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Pilot Project Helps Ethiopian Orphans Avoid Overseas Adoption

The Ethiopian government and a faith-based U.S. charity are teaming up on an experimental project to help orphans thrive in their home countries rather than be put up for adoption overseas. From the town of Bantu, our correspondent reports that the U.S. government is studying the project as Ethiopia becomes the nation of choice for American families seeking international adoptions.

Hundreds of Bantu's tiniest children stand in a muddy field at the Bright Hope Education Center, singing a welcome song to a team of foreign visitors led by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

Three years ago, Bantu was little more than a collection of huts connected to the outside world by a footpath. Its population was decimated by drought and disease. Countless orphans were left to fend for themselves.

Today, many of these orphans attend classes and receive two meals a day at the newly built Bright Hope Education Center. The center is a joint project of the Ethiopian government and the Buckner Foundation, a Texas-based charity dedicated to helping children, and Ethiopia's Bright Hope Church.

Senator Landrieu has come to Bantu to look at how the project can be used as a model for reaching orphans and impoverished children worldwide.

"This is an example of an exciting partnership that is absolutely scalable," said Senator Mary Landrieu. "This road, electricity and compound was built within three years - extraordinary when you think about it. Over 600 children receiving education here, some of the poorest of the poor because this partnership between Ethiopia's government and a foundation, we would call it a charity, has brought private money from the U.S., matching the money from the government of Ethiopia creates an exciting opportunity."

Forty million Ethiopians, half the country's population, are less than 18 years of age. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that 5.5 million of them are orphans, meaning that each has lost at least one parent.

The sheer number of orphans and Ethiopia's relatively lenient adoption standards help explain the rapid rise in the number of Ethiopian children being adopted in the West.

Five years ago, Ethiopia provided only two percent of foreign children adopted in the United States. By last year, that figure had jumped to 18 percent. Analysts say trends indicate that Ethiopia will surpass China this year as the number one country of origin for foreign adoptions by U.S. parents.

But the 5,000 Ethiopian children adopted worldwide last year is a tiny fraction of the country's 5.5 million orphans.

Senator Landrieu says the overwhelming numbers dictate caring for orphans near their birthplace, while international adoption should be a last resort.

"Not just Americans, but many countries around the world desire to follow this international treaty which says children should stay with their birth families," she said. "But if something happens and that child is separated from the mother or father - death or famine or disease - then the treaty says the children should be placed with the nearest kin or relative who is willing or responsible to raise them, and then as sort of the last step, rather than putting the child out on the street or putting the child in an institution where they're not loved and nurtured, to find a family somewhere in the world."

U.S. Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the State Department's adviser for children's issues, accompanied Landrieu to Bantu. At a time when many countries are tightening rules governing adoption, Jacobs says the Bantu model deserves a closer look because it helps Ethiopian orphans to better their lives at home, while identifying the neediest children for placement abroad.

"There are a lot of American families that want to adopt, that feel the need," said Susan Jacobs. "They want a family [or] to complete their family, so we hope adoptions will remain open all over the world and in Ethiopia."

Buckner Foundation President Kenneth Hall acknowledges the Bantu project reaches only a small percentage of Ethiopia's orphans, much less the estimated 140 million orphans worldwide. But he says he is excited about the possibilities of replicating the public-private partnership model internationally.

"When you look at it from the macro, or broad scale, it can be defeating," said Kenneth Hall. "But in the work I'm in, you've got to address the issue. We want to replicate models that work. The resources are available financially from the private sector in partnership with the public sector. That's how you get there. This is not that expensive to do when you partner with a lot of people and you let the national leadership, not only of the government, but [also] the private leaders here. So this is an Ethiopian project with just a little bit of assistance from America."

Pastor Getahun Nesibu Tesema, director of the Bright Hope Education Center says three orphans from Bantu have been adopted by U.S. families during the past three years. Almost all of the rest will remain with relatives in Ethiopia, with nutrition and education assistance from the Buckner Foundation and Bright Hope.