World Vision, an evangelical aid organization that allows Christians in the U.S. to financially sponsor children in needy countries, has made a change I find fascinating. Traditionally, World Vision’s sponsors have chosen the child they want to sponsor, flipping though a stack of photographs to pick a child. World Vision has flipped the script, snapping photos of American families that want to sponsor a child, and asking children in needy villages sort through photographs to choose a sponsor.
World Vision describes its move as follows:
The goal is to empower children, letting them make the first of many choices during their sponsorship. “We are simply expressing what we believe in a new and fresh way,” Edgar Sandoval, president of World Vision US, told CT. “We are working to empower them to be agents of change.”
I have reservations about the sponsorship model, especially when sponsors tend to be white and sponsored children tend to be black and brown. There’s a level of imperialism that plays out forging individual financial relationships between wealthy white westerners and needy minority children in developing nations. Consider, too, that the white evangelicals who typically make up the bulk of those who sponsor children through World Vision and related organizations also voted en masses for Donald Trump. As a general rule, they oppose allowing children like those they sponsor to come to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees.
There are also full books written about effective altruism, and if I had to guess, individual child sponsorship is probably not the most effective way to improve overall wellbeing in developing nations, by dollar value.
This move, though, appears to be born out of World Vision’s increasing understanding of the role power dynamics in play in the relationships its model forges, and as much as I have questions about that model, I respect their move.
As Christianity Today explains it:
Almost 1,000 children in rural Guatemala gained sponsors this month from a megachurch in southern Indiana.
But in this case, it was the indigenous children in need who pondered photos of smiling faces and chose one they felt a connection with. And it was the adult donors in the United States who nervously waited, wondering who would pick them.
Having the sponsors wait and wonder who would choose them—and putting the choice in the hands of the sponsored children—is a small change that could make a big difference in how westerners approach the program. It would mean that American church-goers who sponsor a child no longer start by shopping for children.
That said, World Vision does go out of its way to emphasize that this new system will make American sponsors feel special, which feels like an odd focus. Have a look, from the same Christianity Today article above:
The [number of church members who signed up under the new system] is a marked increase in participation compared to the standard pitches for sponsors that World Vision has long made at churches, concerts, and other venues. Sandoval said through the new Chosen intake method, participants have experienced “a new level of joy” and “a sense of a closer mutual partnership from the beginning.”
At another trial run in February, more than 430 children in Mwala, Kenya, chose sponsors from a downtown Chicago church. “Our congregation has been transformed by the process of being chosen,” stated Jeanne Stevens, pastor of Soul City Church in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, in a World Vision release.
The article barely touches on how this new process has changed the experience for children being sponsored, focusing instead on how it has made American sponsors feel. And guess what! According to the article, the change has had lots of positive outcomes for American sponsors! Being chosen has made them feel special! It has given them a new level of joy! There’s no consideration given in the article to how or whether the change has actually helped sponsors rethink the dynamics at play.
It’s hard to tell how much if this is World Vision, and how much of it is Christianity Today‘s spin.
However a program is conducted, individual child sponsorship will always be at least in part about helping westerners feel something. That may not be entirely a bad thing. When I was a child, we sponsored two children, one from Indonesia and one from Kenya. We had their photos on the fridge. I still remember their names. We wrote to them, and they wrote to us, and we prayed for them every day. Sponsoring these children made me feel connected with people and places around the world.
As I was composing this article, I came upon Christianity Today‘s coverage of a research study on the effectiveness of Compassion International, conducted by two graduate students. They compared 188 sponsored children in Uganda with older siblings who had been too old for sponsorship (when Compassion went into a new village, they only sponsored children who were under 12). The graduate students found that sponsored children had a higher level of educational attainment. The conclusion, according to both the researchers and Christianity Today, is that child sponsorship works.
The results in our other five countries confirm the positive impact of Compassion’s child-sponsorship program in Uganda. In all six countries, we find that sponsorship results in better educational outcomes for children. Overall, sponsorship makes children 27 to 40 percent more likely to complete secondary school, and 50 to 80 percent more likely to complete a university education.
I’m kind of flummoxed by this finding. Of course kids would go further in school, that’s the whole point of the sponsorships—they pay the students’ school fees, and for uniforms. That’s where we were always told the money was going! I want to know about other things. For example: What problems are created by having only one child in a family sponsored, and not their siblings? Or, would the money have been more effective if it were spent on the community, perhaps to make school accessible to all students?
I’m not satisfied with the vary narrow questions this study asked. Also, when Compassion first agreed to this study, they only agreed on the condition of maintaining the anonymity of the organization being studied. After the results were in—showing that sponsored students stayed in school longer—they asked for that anonymity to be raised. If they cared so very much about the actual effectiveness of their program, one suspects they would not have asked for anonymity in the first place.
In 2017, Compassion International was forced to cease its operations in India. The Indian government argued that Compassion was carrying out religious activities—i.e. conversions and the funding of evangelism—that it was not registered for. Compassion argued that the government was engaging in anti-Christian discrimination, which is plausible, given the country’s shift toward Hindu nationalism in recent years. (To what extent does Compassion push Christianity on sponsored children?)
World Vision’s model, by the way, is different. While American families sponsor individual children, the money goes to benefit the community as a whole. When World Vision goes into a community, they listen to local leaders and create a plan for meeting the community’s needs, whether that’s more effective water access or school facilities or better seeds or planting techniques. They find American sponsors for the community’s children, but the money goes to put the plan into action for the whole community. The idea is that this development will help the community to become a better overall place for children to grow up in.
I like World Vision’s model a lot better. In their model, individual child sponsorship seems to exist primarily as a gimmick to get American evangelicals to donate. But it also avoids problems associated with Compassion’s model, such as questions of whether there are tensions between families that have a sponsored child and those that don’t, or problems between siblings when one is sponsored while the other, without sponsorship, is expected to drop out and work.
I didn’t start this post to engage in a lengthy discussion of child sponsorship, though. My intent was simply to signal my appreciation that World Vision’s new experiment. Perhaps their emphasis on the benefit to sponsors in having children choose is more about ensuring that evangelical churches will accept the change than anything else. It is World Vision, and not Compassion International, that consistently uses the language of empowering children. Maybe that’s truly the intent?
It’s also possible that World Vision is simply trying to save its model, during a period of increasing recognition and criticism of the imperialism impeded in its child sponsorship model, as well as increasing awareness of the negative side effects child sponsorship can have on local communities. The whole thing, in other words, could well be itself a marketing gimmick. If that is the case, it at least shows the growing noise made by critics of problematic charity practices? (I promise I can find a silver lining somewhere.)
As a final note, this post is not an ad for World Vision—and also, child sponsorship can create problems even if the money goes toward the community as the whole and not just the individual child. There are better ways to support communities, and it’s important to look for charities that collaborate with—or are run by!—those who live in a developing region, and not by foreign outsiders. For a look at criticism of World Vision—including its advertising and marketing of poverty—see this article.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!