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Madonna and Child

By Peter Singer (November 9, 2006)

In October, hundreds of millions of people all over the world learned about a one-year-old boy from Malawi called David. A month before, it seems safe to assume, many of these people had never heard of his native land, a landlocked African nation of about 13 million people bordering Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. Suddenly, David became the world's best-known Malawian because it was his good fortune to be adopted by Madonna, the pop star who is to TV cameras what honey is to bears.

But was it really good fortune? David's father, Yohane Banda, suddenly in the media spotlight, said he had not understood that his son no longer belonged to him and might never return to Malawi. Madonna says that that is not what Banda said earlier, although she does not speak his language. Was it good for the boy, people asked, to be separated from his father? Human rights advocates began court action to demand his return.

David's mother is dead. After her death, his father, a villager who grows vegetables and gets other work when he can, was unable to care for him, and placed him in an orphanage. There, until Madonna came into contact with him, he was living with about 500 other children. Largely due to Malawi's HIV/AIDS epidemic, the country has a million such orphans. Resources at the orphanages are limited, and many of the children there do not live to their fifth birthday. Madonna said that when she met David, he had severe pneumonia and was breathing with difficulty.

Malawi is one of the world's least developed countries, with an infant mortality rate of 94 per thousand and a life expectancy at birth of 41 years. Of the adult population, about one in seven have HIV/AIDS. Left in the orphanage, there is no reason to think that David would have done better than the average Malawian.

Most likely, he would have done worse. In an interview, David's father did not deny that his son would be better off with Madonna, and he refused to support the human rights activists seeking David's return. That seems a wise decision.

Admittedly, David will be cut off from his cultural roots. Although Madonna has said that she will bring him back to Malawi to see his father again, he will scarcely be able to feel at home there. His mother tongue will be English; if he ever learns to speak his father's language, it will be as a foreigner.

Nor will he be entirely at home in London, especially in the circles in which Madonna moves. A black child in a largely white world, he will always be "the orphan Madonna adopted." The difficulties of living in such circumstances, however, are surely less daunting than the hazards David would have faced had he stayed in the orphanage - assuming that he would have survived at all.

But there is a broader issue at stake in David's case. In adopting a child from a poor country, Madonna is following an example set by other celebrities like Mia Farrow, Ewan McGregor, and Angelina Jolie. Do such adoptions achieve anything more than helping the individual children adopted?

Adopting children from developing countries does not address the causes of poverty. Despite the high rate of HIV/AIDS infections, Malawi's population, like that of many developing nations, is growing rapidly. It is projected to surpass 19 million by 2025. That will put more pressure on the country's already limited stock of agricultural land. Educating young Malawians, especially girls, and making contraceptives widely available, would do much more to slow population growth than a few inter-country adoptions.

To her credit, Madonna is doing more than adopting David. Her project, "Raising Malawi" (, will help other orphans. More importantly, with other partners, Raising Malawi collects funds for agricultural assistance, medical care, and education for villagers as well. Along with Angelina Jolie, Bono, George Soros, and many others, Raising Malawi is assisting Millennium Promise (, an organization founded by the prominent Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The promises of the United Nations Millennium Summit, signed by all the world's leaders, included halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and providing primary education for all children by 2015. Although good progress in meeting these goals has been made in Asia, in Africa there are now 140 million more people living in extreme poverty than there were in 1990.

Skeptics doubt that foreign aid really helps. Millennium Promise seeks to respond to that skepticism one village at a time. By selecting particular villages and providing basic health care, bed nets to stop malaria, primary education, better seeds, and other agricultural assistance, the organization aims to show that well-designed, comprehensive aid plans can, at relatively modest cost, raise people out of poverty.

One can only regret that the media seem less interested in this exciting and momentous story, which has the potential to help millions of children, than in Madonna's adoption of a single Malawian infant.


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and Laureate Professor at the Unversity of Melbourne. His books includes Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, Writings on an Ethical Life, and One World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.