Monday, December 23, 2013

Guest Post: Why culture and context cannot be the scapegoat for corruption in IA

There is no question that international adoption in Congo is rife with corruption.  The recent announcement by Minister of the Interior Richard Muyej Mangez about the suspension of international adoption in Congo stressed that such a move was necessary due to the criminality surrounding the practice.  In a separate statement, the U.S.  Department of State noted that this suspension was due in part to the submission of fraudulently-obtained or falsified documentation by adoptive families.  Over the past year, there have been reports of birth parents misled about the nature of adoption, children being removed from orphanages by their birth families after allegedly relinquishing them  and the bribing of government officials.

In the face of these reports, the expected course for those involved in the business of Congolese adoptions would be to look inward, and to question whether any of its only polices or procedures contributed to the corruption described by both the United States and Congolese governments.   This has not happened.  Instead, certain American adoption agencies are trying  to shift the blame:  to the media, for sensationalizing reports of corruption; to the United States government for investigating orphan visas more closely; and to the Congolese people themselves.     Such scapegoating will not help to correct the situation; it serves no purpose other than helping the agencies avoid responsibility for their actions.

One agency has decided to do a series of blog posts on corruption in international adoption, which thus far appears to be focused on blaming the sending country for any problems.   It is far too easy to point the finger at cultural norms for corruption; every country has different cultural practices and different ideas about what constitute ethical practices, and what appears corrupt to an American (like grease payments) may be just how business is done in Congo. But doing so absolves the adoption agency from all responsibility, and does absolutely nothing to bring about change.  American adoption agencies, operating under American law, should know better and should do better.  In fact, Americans doing business abroad can be held criminally liable for bribing foreign officials in certain situations.   Culture and context are weak excuses for failing to live up to your own legal, moral and ethical obligations.  

The list of examples of corruption in international adoption offered by this agency was apparently supposed to show how different cultural norms can potentially halt an adoption, ultimately hurting the child.  Interestingly, all but one of the nine examples given are clearly unethical (regardless of cultural norms) and potentially violate both U.S. and Congolese law.  These examples include everything from a birth mother being paid for abandoning her child to documents being forged or altered and birth parents being lied to about the permanent nature of adoption.  It is curious that this agency would use these examples which it hastens to note that it wasnt involved in to argue that unethical practices should not jeopardize a childs adoption, and that we shouldnt use the word corruption to describe what are really just different cultural practices.  Distilled to its essence, they are arguing that ethics dont matter if a child is a true orphan and is in need of a home.  In a separate blog post, this agency further claims that different cultural norms and values, plus extreme poverty, lead to situations which we might deem corrupt, but are just how business is done (note:  contrary to assertions to the contrary, holiday gifts to the court are NOT considered an ethical practice for lawyers (source)). This argument cannot go unchallenged if international adoption in Congo is ever to resume. 

It is no coincidence that reports of adoption corruption in Congo rose dramatically as the number of adoptions skyrocketed. Considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world as well as a failed state, Congo was ill-prepared to handle such an onslaught.  The demand for adoptable babies and children in Congo combined with a tidal wave of money flooding the local economy, resulting in ever-increasing reports of adoption-related corruption.  

Lets be clear:  when we talk about corruption in international adoption, we are NOT talking about a mother being given a bag of rice or a foreign employee using money intended for the care of orphans to feed his own family.  We are talking about finders fees, about lying to birth parents about adoption, about abusing medical visas to get children out of the country more quickly, about sneaking kids out of the country without proper documentation, and about trafficking children for adoption.  Each and every one of those problems is firmly within the control of the adoption agency (all adoption agencies, not just the one who wrote these posts!).  Not a single one of these issues can be chalked up to cultural norms.

Adoption agencies must look past these easy excuses and think about their behavior, and how it influences what happens on the ground.  What sort of behavior are they incentivizing?  When a foreign employee is paid $1500 for finding a child for adoption, and that money is more than most Congolese could hope to see in a year, what is the result?  If an agency isnt demanding detailed breakdowns of costs and expenses from its foreign staff, what is preventing the staff from bribing officials to achieve the desired results more quickly? If the agency doesnt question paperwork inconsistencies, what is stopping its staff from simply falsifying documentation in order to get paid?  If American staff are not regularly in-country to oversee operations, how can the agency be sure that its ethical obligations are fulfilled?  What good are Affidavits of Ethical Practices or trainings on ethical behavior if the foreign staff is given extreme financial motivation to keep finding more adoptable children, and is never questioned on the validity of such referrals?

Cultural norms are not to blame for corruption in international adoption.  The Congolese people are not to blame.  Good intentions do not negate the possibility of corruption.  Those who are profiting the most from the business of international adoption and make no mistake, it IS a business are the ones who must shoulder the blame for the resulting corruption. It is only through real change in agency practices that the vulnerable children who most need our help will be able to receive it, and that the families waiting to bring their children home will be able to do so. 

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