Reflections on Haiti and Transnational Adoption

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake and the outpouring of stories and thoughts on transnational adoption, I’ve been working to collect some of my thoughts in a more popular reflection article. Here’s what I’ve been working on:

Suddenly the world is fixated on Haitian orphans, and yet the back-pedaling by Western and Haitian governments regarding baby-lifts, the Idaho Baptists transporting children across the border into the Dominican Republic, and the subsequent fears and allegations of child trafficking in and out of the country are all too familiar and predictable consequences of natural disaster. In fact, the legacy of transnational adoption emerged from this very type of intense need that disaster creates, in South Korea, Vietnam, and Romania, to name a few. What is so striking about this temporary transnational solution for caring for orphaned children is the way it became institutionalized, and as such, arguably institutionalizes and perpetuates the very need it seeks to address.

In the United States it is only rather recently that we have come to eschew our children’s economic worth and privilege their philosophical and sentimental value. What has arguably led to the sacrilization of children in this country, is an impractical luxury in other parts of the globe, where children labor to supplement family income, provide childcare, and serve as social security for their aging parents. While we tend to rationalize these differences on a continuum of cultural progress, we live in a globally integrated society, one in which children have borne the burdens of economic disparity and have become increasingly commodified in a market of babies and reproduction.

Despite these realities, I in no way mean to demean the generous and earnest motives of adoptive parents. Nor do I disagree that it is both healthy and genuine to want to respond to the immense need in Haiti at this moment, especially when one hears accounts of children working as indentured servants or being sold for the price of an ipod. However, at precisely this juncture we must sincerely scrutinize whether the demand for children in this elaborate process of international adoption fuels the supply as well. In other words, the 1993 Hague Convention’s urge that sending countries take sufficient measures to reunite children with their biological families appeared a strong step toward making transnational adoptions legal and transparent. Yet, the compelling demand for babies from the West hardly diminished in the 1990s. In turn, the allegations of illegal selling and buying of children for adoption and into slavery subsequently increased.

As country after country closes its borders to Western adoptions, the most recent being Haiti, should we not stop to consider whether the fingers pointed at corrupt officials and poor governments should instead point at the inequalities on which the process currently thrives? Conversely, I would argue that transnational adoptions, as sleek and standardized as they have become, rarely take into account the local, cultural understandings of kinship and childhood in sending countries. Even when children are orphaned or temporarily unable to be cared for, culture has rarely failed to generate and provide an appropriate, sustainable safety net, a local network for meeting needs. The implication here is not to dissuade investments in Haiti’s future, but rather to call attention to the ways in which efficient, yet mechanized systems such as that of transnational adoption often fails to consider the local, human voices and interests of Haitian parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and last but not least, children themselves.

Haitian child being rescued during the quake.

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