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Madonna Trip to Malawi Highlights Cross-Cultural Adoptions Debate

Reports that pop star Madonna is in the process of adopting an orphan from the African nation of Malawi have brought praise for raising awareness about the rising number of orphans in Africa and other parts of the developing world. However, they have also brought criticism. Most recently, a group of Malawian charities says the singer's bid to adopt a boy is against Malawian law and they will seek a court order to halt the process.

Child welfare advocates say the visit to Africa by singer-actress Madonna has helped focus attention on the millions of children in the developing world who have been orphaned by poverty, conflict and AIDS.

But they are concerned that adoptions by famous couples may draw attention away from what many feel are better solutions to the problem.

The Malawian government Thursday, gave tentative approval for Madonna to adopt a one-year-old Malawian child, whose mother died after childbirth.

A childrens' rights specialist with the Plan Malawi group, Martin Nkuna, expresses a feeling common among child advocates that a child grows best within the environment of his or her own family.

"Look at the psychological effect of taking a child out of his or her cultural environment.," he said. J"ust taking the child to another culture would raise a number of issues in the development of the child."

Jackie Schoeman is executive director of Cotlands, a South African group that works with orphans whose parents have died of AIDS. She says there has been little long-term research on international or cross-cultural adoption.

"Coming with adoption there are a lot of emotional issues as the children grow older. And we are not really sure yet would they have preferred to have remained within their own culture with the possibility of locating with extended family members," she said.

Statistics on international adoption are not complete but U.S. State Department figures show that international adoptions by Americans tripled during the 1990s, reaching nearly 20,000 in 2001. Most of the adopted children then came from Eastern Europe and Asia, but they are coming increasingly from African countries.

An international - Hague - convention on international adoption came into force 13 years ago aimed at protecting the rights of adopted children and preventing child trafficking. More than 60 countries have signed it.

The convention sets standards and procedures for international adoptions, but critics say it also creates expensive and time consuming bureaucratic hurdles.

Schoeman notes that most would-be parents want to adopt a small baby and as a result, it is difficult to place children older than one year.

"If a child can't find a family and either are [is] going to remain in a child-headed household or in some kind of institution, then I think the possible problems of cross-cultural adoption can be more easily overcome than the problems of long-term institutionalization."

War and the AIDS virus have multiplied the millions of orphans in Africa and some parts of the developing world.

The communities and extended families that traditionally took care of their orphans have been overwhelmed by the numbers or they have been unwilling to care for them because of the stigma attached to AIDS.

However, the representative of the Hope for African Children Initiative, Bill Philbrick of CARE-USA, says the root cause of the crisis is poverty and declining social services.

"What I think the debate should be about is looking at what can we do to strengthen the capacity of communities to keep the children in the communities, to enable the communities and the families themselves to take care of the children," he said.

Advocates acknowledge that children adopted by a wealthy families will have many advantages, including the resources to return to their origins and know their surviving family members if they want to.

Nevertheless, Philbrick urges celebrities seeking to adopt internationally to avoid drawing attention away from what he says is the best solution.

"I would encourage any celebrities to be responsible that when they do go over there that they take great pains to look at the underlining reasons and draw attention on [to] the reasons why children are in a situation in which they are vulnerable. And then lets look at addressing those causes," he said.

Madonna has reportedly pledged $3 million to help children, many of whom are infected with HIV/AIDS, through her Raising Malawi charity. Other celebrities have founded schools and orphanages.

Nevertheless, child activists say the amount of aid is far outpaced by the growing number of children without parents and by communities that are unable to care for them.