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.)


  1. Andy Goodliff
    May 10, 2013

    Sam Wells makes the argument that our engagement with poverty is too often shaped around the word ‘for’, when it should, he suggests, be shaped around ‘with’ … ‘with’ being harder, it cuts the distance right down between me and person in poverty, it may in fact establish that I am myself poor and the “poor” person rich … I guess another argument in favour of Compassion is that it attempts to cut down the distance, to establish a relationship, the person being helped has a name and story. See the Wells stuff here: (part of a bigger book project he is working on)

    • steve
      May 10, 2013

      Yeah – that’s the point for me. And actually Compassion’s – strong – insistence on its Christian character helps here, in that the relationships are never merely one way. Our sponsored girls write to our girls and send them Biblical texts and offer prayers; obviously it’s asymmetric, perhaps dangerously so, but there is a two-way relationship.

  2. Tim
    May 10, 2013

    Really valuable contribution to the discussion Steve. Thank you!

  3. James
    May 11, 2013

    As I understand it, Compassion actually fund community projects which benefit all the children in the community, regardless of whether they are sponsored or not. Sponsorship money goes towards that more general funding rather than being focused on a particular child. Of course the letters, cards and other communication are more specific and may have a very positive impact (as the report seems to suggest).

    I may have completely misunderstood how Compassion work though!

    • steve
      May 13, 2013

      Hi James, yes, I think that is right. I suppose the same argument of unfairness could be made though – why are you working in this village/neighbourhood of the city and not the one next door?

      • Barb
        May 13, 2013

        sponsorship money goes to support the child you sponsor by supporting the church project that the child attends. There are unsponsored children that attend while they are waiting for sponsors, but for example, the money I send for my child, Christopher in Soyapango, El Salvador, goes to the church there that provides the program and services for him.

  4. Hayley
    May 13, 2013

    Not exactly James – the community projects you mention would be Compassion’s RESPOND Initiatives ( whereas the centres that sponsored children attend are church-based and the sponsorship money will directly benefit your sponsored child, it’s not pooled into a community school for example. More info here:

    Hope that helps!

  5. Peter Maycock
    May 13, 2013

    Hi Steve, thanks for your blog – always a great read.

    I don’t want to be critical of any particular organisation, but if we want to discuss the ethics of child sponsorship, I think there are a number of issues which have not been raised yet in your discussion here.

    Some of those would be:

    – How much dignity is there in a relationship which begins with a selection from a catalogue of people? What if we were to reverse that scenario and make a catalogue of potential donors, along with a picture/brief biographical details, and allow sponsored children to ‘choose’ their sponsor? Would we be uneasy about that?

    – Where does the power lie in this relationship – either between a sponsor and a child, or (I think more seriously) between an international NGO and local partners/churches? Of course this is going to be an uneven relationship in terms of resource-ownership, but should that matter in kingdom terms? Who decides what happens with those funds/resources? Even assuming that (almost) everyone wants to localise decision-making, this is an increasingly tough issue to address, with UK charity law demanding more and more oversight over how money is spent.

    – Where does the local church fit into the picture (although this may now be straying into theology rather than ethics)? If we arrive with a ‘holistic development’ model, isn’t that what the church should be doing anyway? How might we work to help encourage the local churches to disciple and mentor their young people – to beyond the usual age when child sponsorship ends? How can we avoid the risk of duplicating, or de-skilling, the local church/community leaders?

    – (This last one is not limited to child sponsorship, but applies to all international NGO/relief/mission organisations) How can we do a better job of making sure that our Western financed operations, with our ability to pay great wages and offer good working conditions/benefits etc, don’t strip local churches and communities of leadership talent – especially in the key groups graduating from school and university? Comes down to balances of power again, I think. Very tricky to get right.

    Just some issues – and pointing out that this area isn’t always as straightforward as perhaps we’d like it to be.


    • steve
      May 13, 2013

      Hi Pete,
      Thanks for this.
      This is not an area I’ve thought about a great deal, I admit – I saw the BBC report and wanted to respond. A couple of friends have contacted me privately and suggested some further reading, and I will probably have more to say once I’ve got and read the books they suggested…
      That said:
      1. My take goes something like this: it is a well-established ethical principle that in the case of limited resources, and where priority is difficult to establish, random allocation of the available resources is ethically appropriate. It seems to me from admittedly-brief observation that the actual practice of Compassion – can’t speak of anyone else – effectively produces a random allocation.
      Now, I take your point that this could be different on the other end – kids being told ‘look smart, be regular at church, do well at school, and you will get a sponsor…’ All I can say is that I know people who work for Compassion, who visit the projects on the ground regularly, and I trust that their judgement that what is happening is appropriate.
      (I’d have no problem with switching the choice around, btw. I know Cherish Uganda run a sponsorship programme that hides the sponsorship from the child:
      2. There is always a power imbalance in any charitable relationship, yes. But life is full of power imbalances. As a member of university staff, I have power over my students. I can use that power to gain personal advantage, or to try to encourage and build them up. I try to do the latter, & I hope that at least some of the time I succeed. I cannot imagine a way of donating money that does not create a potential power imbalance; the question is how that is negotiated by the donors and recipients. Again I trust the people we give money too – Compassion; Tearfund; Christian Aid; various missionary agencies – to try as best they can to do this right. Why do I trust them? Because I’ve read their stuff, and know what they are trying to do; I’ve met in every case some of their senior staff, and regard them as competent, thoughtful, and ethical people.
      3. One of the reasons I like the work of Compassion – and indeed Tearfund, who we support with a larger regular donation that we give to Compassion – is that both agencies work to resource and empower local churches in the ways you describe. This of course raises problem 2 above, but…
      4. Yes. Good question. We need to keep asking it. I tend to the view that it is not appropriate to cease giving charitably until we are sure we have a good answer though.

  6. Peter Maycock
    May 14, 2013

    Thanks Steve.

    I appreciate your response. As you point out, a number of these issues are common to all forms of charitable giving, and if we waited for a ‘perfect’ form, we might never give to anything. I certainly wouldn’t want to encourage that kind of thinking – but, once again, it’s good to be aware at some level of some of the issues involved.

    I’ll look forward to hearing any further thoughts you have on this following your recommended reading!


  7. Eddie
    May 30, 2013

    Vinoth Ramchandra gives a ‘local’ view on child sponsorship here,

  8. Hess
    Feb 22, 2014

    I have often wondered myself about sponsorship programs and if they are ethically correct. I believe that as Christians it is a good thing to wrestle with. My conclusion that I have come to is that if your motives are to help someone who has less then you do, why not help a child through an organization like Compassion? God calls us to love. We can show love and care to these children, regardless if we randomly picked up their packet at a concert event or church function. There is nothing un-ethical about loving and helping others when it is within your power to act.

  9. Kaitlyn McNally
    Feb 27, 2014

    I appreciate what was said about the ‘mode’ of helping. It is extremely important to understand the effects on how aid is given. Whole communities can become dependent on churches and outside aid if generosity is not handled correctly. Some people may see sponsorship as creating dependency but I think the motivation and opportunity it provides a child counteracts any effect of dependency sponsorship may have created. I believe this because of the vital aspect of relationship that this article talks about. The relationship one has with the person that is receiving can become a discipleship and supportive role. It automatically includes the child in a supportive community where prayers are a key form of growth. When sponsoring a child, one should not look at it just in the essence of lending aid, but in cultivating a relationship whereby the child will know love, hope, forgiveness, salvation and opportunity.


  1. The Ethics of Child Sponsorship - [...] Category: Child Sponsorship Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister, presently employed to teach theology in St Mary’s College, St Andrews,…

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