Please do not sponsor this child

Sponsorship of Third World children has now become a major fund-raiser for voluntary agencies; it is a sure-fire way to attract money. But it is not such a good way to spend it. Peter Stalker argues that there are better ways to help.

ONE MILLION 'foster parents' in the West are now sponsoring children in the Third World - each giving around $20 a month - in what has become an extraordinary international exchange.

This is a very 'personal' form of giving - and from the outset the needs of the individual donor are taken into account. Advertisements for Save the Children in the US offer the prospective parent a long series of multiple choices. You check one box to choose the sex of your child and then another for their location or race. After this, as with most of the organisations, you get a child 'on approval' - with a photograph and a case history. If you accept, the process starts; you send your monthly aid and get letters from the child of your choice.

The appeal of all this is almost irresistible, and it is hardly surprising that this is one of the fastest-growing sources of money for voluntary agencies. The organisations concerned - like Foster Parents Plan and World Vision - are expanding rapidly. And even the relatively new British agency, Action Aid, now has 60,000 children on its books.

There can be no doubt about the good intentions of most of the donors. They wish to help identifiable individuals and hope to learn more about the places where their money is being used. It is a more attractive proposition than working through a conventional aid agency, which might fund a thousand projects from a central fund and appears much more impersonal.

Offering sponsorship is certainly an easier way to raise money. But is it a good way to spend it?

The most obvious disadvantage of such programmes is that they are expensive to run. The photographs, the monitoring of each family's progress and the translation of an endless flow of letters - all cost money. And that means that the people that you want to help will get less.

But most donors will be aware of this and probably accept it as the price of the service they are receiving. What they may not realise is that in almost every other way in which the donor is better off through a sponsorship scheme, the sponsored child or family is correspondingly worse off.

Take the instant appeal of helping one person. The children do of course exist as individuals. But they are also part of a family, a village or a school. My first contact with the sponsorship phenomenon was in a children's home in Colombia. Ten-year-old Jose wanted me to organise a foster parent for him. Most of his friends had sponsors and he hadn't. In the fiercely competitive world of childhood he was dependent on the charity of the more fortunate children - which meant that he only got the teddy bears when the ears had been pulled off.

Helping an individual is divisive - and is particularly damaging in societies which are already sharply divided in all sorts of ways: rich and poor, black and white, high caste or low caste, literate or illiterate.

Nor is trying to help an individual likely to succeed. Catapulting even one person out of poverty is a daunting task - especially on $20 a month. And while there will be some successes - and we quote one later in this issue - they will be few and far between. Most of the poor (harijan children in India for example) have the odds stacked against them. And unless you do something about changing the odds they will not stand much of a chance.

Another disadvantage of being in contact with just one person is that they are also in intimate contact with you. Manuel, the little boy on the front cover of this magazine, lives in a squalid slum on the edge of a Latin American city. The regular letters he gets from his sponsoring family give accounts of their interesting lives - of skiing holidays in Austria, for example. For the European family this correspondence might offer an interesting educational experience for their own children. What Manuel gets from it, apart from a vague feeling of inferiority, is much less clear.

Many donors would try to avoid being so insensitive in their letters. But, no matter how much care you take, things can be read into the letters, even when they are not the writer's mind. One of my most depressing experiences in Peru recently was talking to a sixteen-year-old girl who was living in the most appalling conditions of poverty and overcrowding. She honestly believed that some day her sponsor, who lived in Toronto, was going to invite her to go and live there. When I asked her for more details she was a lot less sure. One of the younger children in the house had run off with all the letters and lost them. Now she could not quite remember what had been said.

Creating this kind of empty aspiration is the other side of the 'educational' coin. The donor may gain but the foster child loses.

Not that the donor gains all that much. Few of the letters that he is likely to receive are going to be strong on information. Manuel's response to the skiing family was:

Dear foster parent,
I write to let you know that I am well. I'm getting ahead in my classes and hope to be a professional in the future to visit your country.
My parents are very grateful for your nice aid. Warm greetings from my dear brother Segundo. He likes to play marbles.
I say goodbye with much love,

Most of the letters come from small children so their limited content is not too surprising. But the letters are also censored as they pass through translation so that controversial items, such as criticisms of the aid agency or political comment are edited out.

Also edited out are appeals for more money. Giving to one person means that the sponsored children are correspondingly receiving from just one person who is clearly much richer than they are. Not surprisingly many of the recipients feel that they could put up a good case for more money.

Indeed sponsorship in general plays up the 'aid' side of development. Using outside aid to promote self-reliance is something of a contradiction, but one which many of the Western donor agencies manage to live with by keeping a low profile. The recipients can be so bound up with their own lives and the work of the project that they may not even be aware that there is much outside funding, let alone where it is coming from. Placing the weight of sponsorship on any project is bound to restrain the enthusiasm: there's nothing like writing a regular thank-you letter to keep you in your place.

But ironically the sponsors are giving money in this way precisely because they think it is more useful: there seems less likelihood that the money will go astray. And it is true that the sponsorship agencies maintain a small army of social workers who travel round keeping tabs on the families and looking at how the money is used.

But is this more reliable than simply making a grant say, to a Gandhian organisation in India?

Many sponsored programmes have now broadened to include the child's family as well. So Manuel's parents and his older brother must also be lined up for the photograph to be sent to their benefactor. If the child is very young the father will ahve to write the thank-you letter.
Many sponsored programmes have now broadened to include the child's family as well. So Manuel's parents and his older brother must also be lined up for the photograph to be sent to their benefactor. If the child is very young the father will ahve to write the thank-you letter.

This is doubtful. Having so many supervisory staff is in itself a potential source of misuse. Favouritism between the social workers - who usually come from the local community - and certain families is not unknown - nor is dishonesty. Sponsorship agencies are no more open to abuse than other organisations, but there is no reason to suppose that they are any less so.

There is, however, a more significant consequence of building up a supervisory system. The agency becomes a local 'institution'. In sensitive situations - and that means almost everywhere in the Third World - this is no small disadvantage.

In fact, one of the greatest advantages that voluntary aid usually has over government aid is that it is lighter on its feet. Small groups can be funded here and there as the opportunities crop up. But the sponsorship agencies in many ways forego this advantage. They are rooted in one place and need to be on good terms with the local authorities if their system is to work. And this restricts the kinds of project that can be funded.

El Salvador is an extreme example. Most organisations feel that they can no longer carry out effective development work there - indeed many of the people involved in their projects have now been slaughtered by the military. Foster Parents Plan, however, has had no such problems and is proud of the fact that its programme is still running.

But if you need to be inoffensive to the powers-that-be, the chances of promoting constructive change are not high. And for any donor worried about getting value for money that should be a matter of some concern.

We quote the case of Chimbote in Peru later in this magazine. The families sponsored were often workers in the local fish canning factories and the exploitation there was a significant contribution to their children's poverty. More relevant than the welfare programmes that the sponsored families were getting might have been legal support to press for better working conditions. But that would have made them unpopular in certain quarters. Alleviating the problems of the poor is one thing. But solving them involves much more difficult choices.

Yet solutions are more and more what the sponsorship agencies claim to be offering. 'Community development' is the cover-all catch phrase. Housing programmes, irrigation schemes, health services or making handicrafts - these have now been moved to the centre of the publicity platform. And all, of course, are activities that any agency could become involved with. Yet like the word 'aid' itself, community development is an umbrella that can cover a multitude of intentions and effects. An irrigation ditch dug in one place can help a whole community grow more food. Dug in another it can so increase the value of the land that the poor can no longer afford to farm it - and have to join the ranks of the landless.

Everything depends on how the programme is designed and on the political consequence that it has; to say that you are involved in community development is not enough. The intended impact has to be carefully chosen - and the sponsorship agencies are not in a position to make the best choice.

Some sponsorship agencies would even claim that they are 'non-political', though in this context that would only mean that they have very little impact at all. But that might be better than nothing. And it is argued that there are people who give to sponsorship agencies who would give on no other terms. So no matter how defective the aid might be it could have some role to play. Sometimes there could be enough benefits to set against the negative impact of sponsorship: but there are too many cases where the best thing that the sponsorship could do is keep their $20.

What is certain is that there are better ways to help. The organisations without the sponsorship burdens have much sharper and more cost-effective operations. And they have no shortage of programmes that help children: in nutrition, in education or in health. You may get a less direct satisfaction - no letters, no thank-you's. But the people who do get the satisfaction are the people who matter.

The other side of the coin

For every advantage that sponsorship brings to the donor - there is a corresponding disadvantage for the recipient.

Helping one identifiable person ALSO Causes divisions and creates more inequality.

A correspondence that helps ALSO Creates Western aspirations that cannot be fulfilled.
you learn more about the Third World

Getting a direct response from the person you help ALSO Maintains a consciousness of aid and dependence.

Having your own aid directly supervised ALSO Ties your help to conventional and less economical projects.

Paying for regular information about your own child ALSO Leaves less available for the project.


Many Western children are now sponsoring Third World children, either through their schools or their families. Is it difficult for them to see that something is wrong with this?

‘My experiences,’ says Carmel O’Niell of Australian Catholic Relief, is that the increasing numbers of children who have approached this office to talk to someone about child sponsorship have readily seen the problems. They are then, of course, faced with a difficult decision if they are already involved in a sponsorship programme. In the words of one 12 year old: ‘It’s hard to decide what to do now — it’s like breaking a trust. I’ll talk it over with Dad, but I think I’ll keep it up till the child doesn’t need me, and then I’ll do something better because I understand a bit more now that I have seen it from the other side.’

Brian Turner, Director of Christian World Service in New Zealand, writes:

I spent 1967 teaching in a Malaysian school where there were sponsored and unsponsored pupils. Looking back, I can remember how demeaning it was. Some sponsored pupils felt superior to those unsponsored — others felt inferior because they needed to be sponsored. For me it was demeaning trying to encourage the sponsored to write thank-you letters to their sponsors.

I have not entered into criticism of child sponsorship lightly. I am aware of our Lord’s warning — that he who places a stumbling block in the way of children’s rights will catch it. On the contrary I hope I am contributing to the removal of such blocks by promoting programmes in which all are assisted instead of a select few. If my word is not good enough, try Mother Theresa’s — she is a firm opponent of child sponsorship for similar reasons.