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Who benefits from celebrity adoptions?

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- The world's worst-kept secret was confirmed on Friday as Madonna flew out of Malawi after her nine-day "humanitarian mission" having apparently made arrangements to adopt a 13-month old boy.

Government officials confirmed the 48-year-old pop star had been granted permission to adopt the child, named as David Banda, who has spent most of his young life in an orphanage in the southern African country.

Malawian law, which prohibits adoption by non-residents, was even waivered in Madonna's case, although a group of charities say they will seek an injunction to overturn that ruling on Monday.

Regarded earlier in her career as a trendsetter, on this occasion Madonna, who already has two children with film director husband Guy Ritchie, could merely be seen as jumping onto the latest celebrity bandwagon.

Actress Mia Farrow has adopted 10 children from developing countries since the 1970s while Angelina Jolie started the current trend for Hollywood adoptions with her four-year-old Cambodian son and 19-month-old Ethiopian daughter.

She is now considering adopting further children with Brad Pitt, with whom she also has a daughter. And while some prospective parents may enjoy being kept guessing as to which sex their child will be, Jolie and Pitt take things one stage further.

"We don't know from which country," Jolie told CNN recently. "It's you know, another boy, another girl, which country, which race would fit best with the kids?"

In simple terms, Madonna's action may save the life of a child otherwise trapped in a society ravaged by AIDS and malnutrition. Although his father is still alive, Banda has lived in the orphanage since his mother died, with one villager admitting that, if it were not for the adoption, "we would have buried him."

Yet it's also tempting to see such actions as merely another example of the power of rampant celebrity ego in an age in which rock stars are considered authorities on global poverty and Hollywood actors are invited to address the United Nations on humanitarian crises.

Regardless of the motives of their adoptive parents, a child picked up from a developing country and dropped straight into the inevitable media spotlight becomes an unwitting poster child for poverty.

"I'm afraid only two words spring to mind: vanity project," wrote Hannah Pool, herself adopted from an Eritrean orphanage as a child, in the UK's Guardian newspaper.

"No doubt she thinks she's doing the child a favor -- but, really, this is all about her. The money she will have spent on the adoption and will spend on the child could have gone to help many more children in Malawi. But then she wouldn't have a cute black child to show off."

Although Madonna has pledged $3 million to the Raising Malawi charity, which aims to provide care and support for the country's one million (out of a total population of 12 million) orphans, even that generosity is tempered by the fact that the multi-million album-selling artist already has a fortune estimated to be worth some $460 million.

Many also argue that in most cases international adoption, whether by celebrities or mere ordinary mortals, is not in a child's best interests.

Eye of the Child, a Malawian advocacy group that is leading the campaign to stop Madonna adopting Banda, said in a statement, "It's not like selling property. It is about safeguarding the future of a human being who, because of age, cannot express an opinion."

Save the Children's exploited children advisor Daniela Reale told CNN that the best place for a child was in their home country.

"Where it is not possible for children to be with their parents or extended family then it is preferable for the child to be cared for in their home community or adopted within their own country," Reale said.

"Clearly there are situations where this is not possible and in those circumstances international adoption may be preferable to children being kept in institutions."

Perhaps there are good reasons for concern. In 2004 UNICEF warned that "substantial" "growth in international adoptions had spurred the development of an industry driven by profit rather than the interests of the children involved.

"Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and bribery, as well as trafficking to individuals whose intentions are to exploit rather than care for children," UNICEF said.

And in a world in which celebrity tastes in clothes, haircuts and diets often evolve into wider lifestyle trends, the actions of Madonna and Jolie are unlikely to help curb such practices.

Harvey Gallagher of the British Association for Adopting and Fostering emphasized to CNN that adopting a child from overseas was "not an easy option" but said that some children had benefited from the experience -- and urged those considering adoption to look closer to home as well.

"There are many children who have benefited from intercountry adoption, but we would like to remind people that there are also as many as 4,000 children across the UK right now who are waiting for permanent and loving homes," said Gallagher.


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