Nov. 4 2013 06:15 PM

Crowd-sourced purchase of an African child raises moral questions

Aaryn Belfer

The photograph that launched a small movement is quite pedestrian, really: Duane Watkins is leaning against a blue-gray cinderblock wall in an alley. His hair is blond and thinning. He's wearing all blue and is holding a pair of sunglasses in his hands. The monochrome image doesn't evoke much emotion. 

Yet the story that goes with it does. It's the kind that tends to immediately resonate with an American public exhausted by congressional antics and mass shootings, Robin Thicke and dipshits in blackface. We are wilted flowers perking up at any bit of goodness.

Duane and his wife Kristen want to adopt a second child from Ethiopia—a brother for their Ethiopian daughter—but can't afford the $26,000 in adoption fees. In exchange for sharing his emotional story, Duane asks the photographer, "Would there be any possibility that you could help us raise the adoption fees to get her a brother? We've already found him but aren't financially ready yet."

Not just any photographer would have the power to raise thousands of dollars. But this photographer is Brandon Stanton, the brain and—perhaps more significantly—the heart behind Humans of New York (HONY). 

A wildly popular Facebook feed depicting people Stanton meets on the streets of New York City, HONY has more than 1.6 million fans as of this writing and a No. 1 New York Times bestselling book based on the feed. (Yes, I helped Stanton knock Bill O'Reilly out of that spot, and it felt good.)

Stanton's become something of an accidental hero for humanity. He's managed to highlight, through self-taught street photography and the ability to elicit stunning honesty from strangers, our connectedness to one another. This, even as we stare every day deeper into the mesmerizing glow of our mobile devices. Sometimes funny, other times outlandish, almost always moving, these pictures remind us to look up now and again because our planet is made up of a bajillion beautiful, crazy, broken, wondrous and love-hungry people. 

Some of them, within 30 hours of Mundane Duane going live, helped raise $83,935. 

That's all very nice for the Watkins family, who'll now be able to "get" a brother for their daughter. And just look at what a small group of people can do when they feel compelled to action. It's impressive.

But—and I say this as a fan of HONY—there's a sense for me that Stanton unintentionally crowd-sourced the purchase of a child. 

I already have a real problem with people fundraising for their adoption fees (the monetary value becomes a public part of a child's personal story). But it didn't help that, as contributions flooded in, among the understandable deluge of "There's hope for humanity!" responses, were many that inadvertently commodified children—specifically black children. "I have an Ethiopian!" wrote one on-trend fan, as if an Ethiopian is something to be acquired, like a BMW or a Bugaboo stroller.

Another pre-adoptive couple, Alex and Brianna McCall, tried to ride the coattails of the Watkins' good fortune by posting to the HONY feed a link to their adoption donation page. "God has called us to Ethiopia," this smiling white couple wrote. 

The Christian adoption movement is huge, and the demand for children from other countries—especially those with brown kids—has created a climate of corruption and child trafficking. This impacts (and implicates) well-meaning adopters, and the generous subsidizers of Duane and Kristen Watkins' adoption might be contributing to some unsavory practices.

Nowhere in all of the joyous donating is any questioning of the exorbitant fees attached to adoption, or the need for family preservation where possible, or what kinds of post-placement support is available to families like the Watkins. Reuters recently ran a horrifying series on the process known as re-homing, when parents give adopted children away to strangers they've "met" on the Internet because they weren't prepared or equipped to handle the many issues institutionalized children face. 

Instead, this drive was touted as a miraculous success. The Huffington Post headline read, "Humans of New York Project Magically Crowdfunds Ethiopian Boy's Adoption." It's magic! Yes!

Meanwhile, there are 23,884 foster children in the state of New York, and roughly 400,000 in the country, the majority of them children of color. Just two weeks ago, the New York Daily News reported that a 15-year-old Florida boy named Davion Only pleaded for a family before a church full of people. "I'll take anyone," he begged. "Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be."

How is it that we Americans go all the way around the world to "save" children but can't manage to do the same for those that are living in our cities? How must a child like Davion feel when he sees so many people raising so much money for one kid living oceans away? 

Duane and Kristen Watkins say they plan to set up college savings accounts for both kids with the additional money raised. A donation to an organization in Ethiopia that supports family preservation would be another way to honor their children while also making an impact beyond their immediate family. 

And just imagine what Stanton could do if he turned his camera toward those way-too-many Davions in New York City? "Human Foster Kids of New York." I could like that page. I could put my money on that. I bet many other people could, too.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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