Some thoughts on child sponsorship

Over the last 25 years, except for my time at UUSC, I’ve worked for development agencies that raised funds from child sponsorship (and other sources).  Over those years, I’ve heard people criticize child sponsorship for various reasons.  Three general criticisms surface with some regularity:

  • Singling out specific children causes divisions in families and communities;
  • It’s expensive to maintain the communications (letters, reports) between children or their families and child sponsors;
  • Handouts cause dependency and do not lead to enduring solutions to poverty.

The earliest eruption of these criticisms, in my experience anyway, was in the 1980’s; when I joined Plan International in 1987, staff at Plan’s International Headquarters were paying close attention to a series of strongly critical articles in “The New Internationalist.”

Amazingly, those New Internationalist articles from the 1980’s are available online.  One of the earliest articles, with the attention-grabbing cover headline “Please Do Not Sponsor This Child,” outlines five key objections to child sponsorship, including versions of the three criticisms I mention above.

Other articles from the New Internationalist include “One Child At A Time,” from 1985, which singles out Plan International in Bolivia for particular scrutiny.  Costs of the “simple exchange of letters” facilitated by another agency I worked with for a time, CCF, are described in 1982 as “Mountains of Paper.”  In something of a summary, the article “Simply … Why You Should Not Sponsor A Child,” from 1989, outlines nine “defects” that sponsorship programs have, again echoing the three major points summarized in this post.

Seeing another round of these same kinds of observations appear in the blogosphere recently made me look online (where I found those New Internationalist articles), and led me to reflect a bit.  In this blog entry, I will consider those summary criticisms; in a future note, I hope to present a more positive and affirmative case for the good work our organizations do.

Singling out specific children causes divisions in families and communities.  In the past, many sponsorship agencies designed programs to provide direct benefits to sponsored children only.  If a child wasn’t sponsored, well, tough luck – that’s the way the program was.  A slightly less noxious example of this phenomenon related to so-called “cash gifts”, which often take the form of money, but also tangible gifts such as bicycles or house repairs or scholarships provided by sponsors to sponsored children.

For me, this criticism was correct.  Agencies that programmed in this way were sometimes dividing families and communities, inadvertently causing resentment and jealousy.  Plus, programming this way greatly reduced the likelihood that activities would address root causes of poverty, or that results would be positive or long-lasting.  Not good program work.

Reputable agencies that raise funds through child sponsorship no longer program in this way – we seek to address the root causes of child poverty in a way that is holistic and broad-based, implementing projects that span entire communities and beyond.  And most agencies have either eliminated the practice of facilitating cash gifts, or have channeled these donations into community projects (with the full knowledge and agreement of the donor.)

The flip side of the original criticism is that understanding the impact that our development programs have on particular children and their families enables us to be accountable and to show what has been achieved.  As long as this is done without singling out specific children, this is good and proper and consistent with the notion of supporting an identifiable human being.  It makes us, arguably, more accountable than others.

It’s expensive to maintain the communications (letters, reports) between children or their families and child sponsors.  This criticism was true, though it took time to document all the costs involved.  I am told that Plan International and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex carried out a study of the costs of maintaining child sponsorship systems, and perhaps the results were sobering.  (The study is not easy to access, perhaps understandably…)

And yet, I wonder if agencies that do not raise funds through child sponsorship are significantly more efficient.  My impression is that the differences are not as large as were thought in the 1980’s.  And, importantly, if you feel (as I do) that solidarity across cultures is a very important element in creating a better, more just world, then facilitating understanding between human beings as these organizations do has importance well beyond its role in donor retention.

Handouts cause dependency and do not lead to enduring solutions to poverty.  This criticism is a variation of the first one, and was much more valid in the 1980’s than it is now.  The organizations I know of, have worked with, no longer provide handouts except in the most exceptional cases.

Important criticisms of child sponsorship agencies were made in the 1980’s and, as a response, we changed for the better.  Agencies like ChildFund, Plan International, and World Vision, that raise funds through child sponsorship, do effective development work and are worthy of support.  Sponsorship contributions represent a steady and flexible funding source, which allows for long-term engagement with communities and investments that can span multiple sectors.  They facilitate human contact and solidarity – just as important, or more so, than the flow of funds.

Building a better, more just world is the work of many.  Human rights and social justice agencies like UUSC are fundamental agents of positive change.  Specialist NGOs like MSF and Greenpeace do very important, necessary, crucial work.  Organizations like Oxfam, that work across the spectrum of human rights, emergency response, and advocacy, should be celebrated and supported.

Hints of the positive case for the work that agencies that use child sponsorship funding methods are woven into this posting, which has focused on responding to some common criticisms.  I hope to elaborate on these hints in a future note.

Share your thoughts!