The Ethics of Child Sponsorship
The BBC has a report today under the title ‘Is child sponsorship ethical?’ highlighting Wydick, Glewwe & Rutledge’s recent study in the JPE on the effects of child sponsorship, specifically through Compassion International, on adult outcomes.
The headline is surprising: Wydick et al. investigated the effectiveness of child sponsorship, not its ethics – and found that it is a remarkably effective form of intervention when compared to other types of aid programme. They propose that a (demonstrable) raising of the aspirations of the children sponsored is the key causal factor, although they acknowledge that this causation has not been established (this is my summary of the conclusion of the paper).
So the research the BBC report highlights asks ‘does it work?’ and answers ‘yes – surprisingly well’; the question ‘is it right?’ (ethics…) is a completely different one. There are many effective interventions that are unethical (in various ways – literacy; infrastructure; … – colonialism was pretty effective!) – and many perfectly ethical interventions that are fairly ineffective. The only ethical question actually raised appears to be in this paragraph of the BBC report:
But critics of this form of child sponsorship argue it is unfair and discriminatory; while one child is helped others in the community are left behind.
The argument is that child sponsorship is an inevitably selective form of charity, and such selectivity is unethical. Is this a good argument? It seems to me not, and fairly clearly so. Let me offer an analogy: suppose I was desired to give some money to support higher education in the UK; is it more ethical to divide that money equally between all universities, or to give a large sum to just one? As far as I can see, I am at liberty to do either, ethically speaking. Again – and more strongly – suppose I am trained in first aid and arrive quickly at the site of a train crash, where there are dozens of injured people. Should I attempt to split my time equally between them, or should I help one until she is stable and then move on to the next? I think we all know the answer to that one…
The fact is, with finite resources, we often cannot help everybody; this is never a good reason not to help anybody. The result will, in some sense, be ‘unfair’ – one person will be helped and another not, for no good reason, but that’s OK, ethically speaking.
Now, if a particular child sponsorship programme were in fact ‘discriminatory’ it would be a different matter. To sponsor only boys, or members of one ethic group in a mixed area, or Muslims but not Christians, would be unethical (unless there was good reason for the decision – the ethnic group being sponsored being historically underprivileged or similar). But random choices are not discriminatory, pretty much by definition, and I take it that, by the time all the different factors are rolled together, the choice of which children in a community find sponsors is a fairly close approximation to random.
(For example, when we chose the two children we sponsor we were looking at a selection of cards put out on a Compassion stand at Spring Harvest, which selection was I suppose fairly random to begin with; we looked for two girls the same age as our older two daughters, so that they could be penfriends; someone else I overheard looking for a particular country which she had long had a prayer burden for; a hundred reasons like this turn into random selection.)
I think we can say more than this, though. Wydick, et al., suggest that the personal intervention is crucial to the surprising effectiveness of sponsorship; it is also an antidote to the biggest ethical problem around charitable fundraising for relief and development in the UK at present, what has been called ‘poverty pornography‘. The most effective way to raise money for aid/development is graphic and harrowing pictures of starving or sick children, seemingly alone, in visibly horrific conditions. But of course such images give a completely false impression of reality, and objectify the people being helped. This is unethical, but effective. (Actually, if BBC journalists want to talk about the ethics of charitable fundraising, they might look again at the mawkish videos of One Direction in a malaria hospital that led the Comic Relief campaign this year: rich Western white men talking to camera about how awful life in Africa looks from their 2 hour acquaintance; poor black African women and girls (mainly) suffering silently in the background as objects, voiceless illustrations of what the rich white guy is saying…)
How do you overcome this problem, and yet maintain the level of human concern that the mawkish videos unquestionably generate? By humanising the problem. By putting people in touch with people, in real and genuine ways. And this is what child sponsorship does. I have no problem with supporting generic relief and development work (and we give more to other charities working in this area each year than we do to Compassion in sponsorship); but it matters to me that in a couple of cases I am not thinking about ‘poor people’ – I am thinking about Karen, and Jennivieve – and Karen’s grandmother, Doris, who is sick just now, and so on…
I read once in a Tearfund magazine a reflection on the fact that the only character in Jesus’s parables who has a name is a poor beggar called Lazarus. The writer suggested that there is something very Christian about caring for people, not just for situations, and that the test of your care for people is whether you know them by name. Christian charity is always deeply personal – St Francis, kissing the leper, remains the iconic image, but there are many, many others. There is, it seems to me, something deeply Christian about child sponsorship as a mode of delivering aid and development. It is about genuine relationship, about love; it as close as I can get to face to face care.
(I should admit to some level of interest here: as I noted, we sponsor two children through Compassion UK; I have friends who work for the organisation, and I had the privilege of meeting and praying with Wess Stafford, the president of Compassion International, earlier this year. My friend Vicky Beeching is a Compassion ambassador, and has also written about the BBC report on the Compassion UK website here.)