Thoughts on Child Sponsorship

Child sponsorship programs have been around since Save the Children initiated its program in 1932. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, child sponsorship became popularized by infomercial programs and donation drives with today’s leading organizations World Vision and Concern. However, child sponsorship programs have also received significant backlash due to fraud, misreporting, large administrative spending, and most importantly, dependency.

For would-be philanthropists from my great-aunt to Bill Gates, child sponsorship programs provide a direct connection to the beneficiaries of donations. These programs provide a face for the funding being sent monthly. Most of these programs also offer donors the chance to correspond with the child they are helping – ranging from letters to gifts.

The beneficiaries themselves are children who would otherwise miss out on opportunities for schooling and access to basic healthcare. Sponsored children thus have the opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Or so the programs say.

Criticism of child sponsorship programs became heated in the 1990s. Notably, Save the Children faced an inquiry in 1998, after the Chicago Tribune broke a story about two-dozen sponsorships which had been issued fraudulently in the West African country Mali. As it turned out, the children sponsored were deceased.

Are there good child sponsorship programs? Yes – in the sense that they are efficient and provide the services they advertise. Both Charity Navigator and Charity Watch (published by the American Institute of Philanthropy) offer excellent resources by rating a variety of charities on their efficiency and performance. Among the consistently top rated are Compassion International and World Vision.

However, being an efficient, honest charity, does not equate to effectiveness. As a development worker, I can’t help but ask if child sponsorship programs are effective. Do the children benefit as much as their donors? Do the communities in which child-sponsorship takes place experience a trickle up of growth? I’m skeptical that any child sponsorship program, no matter how efficient and long-term, actually makes a difference at the community level.

These children are sponsored to attend the local schools – which are already in disrepair and lack adequate teachers, books, and other supplies. In some cases, child-sponsorship is set up to pay for attendance at the charity’s schools. But that also means that the students are subjected to proselytizing. Not to mention, charity induced schools have had their share of debacles and are not necessarily any better than the existing community and government-run schools.

There are also psychological effects as a result of child-sponsorship. The BBC ran an excellent story this week on the impacts that sponsorship has on the psyche of some children. Every donor is different, thus every donor’s level of commitment is different. Children who have active donors and receive gifts and regular mail benefit more from sponsorship than the children who have passive donors. This can cause tension among the children’s social groups.

Another major result from child-sponsorship is the risk of dependency. According to the BBC article,

Some even want their sponsors’ e-mail addresses, so they can carry on their correspondence into adulthood. But charities do not encourage this, for fear of dependency.

This statement seems odd. Communication via email into adulthood with a sponsor isn’t the likely culprit in a dependency case – the sponsorship itself is. In particular, families see sponsorship as the only hope for schooling for their children. Personally, I could not count the number of times I have been asked to either sponsor someone’s child or to find them a sponsor in the US.

While child-sponsorship programs provide some benefits to the children involved, like schooling and healthcare, these programs could also be offering a false sense of hope for the future. Without advances at the community and macro level, these educated children are likely to join the ranks of their peers – unemployed or operating in an informal market where they lack insurance against the systematic economic shocks that make poverty persistent in the developing world.

Education is only part of the answer. In a recent World Bank study I conducted with my peers at Texas A&M University, we found that there are actually higher levels of unemployment among Zambian youths with some formal education than among youths with no education. Youths with upper primary or secondary education are job seekers. Education promises paid employment with opportunities for advancement. But the reality is that there simply aren’t enough jobs for those who have some education. This means that youths without education (and it’s false hopes) remain employed in traditional forms of employment (i.e. agriculture and informal craft), while those with some education are unemployed as a result of their being educated. Of course these unemployed youths have the option of returning to traditional trade. But honestly, after years of schooling and promises of a better life, who would want to go back to planting rice by hand?

In the end, child sponsorship is most likely benefiting the donors more than the children participating. These donors feel good about what they are doing and have a face to put behind their monthly donations. But these donations might be doing little good. An excellent research project could be to investigate both the efficiency and effectiveness of child-sponsor programs using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. Do children who are sponsored end up better off in the long-run? Do their communities benefit from a more educated youth? What are the perceptions of these programs and their outputs for both beneficiaries and donors?


5 Replies to “Thoughts on Child Sponsorship”

  1. Dear Amanda,
    You said, “I’m skeptical that any child sponsorship program, no matter how efficient and long-term, actually makes a difference at the community level.” You may overlooked the bottom section of the BBC article which stated, “When Plan arrived in the village of Odumase, west of Accra, 17 years ago, there was no school building, no clean drinking water nor sanitation. The village has benefited hugely from sponsorship funds. And aside …”

    I see you didn’t talk about the two different sponsorship schemes elicited in the BBC article which made me think you overlooked it. The second approach which used sponsorship money in community development instead of the individual child seemed to ameliorate tensions between children’s social groups.

    Also if you doubt the effectiveness of child sponsorship, am i to assume that you doubt the effectiveness of a college scholarship of which you are most probably a recipient? The argument about the educated being unemployed may have more to do with the appropriateness of the mindset of those educated than anything else. Maybe there’s a need for entrepreneurial classes and other such wide-thinking courses (social and behavioral sciences) to be inculcated in the curriculum.

    I think i agree with the language you used earlier in the essay where you said, “Sponsored children thus have the opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty…” The operative word here being opportunity. As the adage goes, “You can only take a horse to the stream, you can’t make it drink from it.”

    Here’s a study i found that says that adversity early in a child’s life may shorten his/her telomeres (which protect the chromosomes) thus leading to a shortened life span.

    Child sponsorship in my opinion provides access to education, health care, resources and many other positive consequences. The organizations involved who serve as the vehicles for this to happen work hard to ensure accountability and transparency, thus their high rating. Not to mention they try to deal with problems they observe, hence their ingenious approach and ideas. And proselytizing may be too strong of a word because the child i think is free to go his/her way (or maintain his faith) when they reach adulthood and can fend for themselves. The idea of the beneficiary becoming independent of sponsorship i think should come from the individual/community and should not be blamed on the donor. Child sponsorship is one part of the jigsaw puzzle that is right, that fits, we need to find the other missing parts.

    Interesting research project! You should undertake it.

    Nice essay, i just had a difference in opinion.

    1. Great thoughts here. Most of my concerns regarding child sponsorship are of course related to dependency and sustainability. I agree that sponsorship can be “one part of the jigsaw puzzle” as you put it. Development is definitely a multifaceted, micro- and macro-level process that no one intervention can hope to achieve. The comparison between child sponsorship and a college scholarship is a bit faulty – given that college scholarships target a different demographic and typically offer a true hope of employment rather than educational advancement with only vague promises of a better future. But I also agree with your comment that as development workers we can only hope to offer new and improved opportunities. We can only help people along the way – ultimately the decision for development (whether at the individual, household, or country-level) lies in the hands of the beneficiaries. Thanks for your comments and for the article suggestion.

  2. I am an American who has been in contact with an orphanage in Uganda that is working diligently at receiving their NGO status. One of the ways that has been discussed as a potential future fundraiser would be to develop a child sponsorship program. This article has made me think that perhaps sponsoring the Abasinguzi Orphan community as a whole may be a better approach than individual children. The orphanage could benefit greatly and provide the children with the tools to create a better future. Very thought provoking article. Thank you.

  3. Compassion child sponsorship works. Independent research shows that children who participated in Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program between 1980 and 1992 stayed in school longer, were more likely to have salaries and white-collar employment, and were more likely to be leaders in their communities and churches than their peers who did not participate in the program. Once Compassion sponsored children, these adults are now making a difference in their communities as mums, dads, pastors, teachers, doctors, even members of parliament.

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