ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Four-month-old Thomas Bekele lies in a crib in the Kidane Meheret Children's Home awaiting an HIV test, the result of which will determine his chances of being adopted and growing up in a Western country.
His mother died a month ago of tuberculosis, a telltale sign of HIV. He is one of 150 children at the home, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS.
The healthy ones in the orphanage run by Franciscan nuns may become part of Ethiopia's newest export: adoptable children.
The country of 70 million has more than 5 million orphans, their parents lost to famine, disease, war and AIDS -- a catastrophe that the government has said is "tearing apart the social fabric" of the east African nation.
Caring for the orphans costs $115 million a month in a country whose annual health budget is only $140 million.
So Ethiopia has gone out of its way to make adoption easier. The numbers reached a record in 2003 with 1,400 children taken abroad, more than double the number the previous year. The number of adoption agencies in Addis Ababa, the capital, has doubled in the past year to 30.
The government says it faces a moral dilemma.
"We want people to invest in Ethiopia rather than take our children," said Dr. Bulti Gutema, who heads the government's adoption authority.
However, "we can't afford to look after every orphan," he said, sitting in a decrepit government office that exemplifies Ethiopia's standing as the world's third-poorest nation, with almost half the population living on less than a dollar a day.
"Adoption is the last resort because it doesn't help alleviate poverty in Ethiopia," he said.
Ethiopia has enacted strict laws to thwart dubious adoption agents, ensure that the orphan in question exists, the paperwork is not fraudulent and no AIDS-infected children are being passed off as healthy.
Agencies charge fees of around $20,000 per child, about half what is charged in other countries offering babies for adoption.
"People come here because it is very cheap," said Dr. Tsegaye Berhe of Horizon Homes, an agency where children from orphanages wait until they are selected by parents from the United States.
Ethiopian orphans are eligible for adoption up to age 16.
Jana Tuininga represents Adoption Advocates International, one of the largest U.S. agencies working in Ethiopia. She says her agency prepares the children thoroughly in every field, including "Western table manners."
"We work very hard at preparing them for what life is going to be like," she said.
Most children from Ethiopia go to France, Australia, the United States and Ireland. In 2002, 114 orphans were taken to the United States, but that number is expected to top 500 in 2004.
One American couple recently in Addis Ababa to adopt were Russell Giles, 33, an accountant, and his wife Vivian, 30. At the orphanage in a dusty, rundown neighborhood of the city, the Mormon couple from Salt Lake City met their future children, 6-year-old Bersable and her brother, Philimon, 5.
They said they had to spend only three weeks in Ethiopia to complete the procedures.
"The government here has been very open and willing," Russell Giles said.