It wasn’t until late December when I finally mustered up the energy to attempt Christmas shopping. As I walked through a crowded shopping centre, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with other dead-eyed holiday shoppers, I slid past a stall that was selling an unconventional gift. Hanging from a decorative cardboard conifer were the smiling faces of children, waiting for you to use your Christmas generosity on them.
Despite coming under heavy criticism in the 1980s, child sponsorship is still the fundraising model of choice for some of Australia’s largest Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), and for many people, it may be the only way that they encounter the issue of global poverty. In this day and age, child sponsorship acts as nothing more than a marketing and fundraising tool; it bears little resemblance to the challenges we face in 2014 and distracts western audiences from the real issues that are holding back progress in the fight to end poverty. It is not merely outdated and unhelpful, but child sponsorship is actively reinforcing damaging attitudes towards people living in poverty and holding back progress in the fight to end it.
Child sponsorship furthers the disempowerment of the poor by over-simplifying the issues that cause them to live in poverty. By focusing on children, NGOs portray the communities they live in as passive and helpless, perpetuating negative stereotypes about the countries involved and poverty itself. While it is laudable that people want to care for people living in poverty, it is important that this is done through partnership. No one understands the needs of these communities better than the people who live in this community, but by excluding the community’s voice, child sponsorship promotes paternalism rather than partnership.
In the model of child sponsorship, the actions of the donor are given a higher value than the actions of the parents. Donors are shown that their actions are helping to lift a child out of poverty, rather than the efforts of the community. By inviting the donor to feel directly connected to their sponsored child and feel responsibility for the progress that this child makes, NGOs are reducing the agency of the parents and the community.
Parents, especially mothers, who are raising children in poverty are remarkable. They often go hungry themselves in order to feed their children, and work hard to create a future for their children even when things look dire. Despite this, the achievements and struggles of the parents are diminished by western NGOs who choose to focus on children. By excluding parents from the most visible forms of communications about poverty their voices are being further marginalised, and what is worse, by the very people who should be helping them. If NGOs exclude the voice of women and men living in poverty it is even easier for companies and governments to do the same.
Child sponsorship is based on an outdated understanding of what causes poverty. By focusing on starving children, NGOs are asking people to cure the wrong problem. With many of the world’s poorest people living in middle income countries, the problem is not a lack of money or resources. It is a lack of access to these resources and a lack of opportunity that is holding people back. It is not that people are unlucky to live in poverty, it is the behaviour of the rich and powerful that is keeping them there. Development efforts need to focus on ensuring the voice of everyone is heard. Lifting people out of poverty is not about feeding a child but about working together to create a world where every parent can feed their child. It is about making sure that they have fair access to natural resources. It’s about making sure that local communities are supported by good governments who are accountable to the world’s poorest people. Only when NGOs present the right problem can they expect their audience to give them to right answer. If the international NGOs don’t act as a voice for the world’s poorest, who will?
Also important to take into account is the simple fact that the economics don’t stack up – facilitating child sponsorship is a huge expense. A donation could go further and do more good were it not necessary for the organisations to facilitate interactions between the donor and the sponsor child through personal letters and photographs. In doing this, child sponsorship is not meeting the needs of the communities in poverty, but rather the needs of the donor. This is without mentioning the ethics of using photographs of vulnerable and unaccompanied children in marketing materials. At best this is an inefficient use of resources and at worst this is an exploitation of children.
Poor communities need to be heard, but child sponsorship does nothing to give poor people a voice. In fact it undermines much of what international development organisations are trying to say about poverty. Poor communities are being kicked off their land by powerful multinational corporations, forced to work long hours in deplorable conditions for far less than a living-wage and are going hungry because of climate change. Africa loses more every year to tax dodging than they receive in foreign aid.
We have come a long way in the fight to end poverty, but to take the next big steps forward we need to fight damaging stereotypes and allow the voices of poor communities to be heard. A fair and equitable world that cares for everyone can only be created through partnership. By continuing to paint the developing world as passive and needy NGOs are silencing the very people that need more than anything, to be heard.
Disclaimer: James Clark works for an international aid organisation that does not promote child sponsorship. This article does not reflect on or speak for this organisation’s views on the matter.