Today the Ethiopian government announced that it is dramatically reducing the number of foreign adoptions it approves each year, ostensibly to improve supervision and ferret out corruption. This is bad news both for waiting parents and for thousands of children who will languish in orphanages for longer than necessary. Ethiopia has an estimated 5 million orphans and homeless children [see addendum], of whom about 4,000 were adopted by foreigners last year. Of those, according to the U.S. State Department, 2,513 now live in the United States. That made Ethiopia the second biggest source (PDF), after China, of foreign children adopted by Americans. But while the number of Chinese children adopted by Americans peaked (PDF) at 7,906 in 2005, falling to 2,591 in 2009 before rebounding to 3,401 last year, the number of Ethiopian children adopted by Americans has been rising steadily since 2000.

This trend has aroused mixed feelings in Ethiopia. When my wife and I adopted our youngest daughter there in 2008, we were instructed not to appear in public with her. Suspicion of Americans and Europeans snatching up Ethiopian children is also reflected in some of the comments below the Voice of America story about the government's decision to precipitously cut foreign adoptions by about 90 percent. An Ethiopian writes:

Finally...this decision is long over due, now the government should encourage child sponsorship which would allow the rest 90% to be cared for in their own country and being raised in orphanages among thier own country men.

An American expresses a similar sentiment:

This is amazing! I think it is a very necessary step in making sure NO more children are trafficked to meet the demands of American and European couples. Enough is enough and this has been going on for far too long already.

Trafficked? It may seem like there's a fine line between buying a child and adopting one after shelling out $20,000 or so in fees and travel expenses. But there are a couple of important distinctions: These children are not property, since becoming their parents entails a host of duties vis-à-vis their care and upbringing, and they cannot legally be adopted unless their biological parents have died or relinquished them. It may well be that some Ethiopian adoptions have involved fraud of one kind or another, which is the official reason for the slowdown. But with so many orphans who need homes, there does not seem to be much incentive for fraud. As for the notion that Ethiopian children are better off in orphanages "among their own countrymen," it is hard to understand how anyone who has visited Ethiopian orphanages can believe that.

Given the numbers involved, foreign adoption is obviously not the solution to the predicament of Ethiopia's orphans, let alone to the poverty in which they live, which can be addressed in the long term only through institutional changes that create the conditions necessary for prosperity. But foreign adoption is a solution for a small but by no means insignificant share of those children, who can live better, happier lives in families who would be delighted to have them if only the government would allow it.

I wrote about the Chinese foreign adoption program in a 2007 Reason article.

Addendum: Both A.P. and Voice of America cite the estimate of 5 million orphans and homeless children in Ethiopia, which the latter attributes to the Ethiopian government. "There are an estimated 5 million orphans in Ethiopia," says an October 2010 press release from UNICEF. "Of these, around 650,000 have been orphaned due to AIDS. According to national statistics, over 2 million orphans live below the poverty line." But note that UNICEF's definition of orphan includes children who have lost one or both parents. It says only 10 percent of African children classified as orphans have lost both parents. If that proportion holds true for Ethiopia, the number of children with no parents there would be more like 500,000.