Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Development Clock vs Kid Clock: What's the right way to help an orphan?

Church services speak to me in recent years, and some days I’m a two-tissue parishioner. Among the parts of the mass that most resonate is the new closing line “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” It’s a mouthful, but it captures the whole point, I think, of the Christian faith.
I’m cracking open a beer at the end of my first day back in Phnom Penh since October, mulling over some of the country news and a dated Economist article that’s left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Reader, you should know by now that I have a special place in my heart for orphans, that I visit orphanages and institutions for special-needs kids, that I’ve crisscrossed Cambodia with our kids by bus, introducing them to orphans and their communities, that my reading list spans orphans of conflict, child development, and the challenges of international adoption. You might have guessed that I’m on a crusade—or more accurately a relentless marital campaign—to move our family in this direction.
Rupert Wolfe Murray’s article in the Feb 4, 2010 Economist shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. RWM draws attention to the ugly, exploitative, profiteering side of international adoption, echoing a public outcry that followed a few heinous cases of mass kidnapping by so-called aid groups in Haiti, including New Life Children’s Refuge and Zoe’s Ark, following the earthquake. In case you don’t follow the State Department’s adoption website on openings and closings of country windows, the development community has documented for many years the kinds of abuse that can take place. On the receiving end, the US government wants assurances of a child’s orphan status, proof that parents have deceased, and that children are not trafficked for intermediaries’ profit (e.g., US does not accept adoptions from Cambodia while the country is pushed to build up its child protective services). On the giving end, countries want to know that their children are accounted for, safe and sound, and in good homes. Where legal systems are dysfunctional, identifying information is scarce, child protection systems are weak and profit motivations are high, this business can become the lowest kind of exploitation. Then countries slam the window shut, point fingers and cry foul, and millions more orphans wait.
In addition to public outcry about blatant abuse, there are opposing views in the development, evangelical, and kid-loving community about the families formed at the cost of cultural, national, maybe racial, ties broken. Not only Wolfe Murray, but many child-supportive NGOs, insist that the disconnection of children from their country of origin by international adoption is a cultural injustice, and should be the option of last resort (here's a thoughtful article on that point). Rather, investment in public health systems, in child protection capacity, and foster care, should be the focus. Then, so the argument goes, children won’t need adoptive parents: their own communities will deftly step in to shelter and raise them.
Right. I’m reading this from a cubicle in our Phnom Penh office on a laptop nested in coffee-stained presentations and earlier drafts of country development strategies. Around me colleagues are clacking away at implementation completion summaries, consultant terms of reference, and trip expense summary reports. Maybe it’s easier to trust the mechanics of developmental assistance when you’ve never worked in one of these places.
In Cambodia this year, donors are emphasizing food security. It’s a fancy name for malnutrition, and it’s one of the most critical problems facing the country, not only in 2012. Decades ago, nutritionists documented the growth-stunting effects of pre-natal and early childhood malnutrition on head circumference, height and body weight. More recently, in 2009, child development experts using sample data have demonstrated the impact of early-childhood contact and stimulation—for instance, close cuddling rather than crib-based care—on height and head circumference. Just last year, donors spotlighted The Lancet’s second series on early childhood development, that provides extensive analysis linking childhood malnutrition with physical and psychosocial stunting, and long-term and sticky wage and income-security differences. That means that even many years later, corrections in calorie intake and bodyweight do not fully recover the lost income and social potential resulting from shocks to early childhood development.
Why is this important? It reminds me of a conversation I had with another mom during the last few weeks that we sent our boys to the lackluster public elementary school serving our zip code. ‘I see so much potential here, you know?’ She was electric and engaging. It was a popcorn-and-movie fundraiser. ‘It just takes a lot of commitment from the parents. If we get enough of the right minds on the PTO, in a few years, we can really change things.’ I gave a dry smile and gathered our things. A few years put my kids in middle school, and the commitment she was referring to (no, not storytime and science projects, but wrapping-paper sales and school board petitioning) was the 15 evening hours of my workweek between dinner and kids’ bedtime. Life is short. Kids grow up fast.
So why did Wolfe Murray’s leave me feeling so uneasy? The extensive comments stream following his article articulates many of the points and counter-points to his argument. As could be expected, think-tanky critics butt heads with impassioned and often ardently religious adoptive parents. On many arguments, the two sides are really in agreement with each other, and no one seems to deny that awful abuse does take place. The sticking point seems to be direction of causality. In other words, do orphans need rescue more from systems that are corrupt, under-resourced and lacking legal structures, so people reach out to them in greater numbers; or do corrupt, weak protection systems more easily fall prey to impatient adoptive markets and greedy intermediaries looking for a path of least resistance? Does religious zeal cloud adoptive parents’ view of a child’s sovereign right to his own identity? To put it in personal terms, could I believe that I’m doing the right thing, and push so hard to make it happen against all odds, and put my vision of this future adoptive family ahead of a child’s as-yet-unarticulated vision, that I do more harm than good? 
I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama’s insightful comment before he took off on retirement. Seek in your heart sincerity of intention.
I’m also reminded how much I like our local pastor. He gives down-to-earth sermons about treating one another with kindness and spending more time with our kids, and he wraps it all up by telling us to glorify the Lord in our lives. Simple. Direct.
There’s only so much of the Economist’s pontificating that I could take before moving on to other things. We have a team of experts coming in next week to begin a project on legal reform. With any luck, we’ll move a revised banking and financial institutions law through Parliament in the next 4 years, and implementation will begin in 6 years.
Ernest will be in college by then.  Kids grow up fast.

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