(The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Baptist World Aid Australia)

Sponsoring a child from a poor family in the developing world is one of the most common ways Australians respond to poverty. Child sponsorship appeals to our relational nature, provides a concrete focus for our giving, assures us that our money is making a difference, and draws on our compassion for the most vulnerable. But many agencies have dramatically changed the ways they implement child sponsorship programs and the change is for the good.

Where it all began…

Child sponsorship programs emerged after WW2 and usually focused on education. This was a time when most developing countries were unable to provide free education to their children. Sponsorship filled the gap by enabling parents too poor to afford private schooling to have one of their children educated. The usual approach was to select one child from a poor family for sponsorship. That child would exchange letters with their sponsor, receive gifts from their sponsor at Christmas and on their birthday and have their education expenses paid for.

On the positive side…

This early model of sponsorship was successful in helping children from poor families receive an education, which left many of them able to find employment, confident and hopeful for a future free from the ravaging effects of extreme poverty.  Likewise many children came to faith in Christ given many sponsorship programs were run by Christians and included religious instruction.

Some glaring weaknesses…

Despite its successes some glaring weaknesses became apparent in the early model of sponsorship.

First, it educated the child but did little to address other dimensions of child well being. Children not only need an education, they need access to clean water, hygenic toileting, nutritious food, medical care and decent housing. They also need immaterial goods – homes and communities where they are valued, their voices heard, and where they are safe and included. Early models of child sponsorship left these unaddressed.

Second, education enabled a sponsored child to escape poverty, but did little to address the causes of poverty in her community. The sponsored child may have been equipped to find a job but her parents, siblings and community remained poor.

Third, the early model undermined healthy relationships. While most parents were pleased that one of their children was able to be educated, siblings who were not sponsored often felt jealous and excluded. Instead of empowering parents to provide for their children the early model of sponsorship left them dependent on the largesse of affluent westerners and reinforced the belief that they were inadequate as parents. This was exacerbated when sponsors were encouraged to see themselves as a second set of parents.

Finally, the early model was often tied to an evangelistic method that misused power. People living in poverty commonly find themselves pushed around by the rich. By demanding parents allow their children to be evangelized if they wanted to gain the educational benefits the old model of sponsorship became yet another instance of the rich using power to override the will of the poor.

A better way

In light of these weaknesses some child sponsorship agencies have forged a new model, built on a number of important convictions.

First, the well being of children should be our overriding concern;

Second, programs must address the multiple dimensions of child well being. Education is not enough. Child sponsorship programs should build communities where children are safe, valued, their voices count, and where they have access to the clean water, safe toileting, nutritious diet, etc that they require to be healthy;

Third, programs should not undermine healthy relationships, they should nurture them. Some children should not benefit at the expense of others and the dignity and responsibilities of parents should be reinforced;

Fourth, the way we conduct programs should witness to Christ but this must be done respectfully, without coercion and with a servant heart.

Out of these convictions has come what I believe is a better model for child sponsorship. The front end looks much the same – sponsors are linked with a child with whom they exchange letters and whom their finances support. But the back end, the program on the ground, is vastly different and vastly improved. The organization I work for, Baptist World Aid Australia, begins by partnering with indigenous development organisations. Staff from those organisations spend time with the adults and children of the target community, helping them identify their hopes for the children of their community, the impediments to achieving those hopes and how they might work together to realise those hopes and so improve the well-being of the children. The role of the program is to support the community as it implements its plans.

Every community is different, but peogram activities could include:

  • training families in farming techniques that increase crop diversity and crop yield, allowing children to get sufficient nutritious food supplies;
  • installation of toilets and clean water sources, which reduce child illness and mortality and help get girls in school (girls are often required to collect water. When the nearest water source is a 2 hour walk away and they have to collect twice a day there is often no time for them to go to school);
  • the formation of savings groups where parents can take loans from the common pool of savings to help with things such as child medical expenses;
  • community education programs highlighting the value of education – in many countries education is now free but parents who themselves never attended school may see little value in sending their children along;
  • children’s clubs where children have opportunity to voice their thoughts and feelings about their future. Children may, for example, raise their fears about child marriage with community leaders, argue the case against child marriage and see their communities abandon the practise.

This approach respects and reinforces the dignity of parents as they are empowered to fulfil their responsibilities to their children; fosters the well-being of all children in the community; addresses a wide range of interrelated dimensions of child well being; sees communities becoming safe places for children; and lifts entire communities out of poverty.

The community selects a group of children to be linked with a sponsor overseas. These children are not selected to receive benefits that other children don’t but to represent the community to sponsors. The funds from their sponsors are pooled and used to support initiatives that improve the well being of all children in that community. As letters are exchanged the child discovers there is someone in Australia who cares about them and the well being of the children in their community. The sponsor gets to see the improvements in child well being through the eyes of their sponsored child.

And what of the ‘spiritual’ well being of the children? Wherever possible Baptist World Aid Australia, for whom I work, works with Christian partners – indigenous groups who implement the programs on the ground. In practise more than 95% of our partners are identifiably Christian and are an incarnational presence in the communities they serve. As they serve children and families of all religions and without any agenda other than love the reputation of Christ  is raised. The result? In a number of communities where our partners work many people, including whole families, have linked with local churches and come to faith in Christ.

Sponsoring a Child

Sponsoring a child is a good thing to do, but before you sign on the dotted line it’s worth asking what sponsorship model is being implemented and going with an agency you believe is best serving child well being.

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