country reveals and points to a deeper problem that should have been addressed in the first place. My approach includes both the Africans in making the necessary internal changes as well as the Westerners supporting Africa through acts of solidarity and not paternalistic approaches built on unexamined stereotypes. Developing the capacity of Africans to apply themselves to their cultural world, to apply their skills to their environment with all that it contains in terms of material resources should be a major priority of Western agencies and men and women of goodwill in the West who are interested in the birth of a new Africa. This approach is more important and more fundamental than adopting an African orphan whether for selfish or altruistic motives.

(Fr. Chu Ilo is a priest of Peterborough diocese and the author of The Face of Africa: Looking Beyond the Shadows. He is also a student in the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto.)

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