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Madonna's promises in Malawi turn sour

Celebrity promises have turned to disappointment, finger-pointing and lawsuits in Malawi, an impoverished and troubled southern African country where Madonna has drastically scaled back charity efforts.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Celebrity promises have turned to disappointment, finger-pointing and lawsuits in Malawi, an impoverished and troubled southern African country where Madonna has drastically scaled back charity efforts.

Some Malawi officials say Madonna's changes in plans have taken them by surprise, but Madonna's camp says the government has been informed and involved in the new agenda.

In 2009, Education Minister George Chaponda helped Madonna break ground for a $15 million academy for girls. Earlier this year, Madonna's Raising Malawi foundation announced that instead of building the academy, it is providing $300,000 to the non-governmental organization buildOn, which has years of experience in Malawi, to develop 10 schools. They'll serve about 1,000 boys and girls in the southern African nation of 15 million that is among the poorest in the world.

"We haven't been officially approached" about the change, Chaponda complained recently. "We are just reading from the media but we haven't been told anything."

Ministry of Education officials said a memorandum of understanding that Raising Malawi, founded in 2006, signed with the Malawi government for the academy project has a clause that binds either party to notify and get the other's agreement should it want to alter any aspect of the project.

John Bisika, the top bureaucrat in the education department, said the Malawi government was disappointed.

"We need to know what's happening. She can't just say: 'I'm building schools here.' We need to be consulted in order to work out where schools are needed based on our data," he said. "Let's do it properly."

But Trevor Neilson, who is helping to direct Madonna's school project in Malawi as a partner of the Global Philanthropy Group, said allegations the government was being left out of Madonna's planning are "absolutely not true."

"Our partnership with buildOn received the explicit approval from the education ministry. We had ... six government officials who attended the contract signing along with about 50 or so members of the community," he said.

Neilson gave The Associated Press a copy of a Jan. 31 letter sent to Chaponda. Days earlier, Madonna had released a public statement about her new plans.

Neilson called himself Madonna's adviser in his letter to Chaponda and referred to Raising Malawi having "changed course" on the academy. Neilson stressed Madonna remained committed to helping children in the country, taking a new "community based approach" by working with buildOn.

He added: "Raising Malawi would like to graciously return the land in Chinkhota granted to us by the government for the original Raising Malawi Academy for Girls project."

Headman Binson Chinkhota had a tough time convincing villagers of the importance of Madonna's academy project. Now, he feels let down.

"My people reluctantly gave up their land because I convinced them the project was beneficial not only because our girls would get world-class education but also because some of the villagers would get piecework," said the chief whose subjects mainly survive on subsistence agriculture and day labor in the city of Lilongwe, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. "Now the land is just lying idle."

A leading child care group also expressed disappointment in Madonna and said its funding by Raising Malawi stopped suddenly and without explanation.

"We are really struggling — they were our main funders. In fact, we increased the children we feed daily because of them," said Lucy Chapomba, administrator at Consol Homes, a group that runs projects for orphans and vulnerable children in central Malawi.

Neilson said Raising Malawi was funding Consol Homes through the middle of this year, but that Consol Homes was not fulfilling its financial reporting obligations and there were "major concerns" about the performance of its management team.

"So, as of now, we're not going to be continuing that funding unless they can show us that the money will be well used," Neilson said. "Raising Malawi does not just hand out money to anyone and everyone that wants it. We have a clear grant making process and performance metrics associated with these grants. So people in Malawi might not like that we measure their performance but that is the way that Raising Malawi is now run."

Neilson said that since 2007, Raising Malawi has invested over $7 million, including $1 million for Consol Homes, in programs to support orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi.

Anjimile Ntila-Oponyo, a Harvard-trained teacher Madonna poached from the United Nations Development Project to head her Malawi project, is locked in a legal battle over unpaid wages. Ntila-Oponyo is gagged by a confidentiality clause she signed with the singer, and refused to discuss the issue with the AP.

Malawi's relations with foreign donors have been strained by accusations President Bingu wa Mutharika is authoritarian and responsible for human rights abuses. Earlier this month, a U.S. aid agency that rewards good governance suspended $350 million worth of assistance to Malawi.

Madonna says her new approach in Malawi will serve twice as many children as an original plan that had led some to draw parallels to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls the talk show host and entrepreneur started in neighboring South Africa in 2007. Winfrey, who spent $40 million on her campus, recently acknowledged hers "is not a sustainable model for most people in most countries."

Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi, David and Mercy, both now six. Children's welfare groups had expressed concern about the adoptions, saying rules meant to protect children were bent because of Madonna's celebrity, and perhaps out of gratitude for what she had done and was expected to do for Malawi.

"Currently half of all Malawi's children don't finish the primary school cycle," said Neilson, Madonna's adviser. "Madonna would like to help those children go to school."


AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.