Please continue to not sponsor this child
Did you know you can design your own child?
If you visit the website of World Vision, Compassion International or almost any other child sponsorship agency, you will be greeted with an assortment of demographics to select from – age, gender, country, even birth date, if you have a special day in mind for your child’s birthday. At every step of the way, you will be assured that you are making a ‘life-changing connection that empowers the child and their community for a future filled with opportunity’.
This ‘design your own’ approach to child sponsorship has barely changed in 40 years.
In May 1982, Peter Stalker wrote a powerful critique of child sponsorship for New Internationalist (NI 111). In it he highlighted that while child sponsorship might be an easy way to raise money, it was not such a good way to spend it. In 1982 there were ‘one million “foster parents” in the West,’ wrote Stalker. By 2022 the number has grown more than 10-fold, while the amount of money raised in the name of child sponsorship is estimated to be more than $3 billion per year. It has become a highly effective global fundraising machine. But in whose interests and at what costs?
I have been researching child sponsorship since 2018 and my advice not to participate is typically met with blank stares or with the retort: ‘Well, isn’t it better than nothing?’ Unfortunately, it’s not.
Since New Internationalist sounded the alarm on child sponsorship four decades ago, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
The same set of misguided motivations for sponsors remains, the same lack of public education around issues of global poverty and inequity and the same level of denial of the role played by the Global North in (re)producing problematic historical patterns of thinking and relationships.
The reasons people become child sponsors are numerous, including donor guilt over their own privilege, the need for a personal connection, the desire to support development, or even a belief that sponsoring a child is apolitical. People are also drawn to child sponsorship for altruistic reasons. But, as geographer Francis Rabbitts observes: ‘Despite the common association of charity with altruism... charitable gifts are shown to be inextricably bound up in webs of reciprocity and relations of power.’ Take the practice of letter-writing between sponsor and child. Back in 1982, Stalker remarked, ‘there’s nothing like writing a regular thank-you letter to keep you in your place’.
For some, motivation is tied up in those glossy photos of children living in poverty – images that tug at a donor’s heartstrings and pull them towards satisfying the yearning for a personal connection with the ‘other’. Carol Sherman, humanitarian and international development consultant, describes the persuasive marketing techniques used for child sponsorship as ‘much like those found on online shopping sites or dating apps’.
There is a belief that child sponsorship, in some way, advances the project of ‘development’ – but that is a project primarily framed by and for the North to make the Global South feel the need to ‘catch up’.
Others are drawn to child sponsorship because they think it is an apolitical way to help innocent victims of chronic poverty. Peter Stalker’s commentary from 1982 is still relevant today: ‘[I]f you need to be inoffensive to the powers-that-be, the chances of promoting constructive change are not high.’ In this case, Stalker continued, ‘the best thing that the sponsor could do is keep their $20.’
Off the hook?
What is often missing from child sponsorship is the essential distinction between charity and justice. By feeding off sponsors’ emotions, agencies avoid a deeper level of engagement with the issue of global poverty, while perpetuating a myth that if we give $30 a month all will be well in the world. As a form of charity, sponsoring a child serves only immediate needs, with no view to producing any kind of long-term change.
‘Charity lets people off the hook by not requiring them to recognize their position within a relationship based on power,’ says Simon Granovsky-Larsen, international development scholar. Agencies do not encourage sponsors to examine their role in global injustice nor do they attempt to reverse or undo the structural conditions that have produced it. Actions based on justice, on the other hand, ‘require a difficult look at who you are, what your role is in imbalanced relationships of power, and how you can act (sometimes at a cost to yourself) to undo the structural conditions that have produced that injustice’, summarizes Granovsky-Larsen.
Plastered across the websites and promotional materials of child sponsorship agencies are slogans like ‘make a difference’, ‘personally rescue’ and ‘save a life’. Yet, the materials seldom, if ever, provide a deeper analysis of the interrelated injustices and inequities, or the role played by the North in producing and reproducing them. Instead, child sponsorship agencies continue to frame the ‘other’ as lacking, backward, inferior, and longing for the standards of the North.
A number of critiques of child sponsorship refer to it as a form of paternalism, racism or white saviourism. In response, some agencies are striving to address these issues. For example, World Vision’s website includes a list of frequently asked questions, most emphasizing typical sponsor concerns about where the money goes and why to become a sponsor. But they also include questions such as: ‘Aren’t there better ways to raise money for children in poverty, which don’t “reinforce paternalism”?’ The answer World Vision provides, however, fails to educate a potential sponsor about the complexities of global poverty or their role in it: ‘We wish the world was just and equitable, and that everyone had the same chances to thrive. However, some of us have been born into countries and circumstances that give us advantages that others do not have.’
To position the global poverty discourse as simply a case of being fortunate or unfortunate utterly disregards the role played by the North in producing and sustaining the conditions of the South, for example, structural adjustment programs, foreign policies, and global trade regimes. Viewing the global poverty discourse through a fortunate/unfortunate lens takes people in wealthier countries out of the power relationship and reproduces problematic historical patterns of thinking and relationships.
Child sponsorship is highly successful at escaping questioning and reproach because it is viewed as a ‘well-intentioned’ and benevolent act on the part of ‘good people’ who want to ‘help’. Failure to ask sponsors to think and act differently and to challenge their present comfortable role as well-intentioned, good people, is an example of a problematic pattern of thinking.
Orientating towards justice
Before I began research into child sponsorship, I was unable to articulate why I was uncomfortable with the idea. Several participants in my research study grappled with similar feelings. ‘We’re not asking the right questions, and we’re not doing the right thing. We should be putting much more pressure on working with the government and local institutions to strengthen systems and policies, rather than child sponsorship,’ argues Sherman.
Back in 1982, Peter Stalker grappled with the issue of whether child sponsorship was ‘better than nothing,’ recognizing that ‘there are people who give to sponsorship agencies who would give on no other terms’. This led him to ask if child sponsorship aid could have some role to play, despite its defects and negative impacts. The answer, 40 years ago and now, is no – tinkering with existing models is not good enough. Although child sponsorship agencies have evolved – from reconsidering letter writing, highlighting community work done with some of the funds raised, or in a few cases by eliminating the ‘online shopping’ experience of selecting a child – programmes fail to be justice-orientated. ‘Child sponsorship is never going to be the solution to the problem. And I think the faster we realize that, and change our core assumptions, the better off we’ll be,’ urges sociology professor Peter Ove.
Instead, we need to take actions based on global justice by engaging with and supporting organizations that run education and advocacy programmes, while raising funds to directly support the work of their partners in the Global South. For example, Development and Peace Caritas Canada (DPCC) works with partners in the Global South on ecological justice, democracy, citizen participation, and peace and reconciliation, in addition to mobilizing Canadians and educating them on the root causes of global poverty. ‘An analysis of global poverty leads us to see the integrated nature of the response that is needed [and to] seeing that the poverty of our brothers and sisters in the Global South is linked to systems that are also linked to our own wealth in the industrialized world,’ explains Luke Stocking, a deputy director for DPCC.
We can support and act in solidarity with grassroots groups and campaigns for change around the world, while putting pressure on our governments to shape policies and laws. This can take a number of forms: exercising one’s right to vote with a global citizenship lens; supporting NGOs which promote a change in foreign aid conditions; participating in civil engagement and divestment actions to make accountable those companies engaged in extractive projects linked to violence and harm in local communities in the Global South.
Child sponsorship is a simplistic non-solution to complex issues. Here, I return to the 40-year-old words of Peter Stalker: ‘Alleviating the problems of the poor is one thing. But solving them involves much more difficult choices.’
The author wishes to acknowledge all the research participants who were interviewed for the research study named above.
Kathleen Nolan is a Professor in the Faculty Of Education at the University of Regina, Canada. Her interest in global justice and international development led her to conduct research into child sponsorship, specifically her study entitled, engaging the public in critical and justice-oriented global actions: moving beyond child sponsorship.