Madonna promises turn to uncertainty in Malawi

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.

BLANTYRE, Malawi — 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.

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..”

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