Those pleading eyes and downcast faces tell a story.
A story of deprivation and neglect. A life of abandonment and powerlessness.
But those pleading eyes and downcast faces have more power than we realize. Because they're often the first things Westerners see when looking at photos of orphaned children in Majority World countries.
And instinctively, we want to help. It's part of what makes us moral humans: we want to exercise a Christlike compassion on "the least of these." We can't imagine how we would cope in the circumstances that have befallen such young lives half-way across the globe. We feel pity, angst, and even anger at the failed policies of conflicted adults who wreak such undeserved havoc on such disenfranchised lives.
International adoptions are born of such miserable tableaux. And the vast majority of international adoptions have proven to be highly successful, plucking little orphans, one by one, from the bowels of despair to bright horizons of opportunity in First World countries. Parents who expend the emotional, physical, and financial costs of cross-cultural adoption operate on a form of altruism that seeks to match compassion with action and personal commitment.
And that is good.
But as international adoptions continue to increase in popularity, red flags are beginning to wave in far-flung outposts where indigenous people groups are beginning to realize that everything in this picture isn't rosy. The road to you-know-where may be paved by good intentions, as the saying goes, but the roads Westerners are taking to try and help these little ones are developing some serious potholes as well.
For example, I recently completed a book review* for Crosswalk.com which covered the story of a young couple from California who went to Ethiopia and considered starting an adoption program. Yet the more Levi and Jessie Benkert explored the possibility, the more they came to realize that although international adoption isn't wrong, it's not always right, either.
Adopting a Fresh View of Adoption
The Benkerts were startled to learn that even the American embassy in Addis Ababa suspected them of participating in Africa's increasingly corrupt adoption trade. Indeed, international adoption has become big business in the continent's desperate countries ravaged by warfare, disease, corruption, and economic futility. Brokers purchasing desirable-looking children from their parents for sale to unsuspecting Westerners, eager to save a cherubic-faced urchin, is a popular trend. Adoption hustlers promise indigenous families that Westerners who adopt their children will return and help them, too, and let them see their progeny often: this is how many parents across Africa so willingly allow their children to be sold or otherwise co-opted into adoption. Then there are the older children who get sold not to Western parents, but to sex traffickers And from there, their tale grows ever more sinister.
Fortunately, however, just as international adoptions continue to increase in popularity, other Westerners have decided that pulling kids out of these Majority World countries isn't exactly the best solution to the orphan problem. Besides, how do you choose which ones to bring back to the prosperous West, and which ones to leave behind? Can't life still thrive beyond the materialism of the First World? After all, just because children in Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mexico, and other impoverished countries don't enjoy the luxuries American children enjoy, that doesn't mean they're automatically deprived of what they need most to live. We're beginning to realize that creature comforts have their place, but they're not the most important things in the life of any child. The love, care, and attention of biological parents, siblings, and extended families are.
Did you know that up to 70 percent of children classified as "orphaned" around the world still actually have at least one parent still living? The discrepancy in the term comes from an ancient practice - found even in parts of the United States up until the Second World War - of impoverished parents relinquishing partial custody of children to a group home of sorts. This practice looks different from country to country, of course. But basically, if a mom and dad, or a single parent, simply can't feed and clothe their child, they look for a place where they can leave that child so it can be receive better care. It's not considered abandonment, since the parent(s) have the right - and sometimes, the duty - to return and visit their child, or take it home for special events. When the family manages to scrape together enough to take care of their children themselves, they go and collect their child, returning to their family's home so they can try and keep going together.
It's not a perfect system, obviously, but it works.
Except if the child is ferried thousands of miles away to suburban America. Where they'll never see their birth parents again.
Home Really Is Where the Heart Is
Some Westerners may struggle to imagine how life in Africa could be better than life in America. Or England, or Australia, or anyplace else with unlimited WiFi and a Starbucks on every corner. And in some ways, we've a basis for believing our lifestyle trumps those experienced by people living in Majority World poverty. The West is indisputably a physically safer place to be, since we don't have brutal military conflicts ravaging our neighborhoods. And even though we complain about our political processes, they're far better than what passes for civil rights in much of the Majority World.
Still, what's the one thing that bonds parents and their children, no matter the culture? It's love, isn't it? And even though the plight of orphans tugs at our heartstrings, does it not also tug at the heartstrings of these orphans' own parents, families, tribes, and people groups?
Acknowledging the universality of parental love, then, Westerners have begun programs to support orphans in their native countries. Economically, it makes more sense, since our money goes much farther in these Majority World locales. Sometimes relief agencies can even skirt the corrupt tentacles of local governments, and make sure more funds get put to better use than the money our government funnels through diplomatic channels.
And that's good, too.
Except that now, news is beginning to emerge that even orphanages Westerners are trying to support may not all be acting in the best interests of those for whom they're supposed to be caring. In Cambodia, the phenomenon of "orphanage tourism" has become prolific, part of a trend where Western tourists can travel through a circuit of orphanages, where children are pressed into service as entertainment. They put on a show for their well-meaning guests, who then pose with the children in some sort of cathartic ritual for wealthy foreigners who believe they're doing a good deed.
But are they? Nobody's saying kids shouldn't be expected to do chores, but doesn't making an orphanage a place where kids raise money by creating a false impression of their plight to gullible visitors exploit both the kids and their duped audience? It denigrates the realities these children suffer, since even though they may have at least one parent still alive, nobody claims this living arrangement of theirs is optimal. It also plays on the emotions of tourists who may leave an impoverished country with distorted views of their charity, the way these kids are being treated, and options for providing them a more meaningful support structure.
Then there are the multitude of church groups and altruistic globetrotters which take ostensibly good-will jaunts to grim orphanages from the former Soviet Union to Laos. This has come to be called "voluntourism." These hard workers spend several days with the kids, participating in activities that would otherwise be wholesome and beneficent, like Bible studies, building and repairing the orphanage's infrastructure, teaching classes, and other honorable efforts. All the while, they're hugging these kids, giving them lavish attention and affection, and developing a type of relationship that will simply come to a painful, abrupt end when the Westerners return to their air-conditioned churches and modern schools several time zones away.
Meanwhile, workers who remain in these orphanages are detecting another distinct phenomenon. Instead of providing long-term benefits for orphans, these short-term mission trips seem to be stripping orphans of their emotional coping skills, such as their ability to love, trust, and build healthy relationships with other people. It's a subversive form of nihilism that appears to be directly related to the constant turnover in people with whom orphans interact on a daily basis.
Short-term Western workers don't see it because they're only in-country for a couple of weeks. It's easy to forget that before they got there, another team was there, and when they leave, another team will arrive. And the cycle will continue throughout the year, year after year.
Could you develop meaningful relationships in that type of environment? Could your kids? Then how could those kids?
Helping Make Our Help Helpful
Indeed, the plight of our world's orphans is complex and discouraging - for the orphans, and for those who seek to help them. Does this mean you should cancel your next short-term missions trip to an orphanage? Does this mean that you should cancel your plans to adopt an orphan from a Majority World country?
Since this is a complex issue, answers to even these basic questions will be found not in an absolute, across-the-board verdict, but in prayerfully seeking the Lord's direction in how we should interact with and support kids who need our help. Nobody is saying that Western help isn't needed or appreciated. It just may need to be adjusted and re-directed.
One of the primary things we might consider doing is dropping the ethnocentric lenses with which we view the world. For example, the Benkerts realized that when parents learned the children they were turning over to international adoption agencies would be sent to live for the rest of their childhood in the United States, they balked, and threatened to refuse all assistance from the Benkerts. That was certainly not any way to resolve the problem, so the Benkerts devised a plan for matching widows - Ethiopia has countless widows from its endless wars and its AIDS epidemic - with orphans. In-country. Despite everything that's wrong in Ethiopia. Having parents maintain geographically-proximate relationships with their kids outweighs creature comforts and even sociopolitical stability. And the money Americans are lavishing on the project not only goes farther, but helps support the local economy in beneficial ways.
Although by keeping orphans in their home country, Americans don't get the physical satisfaction of holding an orphaned child at home here in the States (and - however subconsciously - holding their adopted child as living proof of their generosity), real change is taking place in a place many of us may never visit.
It might not fit the way we like to do things in our culture, but like many aspects of international compassion, it's not necessarily our desires we should be accommodating. Loving people effectively involves meeting them where they are.
Even if that means "where they are" in a geographical sense.
And in ways that don't exploit the very kids we're trying to help.
*I'll provide a link for this review later, when it's posted on Crosswalk's website.
P.S. - Don't take my word for it; watch this YouTube video to see for yourself.