Africa and the White Madonna’s Burden

In adopting black babies and trying to ‘mother’ entire countries, have celebs created an image of Africa as a helpless, feckless child?

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

The name ‘Madonna’ has been followed by the words ‘style icon’ countless times since the 1980s, when the pop star inspired young girls to cover their arms in multiple bangles, tear their stockings and dye their hair peroxide blonde. Whether fashioning herself as pop-punk bitch, boy-toy tease, material girl, femme fatale or racy dominatrix, Madonna has proven time and again that she is the mistress of trend-setting.

Apparently acknowledging the star’s influence and ability to grab headlines, a team of psychologists from the University of Liverpool, England, have suggested that ‘the Madonna effect’ can harm young children. The researchers argue that the singer’s high-profile adoption in 2006 of a Malawian baby, David Banda, has contributed to a rise in international adoptions. And now Madonna is reportedly planning to adopt an Indian child, too.

The study, which examines the relationship between institutional care and the international adoption of children by Europeans, was published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). It found that Westerners are increasingly choosing to adopt children from abroad rather than from local orphanages. Hence EU countries with the highest rates of children living in institutions also have high proportions of international adoptions.

This surge in international adoptions is not only at the expense of local orphanages, the researchers say; it has also led to an overall increase in children living in institutions. They claim that Westerners’ demand for foreign children has led large numbers of families in the developing world to put their children into orphanages in the hope that some rich Westerner will come to their rescue.

There are certainly plenty of reasons to criticise the current celebrity adoption fad, the discussion of which often reduces children to fashion accessories, even if the celebrities’ desire to help appears sincere. Whether it’s Madonna’s mission to adopt not just an African toddler, but to ‘raise Malawi’, as she put it, or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s attempt to save the world by raising a ‘rainbow family’, the celebrity scramble for babies bears an unpleasant resemblance to colonialist White Man’s Burden missions.

But it seems the UK-based psychologists are drawing tenuous parallels between high-profile celebrity adoptions and high levels of international adoption in order to propagate a ‘rights-based approach’ to alternative care for children separated from their parents. As one of the authors, child psychologist professor Kevin Browne, said: ‘The UN Convention of Rights of the Child states that international adoption should only be used as a last resort in situations where all other means of fostering, adoption and care within the child’s country of origin, are exhausted.’ (1)

Certainly, the tendency of many celebrities to portray adoption as a form of charity, a moral mission to ‘save the world’ or ‘fight poverty’, to take care of all African children, seems like an obscene approach to child rearing and to showing solidarity with the impoverished. But this is no reason to curb inter-country adoption, which, when done without any moral posturing, is a positive manifestation of the ability to form deep bonds between people, regardless of colour or nationality.

What is really detrimental about the ‘Madonna effect’ is that it propagates a patronising view of the Third World as a basket case in need of rescuing by Western celebrities. Madonna, for instance, skirted laws that ban non-residents from adopting children in Malawi, a former British colony, and exclaimed that she ‘felt responsible for the children of the world’ (2). To this end, she co-founded the charity Raising Malawi with Michael Berg, founder of the Kabbalah centre in Los Angeles. Their aim is to ‘revitalise the lives of hundreds of thousands orphaned and vulnerable children’ (3) with the charity’s orphan care centre offering kids Kabbalah programmes. Madonna is treating this entire African country as an orphan whose needs it is her burden to cater for, with her wealth and her newfound religion: this is the ‘white Madonna’s burden’.

As has been pointed out on spiked before, Africa has now become a stage for celebrities who wish to ‘raise awareness’ of everything from environmental issues to animal welfare and poverty, or who seek some personal meaning or spirituality. Before Madonna carried home the one-year-old David Banda in a native sling under the gaze of world’s media, Brangelina had practically occupied parts of Namibia in order to have their first biological child in ‘the cradle of human kind’ (see Brad, Angelina and the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’, by Brendan O’Neill).

It is true, as the BAAF study states, that several well-known celebrities have encouraged international adoption, and that, in some cases, the children have not been orphans. Banda, for instance, had lost his mother and he lived in an orphanage because his father could not afford to feed him. Whether or not Madonna and other celebrity adopters have inspired other Westerners to adopt, or families in the developing world to put their children into orphanages, is not clear however.

The study doesn’t examine the diverse reasons why Westerners choose to adopt from abroad, focusing instead on a simplistic link between celebrity adoption and high levels of international adoption. For instance, British couples who want to adopt children in Britain must pass stringent tests, stifling bureaucratic procedures and moralistic social workers. Applicants have been turned down because they smoke, are of the wrong race, too old or too middle-class (4). Maybe that is why some British people who long to care for and raise a child are drawn to the seemingly easier international route.

Also, the study does not help us understand the many reasons why children are put into substitute care in the developing world. According to Browne, ‘governments and orphanages can reap substantial financial gains from international adoption and this appears to be fuelling its growth…’ (5) The report also claims that many vulnerable mothers are coerced into giving up their children and that ‘abuses and trafficking flourish’ as a result of demand driven inter-country adoption.

But ‘trafficking’ is an ambiguous term for which there is little solid statistical information (see The myth of trafficking, by Brendan O’Neill). Many of the report’s conclusions seem to rely on anecdotal evidence and, overall, it conveys an image of adults in the poorer parts of the world as money-hungry child abusers or helpless victims of circumstance, while Western couples are portrayed as Madonna wannabes who approach adoption as a fashion bargain hunt.

Surely the decision to give up children for adoption is rarely easy for families who are unable to care for them. And those who decide to go through the long process of adopting a child, and raising him or her for 18 years, are usually highly motivated to be good parents. By focusing the press release of their report on ‘Madonna-style adoptions’, Browne and his colleagues used a clever hook for drawing attention to their study. But it was a missed opportunity to get to the heart of the international adoption issue, and the relationship between Western adults and ‘African children’ today.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild criticised a documentary on child kidknapping in China. Mick Hume explained what happens when celebrities rule the Earth. Brendan O’Neill attacked the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’ and asked if we should make ‘Make Poverty History’ history. The new Amex card, launched by Bono, made Daniel Ben-Ami see red. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) Press release of ‘The relationship between institutional care and the international adoption of children in Europe’, Adoption and Fostering, Volume 32: 1, 2008

(2) Exclusive: Madonna Speaks About Her “Big, Big Project”, Time, 3 August 2006

(3) See the Raising Malawi website.

(4) ‘Madonna effect’ sees poor families put children up for adoption hoping for a wealthy family, Daily Mail, 7 April 2008

(5) Press release of ‘The relationship between institutional care and the international adoption of children in Europe’, Adoption and Fostering, Volume 32: 1, 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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