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LILONGWE - Madonna's efforts to adopt two youngsters from Malawi have drawn the paparazzi. But she isn't alone: Westerners are increasingly seeking to bring home children from Africa as traditional sources like China and Russia cut back on adoptions by foreigners.
The rising number of adoptions from Africa - particularly by Americans in Ethiopia - comes as the Aids epidemic ravaging the continent leaves more orphans in impoverished countries and surviving relatives are unable to care for them.
Americans adopted 1725 Ethiopian children in the 12-month period ending October 2007. About 70 percent of all US adoptions are from Africa, says the US State Department. The year before, 1255 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans.
Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, does not attribute the increase to a celebrity factor, but says some high-profile adoptions by celebrities have raised awareness of the availability of orphans in Africa.
"One of the good things about the Madonna or Angelina Jolie adoptions is that they brought the need to the attention of Europeans or Americans," he said. "And it brought the possibility to people's attention."
Rich foreigners have been adopting children from poorer nations for decades. Mia Farrow, now the mother of 14, adopted an orphan from the Vietnam War in 1973. Jolie adopted her sons Maddox and Pax from Cambodia and Vietnam and her daughter Zahara from Ethiopia.
But critics have slammed Madonna's efforts to adopt a second child from Malawi this week, accusing her of acting like a rich "bully" and using her money and status to fast-track the adoption process. On Tuesday, Madonna insisted she was following standard procedures.
Many adoption agencies and child rights activists argue it is preferable for children to be taken care of by relatives or in their communities, with foreign adoptions allowed only as a last resort. Others say that isn't always realistic.
"Ideally more local adoptions would be best, but people aren't coming forward and if life is better out there then they should take it," said Zoe Cohen, an adoption consultant in South Africa.
Adoption experts say the rise in adoptions from Africa is due to moves by China, Russia, Guatemala and some other longtime sources of orphans to rein in foreign adoptions.
According to the State Department, 2399 visas were issued to African children adopted by Americans last year, out of 17438 adoptions from abroad.
China, which for a decades was the leading source for international adoptions, accounted for the biggest decline and dropped out of the top spot. It was replaced by Guatemala, which almost certainly will lose that status in 2009 because of a corruption-related moratorium on new adoptions.
By comparison, only a handful of African children were adopted by Britons in 2007.
According to figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the largest numbers were from Ethiopia and Nigeria.
But Africa was the second-most popular region for French adoptions in 2008, making up 29 percent of the 3271 non-French children who were adopted, the French Foreign Ministry said.
Orphans usually are absorbed into extended families in Africa, but Aids and other diseases have affected many of those who might have traditionally provided support.
In many villages across the continent, frail, elderly grandmothers do their best to care for children but often youngsters end up in orphanages or on the streets.
The UN estimates that 18 million African children will have lost a parent to Aids by 2010.
Simon Chisale, the Malawian welfare official, said outsiders were being considered as adoptive parents because traditional family structures have broken down.
"Times have changed," he said. "It used to be simpler but now it is more difficult. People have the heart (to look after their extended families) but the means are not there."
Malawi, with a population of 12 million, is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure. The UN says a million Malawian children have lost one or both parents and estimates about half of those were because of Aids.
In the face of such problems, experts say few African countries are going to turn down help from well-meaning rich foreigners. Madonna's Raising Malawi charity, for example, is building well-equipped schools.
DiFilipo, whose organisation brings together child welfare agencies, child advocacy groups, parent support groups and others around the world to help shape adoption policy, warns that adoptions by foreigners can have unintended consequences.
For instance, he said, wealthy foreigners often make donations to the orphanages where they find their children. That can result in orphanages looking first for foreign placements because they need donations.
But DiFilipo said the solution is not stopping foreign adoptions, but strengthening laws and education, citing Malawi as an example.
Malawian regulations now stipulate only that prospective parents undergo an 18- to 24-month assessment period in the country, a rule that was bent when Madonna was allowed to take her adopted son, David, to London in 2006 before his adoption was finalised.
A draft children's law, expected to be enacted later this year, seeks to address the shortcomings in the present legislation, including setting limits on how many children an individual can adopt from one country and the interval between each adoption.
A legal framework making adoption relatively easy is one reason cited for the boom of adoptions in Ethiopia, where there are 800000 Aids orphans. Ethiopia also allows unmarried women to adopt. - Sapa-AP