Child Sponsorship– is it pornography of poverty?

In the Evangelical Christian community (of which I am a proud member), child sponsorship is a common practice of engaging with issues of poverty internationally.  Child sponsorship is pretty simple—you pay a fee every month ($25-$35) and you provide financial assistance to a child in a developing country.  The child is able to stay in school, have medical care, and access to fresh drinking water. For a few years in high school, my family sponsored a young woman in Zambia—Alice.  Alice dropped out of school after the 8th grade and so our sponsorship ended. That instance made me think that sponsorship may not be all that effective in the long run, especially as much of the rhetoric surrounding sponsorship is of “creating future leaders.”

As I have heard radio ads this season urging me to sponsor a child, I wanted to see what effectiveness of child sponsorship was. I did a little research and this is what I found:

1)      Child sponsorship improved educational outcomes.  An article in the Journal of Political Economy concluded that educational attainment increases across the board for children in child sponsorship programs.  They noted however, that the educational gains are larger in countries with lower baseline outcomes.  Additionally, in countries where the baseline for education is higher for boys, sponsorship has a bigger impact on girls and the opposite is true for boys.

2)      Improved long-term quality of life: sponsorship increased the probability completing secondary school by 27%–40%, achieving a university education by 50%–80%, and obtaining a white-collar job as an adult by about 35%. (Source: Denver Post).

It seems like there are clear benefits of child sponsorship.  So that means that it is a great development program and one that we should all follow?…Not necessarily.

Last week driving back to Champaign, I turned on a local radio station and the radio was spending the morning encouraging people to sign up to be child sponsors.  The conversation quickly reminded me of an auction, and I became very uncomfortable.  The announcers were describing children in detail such as: “You can sponsor Manuel from Boliva. He is 5 years old. He does not attend school.  Both of his parents work- his father outside of the home and his mother in the home.  He helps around the house by caring for his younger brother and making beds.  He has been waiting for a sponsor for 354 days. Gosh, Manuel is such a cute kid. You can log-on our website and see a photo of him.”  This process continued on my two-hour drive and it continues on the station today as they try to get sponsors for these children.  So, what upset me about this encounter.

1)      Selectivity: I appreciate that the organization was trying to allow people to connect to the children that they wanted to sponsor.  If I were to do a child sponsorship, I know that I would connect far more to a kid from Eastern Europe than a kid from Boliva.  That said, this type of organizing makes the sponsorship quickly turn into a popularity contest or a destitute contest.  Children who either look the most hungry or those who are the cutest are often selected first.  This is similar to the issue of poverty pornography—where we are selecting the image that we want to see of these children.

2)      Lack of privacy:  Imagine for a moment if details about your life were read on the radio in Boliva.  “Juliana is a 25 year old Masters Student.  Both of her parents work.  She lives with four other women, and she helps around the house by cooking and cleaning. Her birthday is June 13.  Go to our website to view a photo of her.”  I understand the desire of these programs to foster a connection between donors and children, but I have difficulty accepting the amount of details that are given and how publicly.  When a family signs up for the program, I doubt that they are able to understand the amount of personal details that will be shared with little discrimination across the world.  In the child sponsorship program which my family participated in, we also received Alice’s grades.  Did we really need to know what her marks were in every subject?  That is very personal information…but it is what is freely given through these programs.


Other issues:

1)      The focus on an individual (rather than community development) means that an agency gets to decide who benefit and who looses.  The NGO is yielding significant power in terms of determining the future of individuals.  Additionally, this focus on the individual can cause rifts and feuds within families and communities as not all of the children are sponsored.  See more here.

2)      Racism/ Cultural stereotypes: These programs are meant to engage individuals one-on-one with each other to create some level of cultural understanding.  However, these programs all too often emphasize the poverty of individuals, rather than looking at the systems that cause them.

As I have thought about this issue of child sponsorship, I can’t help but think about the pornography of poverty.  Where organizations exploit images of children for their financial gain.  Many argue that  child sponsorship is not a pornography of poverty because these programs often  are not money makers for the organizations– the majority (if not 100%) of the donations are passed onto the children.  I believe, however, that at the point that you are able to select the child and a particular image is in play that it is a commodification of the child.  The child (a PERSON!) who is directly affected by poverty becomes the object of aid– they become the object of someone doing something to help.  The child may or may not be viewed as human, but rather something in need of saving.

This issue of child sponsorship is a clear example of many of the issues that we have explored over the course of this semester.  This is an issue where people are doing work which is improving the lives of individuals, but it is coming at a cost. Does that mean that you shouldn’t do it?  At what point are the benefits of quality of life outweighed by factors like racism or a loss of privacy?    It illustrates why we need to have a dialectical view of development and planning issues.  What’s that you ask? Well, stay tuned for my next blog post!  




One thought on “Child Sponsorship– is it pornography of poverty?

  1. Wow. Good stuff, Juliana! I’ve never thought about child sponsorship in this manner before. It seems like a good idea and something that does good, but the way some organizations approach it does raise some red flags. This begs the question, though, of what CAN one actually do??? It seems that any an every means of doing good is tainted in some manner… Idk. It’s a tough one. Great piece though 🙂

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