Yohane Banda, the father of Madonna's newly adopted son, David, has thanked the pop diva for rescuing his son from "poverty and disease." However recent news reports have suggested that Mr. Banda was not fully aware of the implications of the adoption and that he would prefer to have his son nearby where he can see him and be able to take him back when his circumstances improve. The whole affair raises many questions about the role that westerners should play in helping Africa to develop. It also raises questions about the role of high profile celebrities that have taken on African causes - the current track record of celebrity Africa-philes leaves much room for improvement.
Madonna currently funds six orphanages in Malawi and according to the BBC she has plans for another orphanage that will care for 4000 children. Whether Madonna has shown an interest in African orphans as a result of some new found Chabalistic spirituality or simply out of a natural human instinct to want to care for those less fortunate than herself is neither here nor there; children in Malawi are probably better off for her help. Certainly David Banda will be materially better off and his health will undoubtedly be better; wherever Madonna takes him, he will have safe drinking water, plenty of food and will not be bitten by deadly Anopheles mosquitoes.
But there are several other things that Madonna could do to improve the lives of ordinary Africans - and it wouldn't involve adopting the entire continent. For a start she could lend her support to the World Health Organization's new policies on malaria control. David Banda's two siblings both died of malaria, joining more than a million young Africans that succumb to the disease every year. The WHO is now calling for increased indoor spraying with insecticides such as DDT. Even though this method of control is safe for humans and the environment, many environmentalists continue campaigning against it. A timely message from Madonna on the topic might help convince people that it makes sense. It is depressing that people would sooner believe a celebrity on this topic than scientists, but welcome to the 21st century.
And if really cares about Africans, she can go much further. Depressingly, Malawi is one of the least free economies in the world. According to the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of the World index, Malawi is ranked 116 out 130 countries. With the exception of a handful of countries, almost all of the least economically free countries in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. It is little wonder then that while most of the world has been growing richer, enjoying improved health and increased life expectancies, African countries have been in reverse.
David Banda will certainly grow up healthy and well educated, but what is less certain is whether he will want to return to Malawi. At a recent forum at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, Ugandan journalist and political commentator Andrew Mwenda pointed out that educated Africans were abandoning Africa out of sheer disgust with the political leaders that have presided over the continuous impoverishment and desperation of the continent. So if David Banda turns out like other educated Africans, including this author, he will prefer to remain in the West where he can achieve more and develop his full potential.
Andrew Mwenda is uncompromising in his criticism of African leaders and unwavering in laying the blame for Africa's trouble at their feet. Yet he is also uncompromising in his criticism of western governments that have continually funded bad governments in Africa. Much donor aid and World Bank loans have exacerbated and perpetuated poverty in Africa by giving governments entirely the wrong set of incentives. Donor aid and World Bank loans reward the incompetence and corruption of the political elite. As long as African leaders maintain economic policies that frustrate private enterprise and wealth creation, they will always be able to get donor aid, to which they are addicted. It is much harder to raise government revenue from a domestic tax base, which would require the hard work of economic reform. Ensuring that African governments are more self-sustaining would mean that they would actually have to answer to their own citizens; something that history shows they are loathe to do.
Madonna is probably the most versatile pop icon. She has reinvented herself time and again and expertly always gives her fans exactly what they want. Madonna is a classic iconoclast and never seems to shy away from controversy. She now has an outstanding opportunity to attack the current wisdom on donor aid. She could use her power to take on the "aid bwanas" and her celebrity colleagues.
For the sake of millions of Africans, let's hope she takes the celebrity path less traveled and actually does something helpful for ordinary Africans and not something helpful for the elites that rule Africa. Her publicists and advisers may argue against this, but being a mother carries with it certain responsibilities. If she takes her role seriously and wants David Banda to return to a country worth living in, she would do it.
Richard Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria and is based in Washington DC.