I recently began a new job – a programmes role in an international NGO. I was excited to get stuck into the work after the months of job searching that had stretched on a little longer than I was comfortable with. In my first few days in the role I busied myself reading through all the documents I’d need to get myself up to speed on how the organisation works. From time to time while reading through old financial reports or grant applications I came across the word “sponsorship”. I quietly assumed this was in reference to corporate sponsorship that we’d managed to acquire from somewhere – it was only towards the end of my first day that it dawned on me. It referred to child sponsorship. As in, the process of donating money to a specific child in the developing world to aid their education and welfare through a charity that would facilitate occasional correspondence between the donor and recipient.
I was at first a little bit taken aback. That whole form of philanthropy and the condescending mind set that informed it was something I assumed had largely died out over the last decade or two. Despite years of experience working with children in various developing countries and a master’s degree in Global Development it would seem the error was entirely mine. Sponsorship is as popular as ever, it seems, still raking in billions of dollars annually from people whose altruism apparently requires recognition.
In the interests of full disclosure I sponsored a child when I was young. At about age 9 or 10 I convinced my mum to pay for a year’s sponsorship of a person about my age whose name I can’t even remember anymore instead of getting me a birthday present. Cringeworthy as that memory is, I assumed the world had matured in the way it viewed development and poverty since then, in the same way I had in the intervening decades. In the same way that no sane person can believe that “Do they know it’s Christmas time?” was once considered an appropriate sentiment to utter in public let alone to release on record, I assumed we’d left child sponsorship largely behind in the big box of stuff marked “ignorant, reductionist pseudo-colonial bullshit” and gotten on with the task of actually trying to make the world somewhat more equitable by addressing the present day inequalities that we all recognise as symptomatic of historical injustice.
Everything about child sponsorship seems antiquated. From the intellectual underpinning of it that plays into outdated notions of victim and saviour to the limited focus of the donation, funding as it usually does, a narrow scope of education and basic welfare while ignoring the wider range of issues involved in multi-dimensional poverty. Even the mechanics seem outdated, letter writing in an age of Whatsapp.
And these criticisms aren’t new. Problems have been identified with child sponsorship for over 20 years. There is recognition of the flaws of this model and there have been some new approaches that try to address them, namely pooling donations into a community fund to prevent the inevitable inequality and resentment associated with the direct financial links between donors and recipients. But despite these improvements the design clearly remains imperfect. Before we even address the underlying assumptions that lead to stigmatisation and perpetuating myths about the developing world there’s the simple issue of what the process of being sponsored does to a child in terms of framing their own narrative. And how that’s affected if their sponsor decides to end the sponsorship, or doesn’t write as frequently as other children’s sponsors for example. The whole concept seems to work in direct contradiction to the themes of empowerment and partnership that characterise the best development work.
The argument seems to be that this model is better than nothing which is probably true but is that really the barometer we want to measure our actions against when it comes to making the world a fairer and more equitable place?
Inevitably, of course, the practice of child sponsorship remains as widespread and popular as it is because NGOs will adopt the fundraising techniques that brings in the most money. In a world where funding is increasingly scarce and it’s difficult to find ways to engage the public in meaningful discourse about what is most effective, that’s understandable. Sponsorship programs commit donors to a regular, somewhat reliable monthly donation and that can be important in medium term planning. Organisations are on the front line of pressure to find ways to put money into programmes they know will make a difference so they’ll justifiably take whatever course of action is likeliest to secure that cash, even if they see the problems with it as much as anyone (see also: “street fundraisers”/”chuggers”). So in this environment it’s perhaps up to us as individual donors to demand the terms on which we donate. What do we want to buy into with our money? Do we want to contribute to an effective, efficient improvement or do we want to boost our own egos? Would we rather our donations be spent on mailing costs and the recipient’s time be spent on writing sycophantic, formulaic letters to appease our own inflated sense of generosity or would we prefer to start to think more holistically about the role we can play in reducing poverty in all its forms and working towards a more equal future?
Which is not to let the NGOs, including the one I now work for, off the hook. Archaic fundraising practices might still be in use because we can’t think of a better model, but that’s probably our fault for not trying hard enough. Brani Milosevic’s recent articles on the role of digital media in third sector fundraising are timely and poignant. In a time where digital innovation is revolutionising entire industries and sectors, non-profits are still lagging behind, seemingly devoid of the necessary innovation to offer donors the opportunity to move beyond these outdated systems of patronage. For international development practitioners, that means we need to engage donors and recipients in much more of a partnership where what’s being shared isn’t just money, or potentially isn’t even money at all sometimes, but ideas and access to each other and a 21st century version of sponsorship where we don’t create fixed identities into camps of generous benefactor and grateful, helpless victim of poverty. It is this challenge we must rise to – it’s easy to be critical of child sponsorship and other methods of the past, now we need to think about how we offer people on both sides of that donor-recipient divide the chance to define their role in the future.