THE Kanhan Kshetra area of Madhya Pradesh presents the classic picture of rural poverty in India. The people are peasant farmers who cultivate holdings of up to five acres - and aboriginal tribes who live in villages in a forested plateau where the land is generally very stony and unproductive.
The Indian government has been almost totally indifferent to their needs, so a voluntary organization - Ardha Adivasi Vikas Sangh (AAVS) - was set up in 1978 to help promote all-round development.
A high school and nursery schools had been running for a few years and AAVS was very keen to secure assistance for other programmes. Oxfam agreed to fund two primary health centres and then the Christian Children's Fund (CCF) New Delhi Field Director paid a visit to the area and was so impressed by the wretched conditions in the villages that he sanctioned a sponsorship programme with an initial target of 220 children.
It took my Indian colleagues (only a few of whom spoke English) and myself a little while to work out what this programme was all about. We were told to select the children within three weeks, which meant we had to make an intensive tour of twenty villages, interviewing families and choosing a needy child as the one to be sponsored. CCF guarantees to sponsor a child for its school-going life, so we tried to choose children of around seven years of age. This presented problems, for many parents did not know the ages of their children and so we had to give them a date-of-birth ourselves. The sponsors are sent a 'case-history' of 'their' child, which contains a photo together with information on the child and its family. We had to gather this information from suspicious and uncomprehending families (it is very difficult to explain the concept of sponsorship to illiterate people) and to take photos of, in some cases, a screaming, frightened child.
In CCF jargon, the child-sponsor relationship is a silken thread 'born when the child is assigned and accepted by the sponsor and nurtured by the Welcoming Letter and Thank-You Letters'. Sponsorship is seen as a means of assisting the community towards ultimate self-reliance by initial focus on the child and that child's family. The money, $18 a month, is not given directly to the child itself, but can be allocated towards family and community needs. For example, provision of fresh water, agricultural improvement or income generation. AAVS was given a free hand to draw up the initial budget, but as the child's needs are paramount it was no surprise that the first items were for clothing and food - through a school meals programme. The transformation was remarkable. The sponsored children were soon identifiable in their new white shirts and blue dresses or shorts.
AAVS had been warned from the outset that CCF expected much to be done on the administrative side of the programme, but we were not prepared for the amount of paperwork involved. Most of this was around the sponsor relationship. CCF encourage their sponsors to write to the child at least once a year but we soon found that several individuals were compulsive writers. Each letter has to have a 'Thank-You Letter' response from the child. The sponsors do not communicate directly with AAVS. They write via the Field Office in Delhi, where the addresses are removed and the letters sent en masse to the project every week. Because the AAVS social workers serving the villages do not know English, every letter has translated into Marathi by a person bearing the title of Correspondent. The majority of letters were of reasonable length, couched in simple language and asking a few questions about the child's daily life, the state of his/her family or the weather. However, as the number of sponsored children grew to over 500, an increasing proportion of letters came from people who wrote such things as:
How such ideas can be translated by a village man who has little concept of US society or replied to by a five year old girl from a backward tribal village is beyond imagination.
Once translated, the letters are given to the social workers who contact the child and they either write a reply on the child's behalf (if the child cannot write) or tell the child to write a letter. The correspondent then has to translate the replies into English and send them to Delhi for forwarding to the sponsors. This is time-consuming and the social workers were usually so tied up with carrying letters to and from the villages that they did little work on promoting involvement in the wider aspects of the programme. AAVS always had a backlog of at least 50 letters which had to be replied to within a month to satisfy the sponsors. With such pressure, mistakes were inevitable, such as when a letter was sent on behalf of a child who had died three months previously.
This was bad enough, but worse still were the gifts. Over and above the monthly donation, sponsors are allowed to send gift money to their children, usually for birthdays and Christmas (neither of which the Hindu people of the area celebrate, although every child is expected to send Christmas greetings to its sponsor). If the gift is unspecified then AAVS can use it towards buying something for the whole community, like toys for the primary school. However if the money is designated for the child by the sponsor, then it must be spent only on that particular child. So some children were receiving quite outrageous amounts. A gift of ten dollars, though very little to an American sponsor, is the equivalent of almost a month's wages to a landless labourer who can only earn 50 cents for a day's work. It was little wonder that one little girl, who was receiving gifts from her over-generous sponsor practically every month, was becoming very unpopular with her fellow sponsored families in the village for the quantity of new clothes and toys she was receiving. It was not very convincing to tell parents that it is simply the luck of the draw whether they are assigned to a benevolent sponsor or not.
In India, CCF is sponsoring 45,000 children with total aid of almost 6 million dollars a year. Although nominally non-sectarian, the Christian aspect is still strong and of great appeal to the missionary zeal of a donor as can be seen from such letters as the one on the right.
The children can be protected from such sentiments by intelligent project staff, though I found my Hindu colleagues totally baffled over the receipt of a cross and a prayer book, which we returned to the field office as manifestly unsuitable.
The CCF staff in New Delhi sympathised over the length and content of the sponsors' letters but maintained that they were powerless to do more than tell the sponsors to write in more reasonable fashion. (We do tell them, but they take no notice). I realised that some sponsors were using their relationship with a child to make up for the inadequacies in their own lives. Why else should one man write to AAVS every fortnight with news of some of the other 14 children he was sponsoring, while never asking after Manikmo's progress?
Does all the associated paraphernalia of sponsorship matter, as long as the money goes towards not only the child and its family, but community development as well? To be fair, the project was still in its very early stages and several schemes, such as adult study-centres, a weavers' co-operative and goat-rearing, do have the potential to raise the income and consciousness of the tribals and harijans, both sponsored and non-sponsored.
The sponsorship programme could become a means of effecting social change for the better, yet I saw disturbing signs that some families were beginning to demand special treatment as their right. The sponsored children received free medicine and a regular check-up at the AAVS health centres. One parent refused to take his child to the Government Doctor for treatment when the nurse maintained that the case was beyond her competence. So elements of dependency are there, fuelled by an overemphasis on welfare.
What is CCF's view of development? It seems to have none, to judge by the literature sent to prospective sponsors. Instead, the appeal is on 'helping hungry, needy girls and boys.' CCF's present Director describes its work as 'America's greatest venture in philanthropy.'
Clearly, there is no shortage of sponsors in the United States and CCF are striking a very receptive chord. But is sharing love, as they term sponsorship, the solution to mass poverty? I shall never forget how one little boy, on receiving a cut-out model plane from his sponsor, refused to let me make it up for him, on the grounds that he wanted to frame it and thus worship it every morning.