International adoptions are rife for cultural misunderstandings. Knowing how to proceed ethically is never clear.
International adoptions are rife for cultural misunderstandings. Knowing how to proceed ethically is never clear.

Ethics are a funny thing—what appears clear to someone on the outside is far more fuzzy when looking out from the inside. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article, Inside Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom, that did a particularly good job of capturing the grayness of the ethical issues surrounding international adoption.   I resent articles that don’t reflect the ethical nuances of international adoption—not because I believe that international adoptions don’t have one or both feet on the ethical slippery slope, but because I believe they do.  But the proponents of greater restrictions on international adoption, such as UNICEF, are standing right beside supporters of international adoption on that very slick slope.

The WSJ article focuses on one child—7 year old Melesech Roth, adopted by a Minnesota family from Ethiopia four years ago.  It took them less than one year from deciding to adopt to bringing Mel home.  She is clearly loved and thriving.  Her parents are providing her with all the opportunities that come with upper middle class American life, plus the international adoption extras of cultural awareness via Ethiopian food and hair styled at an Ethiopian salon.  I don’t know, but I’d bet big money that they celebrate special Ethiopian holidays and read adoption books to their beloved daughter as well.

Ethiopia has come under scrutiny because of the rapid rise in international adoptions and the shift from abandoned and orphaned children to relinquished children.  (In the last 2 years 80% of children were relinquished.)  The U.S. State Department has cautioned that Ethiopia’s lax oversight, mixed with poverty and the perils of cross-cultural misunderstanding, leaves room for abuse.  After intense media attention on possible international adoption abuses, the Ethiopian government slowed down adoptions considerably; however, adoptions are on the rise again.  “We expect the numbers will bounce back this year,” said Susan Jacobs, the U.S. State Department’s chief adoption official.  Ethiopia was the second largest placing country to the US since 2009 (second only to China).

Cultural misunderstanding when adopting from Ethiopia
Mel and her mom.

It is impossible to overestimate the role of cross-cultural misunderstandings in international adoption.  The case of Mel’s adoption is a case in point.  Her biological father, Mathewos Delebo, remembers that four years ago, a man he didn’t know—a middleman for an orphanage—came to his village and persuaded him to give up a child with the promise that she would grow up and send money to support him.  Mel’s biological mother had died shortly after her birth from untreated malaria.  Mr. Delebo also suffers from malaria and he, his second wife, and his six remaining children live on the 60 cents a day he earns from farming and day labor. Drought has ravaged his crops. The family subsists on maize flour, beans, wild bananas, and milk from a cow shared between two families.  The nearest school is a 90 minute walk away and his remaining older children have never progressed past the first grade.

First, Mr. Delebo said, he offered two of his sons (8 and 9 years old) for adoption, but the orphanage said it needed children younger than five. So he came back with Melesech.  As required, Mr. Delebo said he obtained a letter in support of the adoption from his local governing council.  Mr. Delebo’s understanding of adoption is clearly different from the western understanding.  In addition to providing food and an education to Melesech, he also anticipated that it would benefit him and his remaining family. He recounts the following in the video, although note that the video has been edited so it is not possible to know what was cut out of the conversation that might add a more full understanding.

[The adoption middleman] said, “You are poor and you cannot afford life. If you give up one of your children they will have a better life.” …Now when I see the picture, I believe I did the good thing.  but when I see the picture, I want to see her in person. That is my one wish. …Yes, I think of giving other children for adoption because I am still poor. I want them to be like Melesech. I want them to go and help me.  …I will be giving up the children, but not to become someone else’s child.  It’s to help me.  Not to be someone else’s child. What good would that be to me if I give them away? 


The middleman was never found, so we don’t know his side of the story.  But given the vast differences in culture coupled with the dire poverty that defines the existence of many families throughout the world, the situation is ripe for misunderstanding.

About 18 months after they adopted Melesech, the Roths went back to Ethiopia to see “exactly” where their daughter had come from.  The Roths traveled to her home village of Le-barfeta, eight hours outside Addis Ababa by four-wheel drive with clothes, gifts, and pictures.  When they left they gave Mr. Delebo $100. He seemed disappointed and asked if there wasn’t anything else they had for him.

Perhaps as a classic example of cultural and language misunderstandings, he remembers that they promised to buy him a grinding mill to start a business, and that they would bring Melesech home in three years.  The Roths do not remember making either promise.  Nevertheless, it’s the third year, and Melesech’s first father is waiting.


Image and video credit: The Wall Street Journal and Helen K