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?