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It’s time to end aid agency child sponsorship schemes

‘NGOs who still use vulnerable children to raise money need to wean themselves off this model immediately or be shunned.’

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International child sponsorship programmes perpetuate racist and paternalistic thinking. Any benefit they have for families and communities must be weighed against the harm they do and the invidious power relations they reinforce. 

NGOs who still use vulnerable children to raise money need to wean themselves off this model immediately or be shunned. Just tweaking the child sponsorship model, which some leading charities are now doing, isn’t good enough. 

READ MORE: What are child sponsorship programmes?

In such programmes, a sponsor pays regular contributions to a charity and is given details about an individual child who will benefit from their donations.

International NGOs like World Vision and Save the Children sponsor millions of children each year, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the organisations.

Updates, letters – sometimes photos – are delivered via the charity to reinforce the connection to the child for the giver. In practice, the donations are typically used for development projects with an impact much wider than a single family.

Leaders across the aid sector are engaging in discussions like never before to end racist and paternalistic practices. Business models that smack of colonialism or “white saviour” mentalities are losing favour to those that shift more power to the Global South.

Despite these shifts, child sponsorship schemes are still popular today, and many INGOs are reluctant to give up these multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns for fear of losing income. In 2019, World Vision globally reported sponsoring 3.4 million children, through its overall annual spending of around $2.1 billion, while Plan International raised approximately $436 million directly from sponsorship donations, 40 percent of its income in 2020. Another international NGO, Compassion, sponsored 1.9 million children last year, with $755 million of its annual income raised through this programme.

Having worked in the aid sector as a senior director for over 20 years, I both directly managed and came in close contact with child sponsorship programmes. In all my experiences, conversations centred on caseloads, cutting administrative costs, and the quality of communications from the child. Never did we discuss the ways these programmes perpetuate a white saviour mentality, are paternalistic, and commodify children – all while serving to make those in the Global North feel good about themselves by providing a relatively inexpensive way to “make a difference”.

Millions of well-intentioned individuals who sponsor children are unaware that child sponsorship feeds into asymmetrical power relations of development, wherein “blackness embodies poverty and ignorance and whiteness signals wealth, knowledge, and the bringer of aid”. Many are kept out of the knowledge loop by being continually fed with good news stories by the agencies who run the programmes.

This moment of re-imagining aid should provide the opportunity for an honest and principled re-evaluation of child sponsorship, which remains a fundraising jewel due to its reliability in achieving regular private giving.

How and why it works

Proponents of child sponsorship note the person-to-person aspect can create a genuine sense of shared humanity. And I have personally seen many community projects that have benefited thousands of children through sponsorship funds used to build schools, provide educational materials, train pre-school teachers, and equip community health workers. I have even met with former sponsored children who have formed alumni to now help others.

A study commissioned by Plan International through RMIT University showed child sponsorship benefits included higher likelihood of birth registrations, school attendance, access to clean water, and general health and social well-being. While all this is good news, it doesn’t outweigh the many drawbacks to these programmes.

Child sponsorship advertisements promise a one-to-one connection between donor and child as a drawcard to attract money. Save the Children tells us child sponsorship is a “wonderful way to spread joy through a family including our own”, while ChildFund encourages us to be part of the sponsored child’s life. All promote individual letter-writing, with many allowing visits and gifts to be sent to children. 

Millions of well-intentioned individuals who sponsor children are unaware that child sponsorship feeds into asymmetrical power relations of development.

Marketing techniques much like those found on online shopping sites or dating apps call up thousands of images of children with a swipe of the screen. The child’s photo and a short story of a life lived in poverty, coupled with promises that our contributions will help to sustainably benefit the child’s entire community, are persuasive.

Whether I hover my mouse over Compassion’s extensive portfolio with “Choose Me” emblazoned across the child’s chest or just punch in my credit card number to get more information of the child once paid up, at its core, child sponsorship programmes are remarkably alike. They offer the personal: exchanges of letters, photos, and a long-term connection that allows the sponsor an intimate view into a child’s life as their parents struggle to provide for them.

Organisations vow that the dignity of each child is assured, yet these popular programmes continue to promote an age-old stereotyped North-South divide, where contributions from the North help to save the day and where the donor is massaged by the feel-good connection sold to them for a monthly fee. Communities in the Global South too often have few alternative choices but to accept this type of charitable funding from sponsors from afar who invariably display a picture of “their” child next to their own family members.

Changing models is not enough

World Vision International, one of the largest Christian INGOs, with millions of registered sponsored children, recently attempted to turn sponsorship on its head by allowing the child to choose their sponsor. Its new-era sponsorship programme claims it is giving the child agency and power through providing them with a choice. Perhaps it is also symbolically making a point that children living in poverty are not a problem to fix, but a mutually beneficial relationship to be had. Nonetheless, tweaking the language to focus on empowerment and children choosing sponsors does not change the fundamental paternalistic and unequal power dynamics.

Marketing techniques much like those found on online shopping sites or dating apps call up thousands of images of children with a swipe of the screen.

Problems of stigmatisation and the divisive impact from only certain children being sponsored in areas where poverty and underprivilege is endemic made other INGOs change their models to one where sponsorship funds are pooled for community projects.

That hasn’t stopped the marketing of thousands of individual children to raise these sponsorship funds, often because the donor wants to see the difference it has made to the life of the child it funds. Pooling funds for community projects rather than focusing on individual children has allowed more children and their families to benefit, and INGOs have been able to educate their donors to support this change. But it doesn’t change the fact that the programme exploits children to raise money for its development work. 

It is within the power of INGOs who run such programmes to vigorously explore new fundraising initiatives to connect and support wide-ranging locally led programmes developed in the Global South. It is time for the computer clicks on that vulnerable little boy behind the “Choose Me” slogan to fade into the history of a former time.

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