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I’ve been debating with myself for a while about how to write this op. How can I best put across my mixed feelings about child sponsorship?
Before I start, I’m going to lay my cards on the table, so you know where I’m heading with this op. I have sponsored a child (with ActionAid) since I was a young child myself. All my family do it, from my younger brother right up to my granny. I’ve also seen first-hand how the money is spent, because for the last few years, I’ve worked for a well-known international charity in Africa and Asia. I’ve met some of the children that you sponsor and seen some of the projects that your money helps fund. I can see the good side, but I have also seen the bad side, and it makes me all a little bit uncomfortable.
WHAT IS CHILD SPONSORSHIP? Child sponsorship is an important way of charities getting regular flows of money. It is rare that the money goes directly to the child or their family. Instead, it goes to help their community.
Every month you pay a specified monthly donation (for ActionAid it is £15). That money funds the projects that are most needed in the area where ‘your child’ lives. You get to choose what kind of child you want to sponsor – what region of the world, male/female and what age. If you want, they’ll send you a selection of photos (with brief descriptions) and you get to choose which child. Alternatively, you can ask them just to choose any child for you on their books. I find this whole process gut-wrenching. When my husband started sponsoring, they sent details of 3 children, all completely different. We couldn’t choose one over the other and desperately wanted all three. But then, £45 a month is a lot to tie yourself into.
There are definitely benefits to child sponsorship. Your money will pay for basic essentials in the community that your child lives. So, for example, my child was often ill because there was no clean water, but in the last year my money helped build a well and sanitation system. The benefits are numerous and well-known.
But what are the drawbacks? Why do so many people who work for international charities have doubts about the whole ‘industry’ of sponsoring a child? What is it about child sponsorship that makes me uncomfortable?
AN ADMINISTRATIVE BURDEN? Running a child sponsorship programme takes a lot of resources – to identify children, to take photos, write little descriptions of the child, to send letters from the child, to check and deliver your post to the child. Paying for regular information about your child will leave a lot less money for actual delivery of services and aid. And all of this is for the benefit of you (the donor), rather than the child.
PATRONISING? The whole notion of sponsoring a child is arguably a wee bit patronising. Like some wealthy benefactor, we send out £15 a month and in return we expect to receive letters of gratitude. We can, at will, choose to cut off the supply of money. However good our intentions are, at the very heart of the relationship is a paternalistic exchange. I’m not sure if the whole business isn’t a bit demeaning.
CREATES LOCAL ENVY? Although the children do not actually receive the money themselves, they can receive letters and parcels from their donor families. This can create feelings of envy when some receive more than others, and may actually be divisive. I remember visiting one African community where local children had been sponsored by PLAN. One child was describing how he had never received a letter from his sponsor, but his friend got monthly letters, cards, photos, and small presents. His friend’s donor even had plans to visit. Although of course he was grateful for being selected for the scheme, he felt jealous of his friend and thought it was unfair that he got nothing.
LEAVES CHILDREN WITH A SENSE OF INEQUALITY AND UNREALISTIC HOPES? Sending letters and photos of your life back in the UK can create aspirations in a child’s mind that are far removed from the reality of their lives. I remember sitting with a child, who showed me pictures of her sponsor. The sponsor was sunbathing on a beach, with designer sunglasses on and surrounded by her children eating ice-creams. What kind of message do you think this sent out to the child living in her village in rural Africa?
JUST TREATING THE SYMPTOMS RATHER THAN THE CAUSE OF POVERTY? Many would argue that poverty and inequality is deeply entrenched. It is the big issues that really count – unfair trade systems, debt, AIDS, corruption and the like. Child sponsorship is like sticking a plaster on a gigantic wound, because it only treats the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty. ActionAid has tried to rebrand itself in recent years and are moving away from their image as child sponsors to a campaigning organisation that addresses why people are poor in the first place and what is holding them back. How to do this? Write to your MP and ask them to lobby Blair to give more money to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria (the UK is currently giving far below its fair share). Email Patricia Hewitt (UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry) and ask her to drop her support for agreement on investment at the WTO, which if it goes ahead will cause lasting damage to the lives of poor people. If you want more information about why you should do this and how to do this, visit: www.actionaid.org.uk
BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY … 10-15 years ago a few charities tried to move away from child sponsoring to more general community development projects. But they found that people did not respond and found them ‘boring’. People wanted a one-to-one relationship with a kid and so it was with some reluctance that these charities went back to child sponsorship. There is a definite appeal to sponsoring a child and feeling a direct bond with your child (no matter how flimsy the basis is).
The debate within charities continues about whether child sponsorship is a waste of money or whether it is a vital revenue. Does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes of the Third World as dependent? Or is it a genuine partnership and bond? I think I would have to conclude by saying that I think it is a clever marketing gimmick, but the only effective way of helping people out of poverty is to tackle the root causes.
ADVICE IF YOU DO SPONSOR A CHILD - Do not even think about sponsoring a child unless you know you can afford regular donations over a long period of time. It can leave the child feeling rejected if you suddenly stop paying - You can write to the child you sponsor, but charities recommend you only send a postcard or picture and keep your messages short so they can be easily translated by local fieldworkers - Be very sensitive what you say to the child – don’t talk about religious/political issues, don’t discuss how much you earn or send pictures of very rich lifestyles - Don’t send gifts, because you can create inequalities and sometimes the recipients have to pay custom charges that they can hardly afford - If you do want to visit the child, talk to the charity beforehand and they can help you arrange it - Try to choose charities that help people be self-sufficient. ActionAid is an excellent charity, so I would highly recommend this.
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on child sponsorship - Is it effective? Is it even ethical?
Many thanks for your review. It's hard to criticise constructively something that is clearly of benefit to many but your thoughts were clear and balanced. Perhaps many of us are prepared to give a little more and for longer when it is presented on a personal level rather than to 'the masses'. I supopose that is somewhat selfish of us but overall it is far, far greater than no action. I will do some soul searching and decide on whether a regular donation or a sponsorship feels better for me. Kind regards. Pete
teacherofhooch 10.05.2005 22:57
A very well balanced review and has given me something to think about. Linda
CarolB 31.07.2003 14:19
Hi Maia. I enjoyed this. I was thinking about writing an op in this area since we sponsor a boy in Bangladesh. Our sponsorship is with Plan International and I am very impressed with them. They send us a card with an idea of something to write about each year. For example, they suggest you attach a picture of your house to the card and write a few lines about where you live. Every year we get updates on his progress, and a catalogue suggesting we send something for Christmas. So far I have sent a football and a frisbee so that he can play with friends, thus lessening the envy and to teach him social skills. You have made some good points, though.