- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

BLANTYRE, Malawi — Celebrity promises have turned into 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 nongovernmental organization buildOn, which has years of experience in Malawi, to develop 10 schools. They’ll serve about 1,000 boys and girls in the nation of 15 million, which is among the poorest in the world.

“We haven’t been officially approached” about the change, Mr. 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 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.

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

Mr. Neilson called himself Madonna’s adviser in his letter to Mr. Chaponda and referred to Raising Malawi having “changed course” on the academy. Mr. Neilson stressed that 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 survive mainly on subsistence agriculture and day labor in the city of Lilongwe, about 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.

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