This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
One child at a time
VICTOR Pacheco Fila lives with his parents and his four younger brothers and sisters in a two-room house on the bleak, arid plateau which overlooks the Bolivian capital, La Paz, Victor’s real baptismal god-parents - who are neighbours and old friends are effectively a part of his family.
But until last year he also had another godparent - a padrino: a young Australian television worker who sent him postcards, a small sum of money each month and occasionally a special gift of a larger amount. In return, Victor wrote monthly letters to his sponsor which were checked by the local social worker for Foster Parents Plan International.
Victor’s mother, Roberta Fila, first heard of the sponsorship programme through a neighbour who knew that the family was very poor. Immigrants from a mining district who settled on the outskirts of the city fifteen years ago, they have found it hard to penetrate city life, Victor’s father is a carpenter and Roberta prepares food to sell to local factory workers, Their adobe house has no running water, electricity or sanitation. The younger children run around the yard barefoot and poorly clad, while Victor, aged 18, works alongside his dad,
‘The social workers told me we were poor enough to apply for a "padrino",’ said Roberta. ‘There are people abroad who want to help poor families here. It took me about three months to get all the documents and papers together, They came and took a photo of us all, and also one of Victor - he was 13 then - with a number pinned on his chest. I was lucky, really - some families wait over a year to get accepted.’
Foster Parents Plan (often known just as PLAN) is a private, independent organization, funded by the voluntary contributions of individual sponsors from Holland, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Belgium and the USA, where its international office has been based since 1941. It was originally founded in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War by two English philanthropists who organized the sponsorship of war victims. But in the 1960s it began to work specifically with children in developing countries. A quarter of a million children are now fostered in 22 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. PLAN started its Bolivia programme in 1969 with 57 children and 19,000 are now sponsored, most of them in and around La Paz.
PLAN works in a similar way to the other child sponsorship agencies such as World Vision and Action Aid, Its main aim is help children in poor countries by raising their families’ standard of living. But it also meets a need for individuals in industrialized countries who are concerned about Third World poverty and want to do ‘something concrete’ so at least one particular child, somewhere, will be better fed, clothed and educated because of their monthly contributions. ‘We know we can’t change the world, but we wanted to do our bit to help,’ said one donor asked about her family’s motivation to foster a child,
‘The ads looking for foster parents really tug at your heartstrings,’ said H.S., an anthropologist now living in Bolivia. ‘First we sponsored a child in Bali, but after some years PLAN told us that he had been withdrawn from the programme because he was too old. We never heard any more about him. For a year and a half now we’ve been sponsors to a Bolivian child - a girl of twelve.
A few months ago we arranged to visit her family on their farm by Lake Titicaca. Frankly, we were disappointed, There was little evidence of where our money went. The family was incredibly poor and the youngest child seemed malnourished. We got good feelings from the people, but we couldn’t help wondering why so little aid filtered through to them. They told us they needed more money. We decided to up our contribution - it’s now 22 dollars per month, which we send to the central office in Rhode Island - but now we’re not so sure this is the best way to help.’
On the receiving end of sponsorship, there are also mixed feelings. Victor Pacheco dropped out of the Foster Parents Plan last year because his mother felt it was no longer worthwhile. ‘We had to pick the money up on a certain day, otherwise they told us off,’ said Roberta. ‘If we didn’t go for any reason, they said we obviously didn’t need the money and they’d take us off the list. Also, we had to go to meetings where they gave us talks and told us how to look after our children. It took up too much time and in the end the bus fares got so expensive that it wasn’t worth my while going to collect the money.’ When Victor was first sponsored in 1977, his mother received 120 pesos per month, then worth six dollars. But over time the money has not increased and inflation has reduced it to a fraction of its original value.
That individual families now get less money is actually the result of earlier criticisms of PLAN’s policy of one-to-one sponsorship. To be able to say that their programmes are ‘community-based’ is more acceptable these days and the organization has modified its approach accordingly. Now sponsored families are expected to participate in the educational, agricultural or productive activities planned for their zone. Of these, the best known has been the experimental farm of Tambillo, situated on the high plateau not far from La Paz.
‘The system is changing,’ said a Bolivian PLAN worker. ‘We don’t want to be paternalistic, so we’re making the families work in local groups, and the contributions are going more to those projects now, and we’re cutting down the aid to individual families. A lot of them don’t like it. They’re writing letters asking their sponsors not to send donations for the groups because they’re afraid of losing their money. But in the end, we think it’s better for them to work together on community projects.
However, PLAN still conceives of community activity as a means to individual and family development, rather than vice versa. ‘The individual family is the heart of our programme,’ states a recent report. ‘Group work is the methodology we are using now to enable personal growth and family stability. The family is the pivotal point of PLAN’s activities?
Individual sponsorship is also an extremely effective way of obtaining funds for Foster Parents Plan International. It plays on Western individualism and the donor’s desire to visualise and obtain feedback from the recipient of the aid. So the same promotion methods continue whilst local and international pressure is forcing a change of orientation in PLAN’s programmes in the Third World.
The ‘one-to-one’ approach favoured by the Foster Parents Plan is not, however, as personal or bonding as it might appear. Direct correspondence between sponsor and child is not permitted and the letters which pass in both directions are vetted and translated by PLAN staff. ‘The social workers told us what to write about,’ said Victor, ‘and sometimes they gave the letters back for us to do again. We had to write about the weather ... how we were studying in school , . . fiestas and processions, that sort of thing. Not about the news. Then we would say that we’d like to meet our padrino some day.’
When K., a university teacher from the US, visited her foster child, she was disconcerted to see letters and photos proudly produced by the family - of another sponsor, not herself, PLAN employees explained that this was a previous donor who had been unable to maintain their contributions, but K. found it hard to convince the family that their sponsor had changed. ‘I felt a bit uncomfortable about the visit - like a lady bountiful,’ she said.
The sponsored families themselves tend to regard the allocation of a padrino rather like a lottery. ‘I didn’t have much luck with mine,’ said one mother whose sponsor had written apologising that he couldn’t send more special gifts’ because of his limited resources. ‘One of my friends has a godmother in the United States,’ said Victor. ‘I think they’re the best they send more presents. She came to visit him and bought him new clothes, and took him on a trip. All the other kids were wild with envy. My friend says maybe he’ll go and study in the US when he’s older. It must be nice there, better than here where there are lots of poor people.’
One-to-one sponsorship does not create genuine personal bonds between donors and foster children. It can, however, distort the recipients’ vision of an unjust economic order and create aspirations far removed from the reality of their lives, Children and their families may be permanently marked by psychological and material dependence on their ‘padrino’ from the North, However well-intentioned such aid may be, the kernel is the creation of a paternalistic relationship which is unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Foster Parents Plan does organize community projects. But they require a certain degree of coercion for sponsored families to participate. There are much better ways to carry out such activities. Health education, productive projects or group work to obtain basic local services are all best undertaken by local Bolivian organizations which can foster a spirit of dignity and social awareness in their members. If people in the West wish to contribute to such projects they can channel their help through a number of aid agencies. Effective aid means allowing disadvantaged groups to define their own needs and priorities, and to allocate resources as they see fit. When this occurs, padrinos do not enter the picture.
CEDOIN is a research and documentation centre in La Paz.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.