An ongoing scandal over attempts to put African children up for adoption overseas amid questions of where the children come from and whether they have families has raised a debate about child welfare in Africa. Would these children be better off with adopted families in the West? In Dakar, Naomi Schwarz looks at the questions being asked amid the latest controversy.
The organization Zoe's Ark calls itself a refuge for children. Their website opens with a somber video of the devastation in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, saying a child there dies every five minutes.
Saying it is determined to help these children, several months ago the group sent a team to Chad, the country that borders Darfur. After a failed attempt to take a group of alleged Darfur orphans out of Africa, the group now faces charges of kidnapping and accusations of child trafficking.
Chad's senior protection officer for the United Nation's Children's Fund, Jean-Francois Basse, says the organization did not follow legal procedures for coordinating with the government and other humanitarian organizations.
"They were acting very strange," said Basse. "Because we have some coordination mechanisms here in Abeche or in N'Djamena. We are working closely with the authorities. But nobody was able to say what these people were doing here."
The incident in Darfur is not the first time seemingly well-intentioned adoption campaigns have gone awry.
Executive Director Linh Song of Ethica, a U.S.-based ethical adoption advocacy group, says one example is when 2,000 children were airlifted out after the Vietnam War.
"We have come to understand that some of the birth mothers did not give consent or were told that they would be able to meet up with them in the United States," said Song. "That the kids were not actually orphans, but children of high-level officials."
Tens of thousands of children are legally and ethically adopted each year from around the world by families in America and Europe. In recent years, an increasing number have come from countries in Africa.
But in Africa, where child trafficking on the continent is widespread and the legacies of colonialism and the slave trade are still felt, international adoption is treated with skepticism.
In a statement after the Zoe's Ark scandal broke, one Chadian opposition leader said, "The slavers of yesterday are modernizing their methods."
Chad authorities are investigating whether Zoe's Ark was well intentioned but sloppy, or something worse. But some Africans oppose international adoption, even when it is conducted legally.
"It will be a disadvantage to the country, because maybe the person would not like to bring their child to Ghana again," said Paul Kwaku Addei, who runs an orphanage in Ghana. "And maybe that child will be the president of Ghana or be a minister in the area or he can be a contributor to development of the nation here."
Many Africans, as well as adoption experts, say international adoption ought to be a last resort, after looking to the child's extended family or even domestic adoption.
UNICEF's Basse says there needs to be a compelling reason to send a child overseas.
"Poverty, conflict or whatever you want, should not be a reason to remove a [child] from his natural environment and send him away and think he is better off," added Basse.
Despite Africa's poverty and history of conflicts, relatively few children have ended up in orphanages or as candidates for overseas adoption. This, says Basse, is because of Africa's strong cultural ties to the extended family.
"Here it is very, very difficult to find an orphan which is completely abandoned or separated from family ties," added Basse. "Even if one of the parents is dead or the two parents are dead, [they] are usually taken charge of by relatives of other members of the bigger family."
Lisa Lovatt-Smith, founder of Ghana-based OrphanAid, says this has changed somewhat due to urbanization and the AIDS pandemic. Outside of the village, traditional cultural ties have started to change; and in parts of Africa, so many have died from AIDS, there are no longer enough relatives to care for the remaining children.
It means an increasing number of children are living in orphanages, and has contributed to the increase in African children being adopted overseas.
Clinical psychologist, David Brodzinksy, of the U.S.-based Evan B. Donaldson Institute on Adoption, says children do best with a stable, single caregiver. So if it comes to the choice between an orphanage in Africa or an inter-country adoption, he says children can be better off overseas.
"We certainly know that kids who are adopted for all the risks that may be associated with adoption do much better than kids who linger in orphanages who linger long-term in foster care or who are with parents who neglect them or abuse them," said Brodzinksy.
He says the transition to a new language, culture and country is difficult for children, but is sometimes the best solution to a bad situation. But Lovatt-Smith says the international community ought to direct its efforts to helping strengthen families in order to ensure the last resort becomes unnecessary.
"Well-intentioned but misinformed donors, including religious community donors, should not channel their funds into orphanages," he added. "They should be channeling their funds into services that support families in the community to foster and care for children of the extended family."
In 1993, the Hague Convention on Private and International law created a set of minimum legal standards for inter-country adoption. But the standards have yet to be ratified by many countries, including the United States, which is expected to ratify the convention this year.