Madonna Malawi Adoption Puts Spotlight on AIDS, Poverty, Orphans, and Pop Stars

Is it about the child or the singer? A hungry world of orphans wants to know.


I am so grateful to Madonna for her second highly-publicized and controversial adoption from Malawi. Why? It reminds us that there are millions of children living in extreme poverty, in need of help, and opens the debate as to the best way to care for them. As a woman who hopes to be a mom someday, I can truly sympathize with Madonna's desire to build a family. However, as a child advocate, I struggle with her decision. I wonder who she is doing this for, little Mercy James or Madonna?

There are millions of Mercys in the world: 132 million children have already lost one or both parents and millions more are in precarious situations due to AIDS, TB, Malaria, war, and poverty. The picture of a poor, starving African "orphan" being rescued by a pop star, whisked away to private school and sushi lunches, is a delectable image for the tabloids; but let's focus on the facts. Ninety-five percent of all children directly affected by HIV/AIDS, including those who have lost parents, live with their extended families. In the majority of cases, children like Madonna's son, David Banda, and Mercy are placed in "orphanages" by family members as a heartbreaking last resort in hopes that the child will get an education and food. In many cases, family, like David's father or Mercy's grandmother, plan to bring the children home once they regain their footing. David's father showed up this week to see his son, and Mercy's grandmother is fighting Mercy's adoption. At, whose tagline is "a voice for ethical adoptions," a campaign has been launched to gather enough money that Mercy's grandmother can care for her.

Communities and extended families that care for and love orphans can be supported through simple interventions such as microcredit programs for daycare centers. This frees up the child's primary caregiver so they can work. Supplemental, international funding to families for food, school fees, and healthcare have been proven effective for the health and emotional wellbeing of children—not to mention it's the least costly solution. We hope President Obama increases cost-effective federal funding for community-based solutions to help children worldwide.

UNICEF, the U.S. President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (the single biggest funder of orphans' programs at approximately $3 billion from 2009-13), Save the Children, World Vision, the Firelight Foundation, FXB International, and all reputable children's organizations endorse and follow the approach of caring for children through communities. At Harvard, released a study just last month with the foremost experts in the world that reached the same conclusion.

Additionally, with 132 million orphans and only 17,433 international adoptions in 2008 to the U.S. (the country with by far the largest number of international adoptions), we clearly cannot adopt our way out of the crisis, nor should we. While adoption can be a wonderful, loving solution for some children, all adoptions don't have a fairy tale ending. Being a child of fame and wealth is not always a good thing—think True Hollywood Story and Mommy Dearest. There are desperately needy kids ready for adoption. But the sad truth is most are older and have health or developmental issues—not the first choice for many adoptive parents. These children must wait and watch as the adorable little ones are adopted. Brandeis University Prof. EJ Graff's yearlong investigative piece, "The Lie We Love" (Foreign Policy, Nov./Dec. 2008), makes the case that large amounts of Western money offered for healthy, "adoptable" infants and toddlers are inducing baby trafficking in poor and corrupt countries.

I wish I could say that Madonna just doesn't know the facts, but sadly, she probably does. Child advocates and experts have reached out to her and publicist Liz Rozenberg with best practices for orphans and vulnerable children and urged them to be a voice for the millions of kids who are suffering. Madonna has the world's biggest platform, and with very little effort could be the voice that attracts large-scale funding that would help millions of children and the communities that care for themand she could still adopt. Why not leverage her star status to help all children? I come back to the same place I started, is this about helping kids, or is it just "all about Madonna"?

Corrected on : Jennifer Delaney is executive director of Global Action for Children in Washington, D.C.