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Letters To A God


new internationalist
issue 194 - April 1989

Letters to a god
Sponsorship of Third World children has nearly doubled since
the NI highlighted the hazards seven years ago. The agencies
have changed, but have the problems? We commissioned
an international team of journalists to investigate.

An NI report in May 1982 began: 'Sponsorship of Third World children has now became 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. There are better ways to help...'

Since then the number of Western 'foster parents' sponsoring Third World children has nearly doubled to just under two million. 'People want to get to know one child and feel that child is benefiting from their support. And we need the funds, right?' says the Director of one large sponsorship scheme.

There have been changes. Some child sponsorship programmes have shifted the focus away from the care of individual children to community development - clearly an improvement. But no matter how successful, these projects are still afflicted by the problems of any one-to-one sponsorship scheme.

Take Save the Children US's programme in Inquisivi, Bolivia. It is one of the most progressive sponsorship schemes around. No individual aid whatsoever is given to families and the project constantly stresses community development. The sponsors are called 'godparents' and the term sponsorship is modified to the locally-coined name 'Help us to help ourselves'. But the fact remains that over 1000 children aged between two and fourteen years old are personally accountable to donors in the North - their photos and letters keep the money rolling in.

Here - as in other projects we looked at - sponsored children often do not understand what is going on. Fourteen year-old Pedro Quispe Acho recently won a notebook as a prize for having written the most letters to his sponsor. Yet his grasp over the whole business is minimal. He says: 'I've had a godfather for about two years. I can't remember his name. Where does he live? I don't know. They came to take photos of us at school. We didn't really know what it was for. They told me I was going to have a godfather. I supposed it was just a sort of friend. I don't know why he writes. I write back because Marcelino comes and tells me to: '"You must write back soon," he says.'

Enormous sums of money are spent administering such schemes. At Inquisivi one man, Marcelino, has the full-time job of 'letter-carrier' cycling around 13 communities chasing up unanswered letters, seeking urgent information and calling children to have fresh photos taken. His salary absorbs money that could have been used to help the community.

The head of the Bolivian Save the Children sponsorship programme, Enrique Butron, explains the problem: 'Sometimes a sponsor will contact head office in the US asking for a photo. They don't realize how much time and expense that means. We reckon it costs $19 a photo with all the administration, work and materials. That's equivalent to a month's sponsorship'.

Satisfying the sponsor
There is an ironic gulf between the sponsor's concerned phone-call asking for information about an individual child or for a recent photo - and the pressure on the Bolivian sponsorship team to come up quickly with the goods to avoid having the sponsorship cancelled: 'If we can't get the information through quickly enough they'll say, We're not satisfying sponsors, they'll cancel and we'll lose funds" so we get into trouble with the main office,' says Enrique. Field staff working on the Bolivian programme have been told that the project has a desertion rate of 31 per cent due to delays in correspondence. And these terminations mean an annual cut of $15,000 in income for the Fund.

'Sponsored children receive very little compared with what the organization receives from donors,' confirms a former member of Christian Children's Fund in Thailand. In this organization as elsewhere huge chunks of money go on administration, on advertising and public relations and on stationery, stamps and postage. Many agencies also present donors with progress reports on their child; one village for orphans in Central America had to refuse the support of Christian Children's Fund because it couldn't afford to produce the reports.

The cost of providing sponsors with letters from their child is also enormous. These have to be translated and censored to remove political comments or requests for money: 'We have to prevent the children from asking the sponsor to send them things .... because sponsors may react saying "I'm already sending my $16 monthly. I can't send any more," and then they cancel their sponsorship,' says Enrique. The Director of another scheme puts it more bluntly: 'Sometimes it can be a real pain in the derri" re with these letters. It would be much easier to receive a cheque for a hundred thousand dollars with no strings attached'.

But child sponsorship has more worrying aspects than expense and inefficiency. There are ethical questions about the 'selling' of children through photos to potential donors. Says Enrique: 'We're trying all different ways of making the children come out more attractive. They don't look good against a plain background or wall. Now we're doing them against natural landscapes or coloured weavings. Even some quite ugly children have been sponsored...' No wonder that many children don't like being photographed and come out crying.

Heartache and sorrow
The failure to receive letters is another source of heartache. The children have to spend a lot of time writing letters to sponsors. Many hope to get replies, but they don't always receive them - especially when the child is sponsored by a company. 'The children get sad when their friends get letters and they don't...' says Luis Tomco, the father of one sponsored child. 'You explain why and the kids understand, but it still affects them inside, not getting the letters. They get fond of their sponsors and they write: "I love you.why haven't you written?". It's difficult.'

The cultural exchange is not one-way either. Sponsors write to children about luxuries like big cars and exotic holidays: 'I'm sorry I didn't write before but I've been away,' writes one Dutch sponsor. 'I went to England with my mother. We visited castles where kings, princes and princesses used to live a long time ago. We visited another country also, Scotland.. Now I have to pack my bags for another trip because I'm going to the United States to visit my sister and her two children.'

The youngsters develop unrealistic aspirations and start imagining that they too might have such things. They grow discontented - even alienated from their communities. Eleven-year-old Valeria thinks her sponsor is a kind of god who lives in California and sends her toys and money. 'Maybe I'll meet him some day,' she says dreamily, 'he might come here, or maybe I'll go over there'.

Unlike some sponsorship agencies, Save the Children US does not encourage donors to visit their children or send them presents. But some donors insist. One rich American even built a house for his sponsored child after he visited her at Inquisivi. Such well-intentioned gestures cause more problems than they solve because in poor communities any gift is a source of envy - and the more extravagant the gift, the greater the danger of outright hostility.

Such rifts are especially common in those programmes that single out individual children for sponsorship - as with Ethic, which sponsors 500 children in Ghambaj, north India. This organization is financed by Christian Children's Fund, who have 89 similar programmes in India reaching around 40,000 children. Ethic's aim is 'to help poor and needy children with books, clothes and other essentials,' says its President, Ram Kumar Singh. But Ghambaj and the surrounding villages are in fact relatively prosperous. Some of the poor families prefer to go without than shame themselves by advertising their need. Hence the programme frequently misses the poorest children.

Children sponsored by such schemes become targets of ridicule and jealousy. The journalist who visited Ethic asked a group of children for directions to the headquarters. 'They looked at me blankly until one of them exclaimed 'Oh, you mean Ethic!'. He giggled and pointed to another boy: 'This is an Ethic boy - he will take you to their office'. Another girl on the scheme, Lalitha, is teased by other children for being a sponsored child. They make snide comments about her receiving help from outside' and ask 'Why do you receive help and not us?' Dharamvir - the brother of a sponsored boy - is more forthright. He demands to know why he should not also get books and clothes and shoes like his brother.

Ethic's President, Ram Kumar Singh, concedes that the project causes a certain amount of jealousy in the village but dismisses this as part of any human endeavor. Families whose children do not receive help are bound to feel disgruntled, he says. There appears to be little thought here as to what sponsored children will do when they complete their education. Experience shows that as educated adults they will no longer want to do unskilled work. In villages such as Ghambaj there is unlikely to be much white-collar work available. So they leave, taking their skills away from the village that needs them.

Ram Kumar admits that Ethic has had its problems. A year ago it was managed by another organization which did not involve parents and children in the decision-making processes. But today things are different, he says confidently.

A good yardstick is the thorny issue of how child sponsorship money is distributed. This is a perennial problem for agencies that spend all sponsorship money on community projects. Should the agency give the money to the child's parents and risk it being frittered away if the parents do not act responsibly? They might spend it on alcohol, for example. Or should they buy the things they deem necessary for the child?

Ethic gives every sponsored child five rupees (50 cents) per month in addition to books and clothes. Each child has a bank account and the money is deposited there for the future. Financial gifts are also deposited - but the bank-books stay firmly in the hands of the agency. The child or its family can only withdraw money with their permission.

The father of one sponsored child complains that Ethic spends too much on books and uniforms - he would rather they put more money in his son's bank account. And he resents not having access to it: 'I will need the money to get him a job. Do you think we can get any job these days without paying a bribe?' he asks.

Child sponsorship is a system of aid designed to meet the needs of the donor first and then those of the child. The donor decides when to give money, to whom it will go to and ultimately how it will be spent. The notion of dependence is inherent in these schemes. The child is dependent on the donor: the donor calls the tune.

And an increasing number of donors want religious conversion as well as material aid for their Third World proteges. These sponsors are catered to by evangelical aid agencies like Compassion International. This organization operates in around 30 countries, including Bolivia, where it sponsors some 7,500 children exclusively through projects run by evangelical churches - especially the Salvation Army: 'What we have in common is trying to reach the children's souls to convert them to Christ - and through them, their families,' says Roberto Moya, the Salvation Army Captain running an after-school centre supported by Compassion International sponsorships.

It does not matter that: 'very few of the people we help already belong to the Church' or that evangelical Christianity may be against the culture and beliefs of the children being sponsored. 'The children receive religious education and it's their obligation to attend Sunday School. If we manage to save just one soul, then we've succeeded in our objective'. Some children leave the centre because they prefer to be out on the street. Says Roberto Moya: 'When children leave like that we have to go and look for them because of the sponsorship programme. If they don't keep in contact with the godparents, support is cut off and we lose funds'.

Conditional giving violates the rights of children to choose their own religion - it is a form of blackmail on those desperate for assistance and likely to do anything to get it. The financial, ideological and political interests of the aid agency and the 'rights' of sponsors to keep tabs on their children take priority over the needs of the children they claim to serve.

Officials of the larger, more conservative child sponsorship agencies tend to dismiss such criticisms out of hand. They usually claim to be 'non-political' and are prepared to co-operate with governments of all political persuasions. So Foster Parents Plan, for example, works in co-operation with officials of the Government of El Salvador who, it could be argued, are helping to create and sustain the poverty with which the agency claims to be dealing: it sees no contradiction in this.

Courage and integrity
But other organizations are taking a hard look at their approach to child sponsorship. And the results seem promising. Save the Children-Canada - a nine-million-dollar operation with projects in 26 countries - has terminated its child sponsorship programme altogether and replaced it with community sponsorship. This frees it from the burdensome task of keeping letters flowing between children and their sponsors, and liberates resources for community development. But individual children carry more donor appeal than communities: 3,000 of the agency's 8,500 foster parents have since withdrawn their financial support.

The next step for Save the Children-Canada is to develop a marketing strategy that promotes child-centred development without being exploitative or patronizing. That won't be easy: 'Like all child sponsorship agencies we have fallen to the temptation of using children in fund-raising in a not particularly appropriate way considering our commitment to community development,' admits Andrew Ignatieff, Director of Volunteer Services.

Other Canadian agencies are tackling the same problem - like Horizons of Friendship and Pueblito Canada, which work with abandoned and orphaned children in Latin America. Pueblito is probably Canada's smallest child sponsorship agency with an annual budget of well under one million dollars. It is phasing out individual sponsorship in favor of community development, thereby shifting its emphasis from dealing with abandoned children to helping grassroots agencies unite to prevent such problems. But fears of losing sponsors are great: 'You can't use the "save this child" approach if you're talking about solidarity,' points out David Morley, the agency's Executive Director.

Morley's tack has been to provide donors with regular reports about specific community projects: 'The good thing about this kind of sponsorship is that the people who give us support can get a better handle on what they're doing. If they start to identify with the issue, the next time that debt or the arms trade comes up on TV, they'll start to make connections'.

Despite the faults of child sponsorship agencies, Morley wonders if there isn't a lesson to be learned from them. Stated simply: donors need more involvement than writing a cheque. That means giving the work of fighting child poverty a human face - not that of an individual child - but of a community helping itself.

Research by Susanna Rance in Bolivia, Neerja Chowdhury in India, Peter Laurie in Canada and Saowarop Panyacheewin in Thailand.

Better ways to help
There are more than two million sponsors in developed countries - whose money could probably be spent in better ways. Each donor gives around $20 a month - enough to provide the oral rehydration salts to save 200 children from death through dehydration. The money that is spent on sponsoring a single child for one year could immunize 31 children against the six major child-killer diseases which are diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, tetanus, tuberculosis and measles1. The figures in the chart below are estimates of the total number of children sponsored by the major international sponsorship agencies and the countries where those children live.

Child sponsorship agencies

1 According to UNICEF it takes an average of four packs of oral rehydration salts tat five cents each) to save the life of a dehydrated childit costs around $10 to immunize a child against the major diseases.
2 The sponsors are chiefly in the United Stales. Sponsorship is less significant for other Save the Children Funds.

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New Internationalist issue 194 magazine cover This article is from the April 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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