We all have seen pictures of starving children in Ethiopia, children in refugee camps in Darfur, AIDS orphans and other pitiful looking African children in the news. We also have heard tales of Angie's and Madonna's adoptions of African babies. Many Christian missionary groups will take opportunities to work at orphanages in Africa. Let's face it, African babies are trendy. Who can resist those chubby little babies with smooth brown skin and big eyes framed with long, thick lashes? Who can resist when a parent hands you a baby, asking you to please take that baby to America and give it a better life? Here's the problem. In our quest to save the world, we tend to objectify these little ones, treating them as nothing more than trendy accessories. What it has left is a wake of harm.
Now, I'm not against helping the children and I don't doubt that many Westerners come with the aim of objectifying them. However, there are many issues that arise. For example, let me point out the aforementioned adoptions. Madonna adopted a little boy from Malawi a few years ago. This was not a boy without parents, in fact, he had a father. His father was actually reluctant to put him up for adoption and Madonna practically begged to take him, saying that she could save his life. I don't doubt this is true, at the same time, I have a problem with this. Madonna basically said that, white Westerner that she is, she has more of a right to parent this child than the child's own father, simply because she's rich. Of course, a white woman with a cute African baby looks like she's the Holy Mother (gotta live up to the namesake, right?). Not that I think foreign adoption is bad, I have two cousins adopted from Russia and China (who truly didn't have parents/futures there) and I think my relatives did good things. However, taking a child who already has parents? Maybe some families struggle on $1 per day but it doesn't make them horrible parents. Also, no one ever remembers the African American children we have in our country, those who live out their lives in foster care and never know what unconditional love looks like (guess they're not as lovable as an "exotic" "tragic" African baby).
Next, the orphanages. I won't deny that there are those who do wonderful things. Some are genuine and provide a loving haven for children with truly no place to go. At the same time, an article from The Guardian (found here) shows how many of these orphanages prey on these missionaries by deliberately exploiting the children. Often times, they'll take children away from families and trick them with the promise of better lives for the children. Then, they'll keep them in deliberately squalid conditions so that Westerners, wracked with guilt, will donate lots of money as they pity these children. So, the staff makes bank and these children languish. What a nice, loving, Christian concept. Not to mention that strangers end up with complete access to them. Would you want someone having access to and touching YOUR child without your permission/consent?
This brings me to other points of exploitation. Street children will come up to a white person and ask for money. Usually, theses children are exploited by adults who, again, want to make bank off the Westerners' emotions. Many times, these children are told that the white man or woman is a generous person. Of course, this leaves them vulnerable to another cruel form of exploitation: human trafficking. People will traffic children from all over the world for sex or forced labor. So, by giving them money or tricking parents to give you their child, you may be either perpetuating a bad situation or leave other children vulnerable to a worse one.
If you really want to help the children, here are my suggestions. Donate to a local organization (after researching the hell out of it and making sure it's legit) that provides for the education of children, economic empowerment of women (usually, a child is not far from their mother), employment development for teens and increased legal protection for street children/survivors of trafficking (a great international organization for that is IJM). Help children in a sustainable way, providing them with the tools to build their own lives as they grow up. Learn about and advocate for the rights of children (check out the Convention for the Rights of the Child while you're at it). Finally, appreciate the rights of all children, not just the ones who are cute, exotic, and "tragic". Children everywhere need help. They don't need to be accessories to the Westerners' needs to feel like heroes.