Rob Radtke, the president of Episcopal Relief and Development, has started a rather interesting discussion of child sponsorship on his blog. Although this method of fundaraising is effective (see my earlier reflections on Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save), there are several reasons why such an approach is not ideal.
Radtke offers four reasons for pause: 1) The focus should be on communities, not individuals; 2) Sponsorships run the risk of commodifying children; 3) Such a model is not sustainable and can create a relationship of dependency; and 4) Motives are often mixed (Radtke asks, “Do we want to do good or do we want to feel good?”).
ELCA World Hunger, like ERD, does not offer a child sponsorship program, for many of the reasons that Radtke lists as problematic. I should be clear, too, that I am personally uncomfortable with the idea. That said, I would like to push back a bit on the arguments against child sponsorship. I will do so by asking questions. I hope to spur some conversation so please feel free to comment and offer your insight.
First, what does it mean to say that the focus should be on communities? Effective agencies like ELCA World Hunger and ERD are effective precisely because they focus on communities. Would our work be seriously hampered if we generated support for individuals while still maintaining our commitment on the ground to communities?
Second, is commodification of children really a risk? If so, how? Maybe I trust too much in the benevolence of aid agencies and people who sponsor children, but is there really a sense that these kids are purchased or owned? Would an aid agency that uses this model really be so self-interested that it would see kids as a means to its ends? I understand how this may be a threat, but is it real or simply perceived?
Third, the sustainablility issue looms large. But is not this a threat to all our work? Aren’t all our projects dependent upon sustained interest and support? As to the dependency issue, are the communities supported by child sponsorship somehow more dependent than the communities supported by other means (like our Good Gifts)?
Fourth, is there really any truly altruistic deed? Mixed motives abound in all forms of philanthropy. Even finding joy in giving out of the right motives is a mixed motive.
I write these questions partly as the devil’s advocate, partly as a pragmatist. The fact is that there is a lot of need out there and child sponsorship can be an effective tool for mobilizing people and resources. How often does wanting to do it right lead to inaction? (And yes, I know that action ill-conceived can do far more harm than no action at all–but I really don’t think that will be a problem for ELCA World Hunger.)
Photo (c) 2009, Chris Mortenson