Being critical doesn’t come naturally to me – an optimist whose proverbial glass is nearly always half-full. And yet this is exactly what I’ve become on the matter of child sponsorship programs. I suppose it’s counter-intuitive because I serve in leadership for an organization that works with thousands of students around the world and I’m familiar with the research that supports the usefulness of these programs, both for those giving and those receiving. With databases full of pictures of children, many happy and some sad, we at EduDeo Ministries could implement a child sponsorship program at a moment’s notice. But we won’t, and in what follows I want to enumerate some of the reasons why.
Culture and community
First, child sponsorship programs are products of our North American culture of individualism. This point won’t be lost on those reading this article on their iPhones, a symbol of our privatized lives. We’ve lost a sense of living for and with others, so much so that we have much to learn about community from those in the majority world. The child sponsorship model caters to this individualism, elevating one child above the rest (some programs even allow you to “shop” for the cutest child on the website or in the catalogue). One child is chosen, i.e., isolated, to receive special assistance and attention. The irony in this cannot be missed. Most countries on the receiving end of this funding are highly communal, and these types of sponsorship practices not only violate their cultural norms but alter their societal welfare. Though the expectation is that children who are chosen to receive sponsorship return and help their communities, this is often not the case. The exclusionary aspect of child sponsorship often has an immediate adverse impact on culture and community change.
Blessing with dignity
Second, child sponsorship programs have potential to produce in sponsors what might be termed a Messiah-complex – the sense that the blessings we enjoy make us superior to others and able to help those who are inferior. The fallacy here is both logical and theological and we must never confuse being blessed (what we have received) with being superior (who we are). We are not the saviours to those little kids who lack the precise blessings we enjoy. Our money lacks redemptive power, and these children will not die without our support. We need to devise ways to acknowledge the dignity of those we help, to leave the power of solutions in community, and to deliver us from Messiah-complexes.
Marketing and administration
Third, the true function of child sponsorship programs is often coloured by marketing strategies. Healthy international development doesn’t always agree with effective marketing. Donors are led to believe their funds are going directly to Juan or Sally when in reality they are going to fund programs that Sally and Juan may access. Many organizations hide this reality, sometimes behind small font.
Fourth, the administrative support required for operating a child sponsorship program effectively is immense. Administrative support is required here in Canadian offices (and every organization admittedly needs some administrative support), but the greater challenge is the support required elsewhere, in distant countries. The work involved in ensuring that kids are writing letters and the time it takes to update pictures are both enormous. Moreover, so many of our international partners, limited as they are in funding, lack strong organizational capacity, and we must always be cautious to not send more funds than they can responsibly administer. The money required to fund this labour-intensive, time-consuming activity is best spent elsewhere.
Power to effect change
EduDeo Ministries has opted for a different sponsorship program that, like others, is also a monthly program, but it promotes partnership at a community level. We have long-term, committed relationships with partners in developing countries and work closely with them to identify the most effective areas for support. Sponsorship provides them with funding for training and salaries for teachers, teaching resources and materials and scholarships for vulnerable children. This ensures that their schools provide excellent Christian education while remaining accessible to families living in poverty. The objective still lies in individually transformed hearts, but it leaves the power in the hands of the communities, and the ability to effect change for the most children possible.
Education for transformation
Why is this important? Education is the best development investment you can make, generating an astonishing cycle of transformation. Children are the leaders of tomorrow and quality education enables and equips them to become strong leaders. Infusing the life-changing message of the gospel into this already powerful medium transforms them – and their families and communities – for eternity!
Child sponsorship has its benefits, but it comes with deep issues and severe consequences. If it was the only way to assist children across the majority world, the issues involved could be mitigated. If we set aside our preferences, and allow for communities and children to come first when we consider how to support our family globally, we can see that there are better alternatives. We may not feel the personal connection as deeply when we send funds to allow indigenous partners to make the decisions where the funds are most needed, but our personal connection is not what matters most. What matters most is that God’s word is being spread, and that we are doing our part to support the transformation of many hearts.