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...

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Queer Hippo: musings on human sexuality

[This is a ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ post: the ideas have been in my head for several years, and I’ve been wondering what, if anything, to do with them. Then I thought of the title, and just had to publish somewhere. There’s a book here – I’d be interested to know if readers of the blog think I should write it.] The debate on human sexuality as it is being conducted in every Western denomination of which I am aware is being conducted badly. An assumption is shared by both sides of the argument, an assumption which would be denied, on the one hand, by contemporary queer theory, and on the other by the ethical reflections of the greatest bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. This post is about the things that queer theory and Christian ethics in the tradition of St Augustine meet and agree on – they do not agree about everything, but they do about a surprising amount. At the level of denominational politics (there are exceptions, I know, but their voices are not being heard in the denominations as far as I can see), the debate on human sexuality in Western denominations is being conducted on the grounds of ‘what is normal’: is heterosexual monogamy the only pattern of sexual expression that is ‘normal’? (In which case the ministry and the blessing of the church should be restricted to traditional western marriage.) Or, is it ‘normal’ also to be gay or lesbian? (In which case people committed to faithful and exclusive gay/lesbian relationships should be accepted as ministers of the church, and such relationships should be blessed.) From the perspective of contemporary queer theory, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. From the perspective of St Augustine’s sexual ethic, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. Let’s start with queer theory; here we need to look at Judith Butler’s developments of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault demonstrated (with extensive boring empirical/historical evidence of the sort a postmodern icon is not really supposed to collect, but then Foucault, like Derrida, was always considerably more intelligent than those who defined the category of ‘contemporary postmodern icon’…) that modern Western constructions of sexuality are, well, modern and Western. Prior to Freud and Wilde, no-one considered themselves to be heterosexual or gay or lesbian, or behaved as if they did. Same-sex attraction and action was routine, of course, but there was no sense that a man attracted to men should therefore be less attracted to women. Equally, other mores were at work in other times and other places. Famously, in ancient Greece, ‘normal’ sexual attraction for a man (who was a member of the culturally dominant class) involved being attracted both to a wife and to one or several young male apprentices; in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, polygamy was normal; almost endless other constructions of sexuality can be found in history and across the world today. On this basis, Foucault proposed that sexual identity is socially constructed. Our culture offers us certain permissible (‘normal’) ways of regulating our sexual desires, and there is a powerful, for most overwhelming, cultural pressure on us to conform to one or another of the permissible options; the permissible options, however – the accounts of what is normal – vary from culture to culture. Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, analysed how this social construction happens in our Western culture, and proposed that we established as ‘normal’ a link between (biologically determined) sex, (culturally constructed) gender, and sexual desire. Successful inhabiting of the culture involves (amongst many other things, of course) constructing a gender identity which conforms to culturally-determined accounts of what is proper to your biological sex (becoming ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’), and regulating your sexual desires in accord with that identity: manly men desire feminine women, and vice-versa. Butler proposes a strategy of resistance: the conscious and public adoption of non-standard gender identities, to expose and disempower the cultural hegemony that controls us. (Of course, Butler wrote over two decades ago. In many of the subcultures that make up Western culture gay and lesbian identities are now accepted as ‘normal’, and to conform to those identities is an equally successful way of inhabiting the culture. This is not to deny, and certainly not to excuse, the homophobia that still exists in many places, but it is to recognise that in the culturally-dominant discourses in the West, homophobia is now – rightly, of course – unacceptable. It wasn’t when I was a child.) I...

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