Ask a Humanitarian…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

On Sunday morning I’ll board a plane in Chattanooga, Tennessee at 9 a.m., and after stops in Atlanta and Miami, I’ll end up in La Paz, Bolivia at 9 p.m. (Is it any wonder James reminds Christians to preface their travel plans with “…if the Lord wills it”?  That’s a lot of planes to catch!) 

I’m going to Bolivia with World Vision and a team of bloggers whose directive it is to be your eyes and ear on the ground as we get an inside look at World Vision’s work in a developing country, specifically regarding child sponsorship.

Last week I introduced you to Carla Gawthrop, an amazing woman who has worked for World Vision for ten years and who will be joining us on the trip. Carla’s been to Ethiopia, Kenya, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Thailand, and the United States covering World Vision's work in disaster response, community development, and child sponsorship. She is a mother of two preschoolers and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Clint. 

I loved the tough questions you posed to Carla about humanitarian work, child sponsorship, and World Vision. My research over the past month has shown me just how complicated this line of work can be. There are no quick fixes, no one-size-fits-all approaches to battling poverty. But I think you will find Carla’s responses to be thoughtful, practical, and personal. I’m so grateful for her time!



Thanks for joining us, Carla. To start off, why don’t you tell us a little about what drew you into humanitarian work in the first place and how you became associated with World Vision? 

I grew up in Virginia dreaming of global travel and making lots of money in international business. Thank goodness God had other plans. 

My first job as a marketing manager quickly showed me the emptiness of that dream. At a Newsboys concert, I sponsored a child through World Vision.  As my faith grew stronger, so did my restlessness with my job. Soon I was crossing the country in a U-Haul to come to work as a marketing writer for World Vision. 

I cried often in the first few months as my eyes were opened to the plight of the poor I’d often ignored. Becoming a mother a few years ago has ignited a new passion in me to help every mother build a better life for her children.  In my trips to see World Vision’s work in the field, I’ve come away with a bittersweet mix of being encouraged and overwhelmed.  These are mothers and fathers who are making decisions I never want to make: Which meal of the day will we skip? Which child will go to school?

 Poverty is a quagmire that is difficult to escape. But I have seen how the people who comprise World Vision’s 40,000-strong staff around the world both love and are loved by the people they serve. I’ve met children who are being fed and back in school.   And I have been reminded that the purpose of my blessings is to bless others. My two bedroom, one bathroom house for a family of four is a mansion; Ican give more. It is my privilege to speak up for those who are caught by injustice. It is a joy to put my faith into action every day when I go to work. 

Question from Elizabeth: How does child sponsorship help the community at large and not just the individual children? Do the sponsored children end up using their education to just leave their poor communities behind? I have always worried about this

World Vision’s work is always in the context of families and communities because children thrive when their families and communities are healthy. Our interventions depend on what the community needs.   Children who have access to good nutrition, clean water, basic healthcare, and educational opportunities are better prepared to build a future for themselves and their families and communities. 

World Vision doesn't just build wells; we train community members to maintain them for the long term.  We provide food distributions in desperate times as well as training for improved food supplies for seasons to come.  And World Vision often provides micro-loans to the parents of sponsored children to help lift the entire family and community out of the cycle of poverty. 

Sponsorship is not adoption. Our goal is not to take children out of their communities, but to build up that entire community so that children reach their full potential. 

I’ll tackle the second half of this question in my answer to question 4 – but let me also address another reader’s question: “Does ‘sponsoring’ a child do more good than giving the same amount of money?” 

That depends on how we define “more good.” One interesting note to sponsorship is the relationship that develops between the sponsored child and the sponsor. When I’ve met sponsored children around the world, they consistently treasure the letters from their sponsors because sponsorship is not just about physical needs, but about a child’s need to feel significant. As a mom, I am so grateful for the people who treasure my children as I do. That’s the same feeling I’ve heard from mothers of sponsored children. 


From Aimee: What happens when a person stops sponsoring a child? I have worried about being able to keep a long-term commitment. 

The wisdom in World Vision's community development model is that the sponsorship relationship is one-to-one but the funding is not. Funds from each person sponsoring a child in a community are pooled together to meet the needs of all the children in that community. 

If a person can no longer sponsor a child, that child doesn’t “lose” the benefits of being a sponsored child (aside from the personal greetings and relationship with their sponsor). We will try to find another sponsor, and the child will continue to benefit from how sponsorship funds help their entire community with clean water, nutritious food, access to health care and education, and more. 

I’m amazed at the commitment of people who sponsor children through World Vision. Many tell us that sponsorship is one of the last things they would cut out of their budget. Unexpected things can happen, and there are options for sponsors to help them retain their sponsorship, such as someone else taking over that sponsorship for them. 

From Kristin: What happens to the sponsored kids when they outgrow the program? Are they given further educational opportunities or do they simply return to poverty and perpetuate a culture of helplessness/dependence with their own children? Does World Vision keep track of how their sponsorship kids turn out once they've become adults? 

World Vision works in dozens of countries, and each community sets appropriate policies about when children “graduate” from sponsorship, as well as how sponsors can continue to support a child’s education beyond high school. 

While we don't have a mechanism to track specific children after they leave sponsorship, we do hear great stories of sponsored children who leave for college then return to their communities to make a difference. 

The quarterly World Vision magazine has a fascinating column called “Where Are they Now?” The most recent issue came out this week with the story of Noppadon, who grew up in a drug-infested community in Thailand. He credits being a sponsored child with enabling him to stay in school. Now a major in the Royal Thai Police, he combats the drug trade as a police officer.

There are many other stories – last year the magazine featured Savitri in India. She got an education degree and then returned to teach in one of the least developed districts in the country. 

Earlier this year the magazine featured Leonel in Guatemala. After gaining several degrees, Leonel has become an advocate for his indigenous people’s group, aiming to start the first university directed by Maya-speaking people. 

From Nicholas: Is there a particular field of expertise that you’re always lacking enough volunteers from? Medical doctors, anthropologists, nutritionists, counselors, political consultants, manual labor, etc? 

Because our development and relief projects are managed and operated in partnership with the local community, World Vision does not send volunteers, missionaries, or interns overseas. 

The majority of our staff overseas are local. We also recruit qualified local volunteers, since they speak the same language and understand the culture of their people. Most of the high level volunteers we've had are marketing or business executives at our U.S. offices. However, this is only domestic positions, since we don't send volunteers overseas.  Volunteer opportunities at World Vision's United States headquarters can be found here.  


From Audrey: I saw this on the World Vision website: "We maintain our Christian identity while being sensitive to the diverse contexts in which we express that identity."  How does that work? (Others asked related questions about how faith is integrated into educational programs through World Vision.) 

Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, World Vision serves alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God's unconditional love for all people. 

In a country like Bolivia, we are quite free to hire Christians, work with the church, and incorporate faith overtly into our program work.  In other countries where there may be no legal Christian church and where distributing Christian materials would put our staff or sponsored children in danger, child sponsorship provides an opportunity to live out our Christian faith by caring for those in need regardless of their situation. 

In every country where World Vision works, we are identified as a Christian organization. Our leadership is Christian, and all staff agree to demonstrate Christian values.   

For real-life examples of how we live out our faith in our work in Bolivia, you can read the cover story from our president Rich Stearns in the latest World Vision magazine, out this week. There are numerous stories of how the witness of World Vision staff have transformed lives. Here’s one of my favorites

From Leanne: I did some research on World Vision recently and found a number of complaints from people who said they were discouraged, even put off, from meeting the child they sponsored when they went to Africa, or wherever, looking for them. Also read that when asked, some children did not even know that they were being sponsored, or said that they received a few inoculations and some pencils and tablets, nothing more. Can you explain and/or comment on these claims? 

There are a few reasons why children may not realize they were being sponsored or didn't see how that benefits them. 

One is the community development model. World Vision sponsorship is aimed at helping entire communities. Sponsorship donations are pooled together to provide programs and interventions that will help the entire community. These funds are used for projects that benefit the entire community, not only a specific sponsored child and his or her family. 

Sometimes the projects are run by local partners, so that children may not realize that the lunch they get at school is there because of the partnership World Vision has with the school. 

Secondly, sponsored children receive some specific individual benefits like immunization and school supplies, but so do other children in the community. This again is part of the community development model. 

Thirdly, in some cases, if the child's sponsor chooses not to write or email the child, he or she may not be aware that he/she is sponsored. For this reason, World Vision encourages sponsors to send special cards (which we provide) for Christmas, Easter, birthday, and other special occasions, as well as to write letters or send emails to their sponsored child. 

We encourage sponsors to meet their children. However, for the protection of our sponsored children and to minimize the burden on our staff, we do have a process that takes several months for required background checks and for staff to make arrangements in the field. 

From T.J. I know God calls us to spread the Gospel throughout the world, but I always wonder at the missionary trips our church sponsors.  They will send 20 people to Guatamala or Brazil to build a library for the school or run a church camp for local kids. Couldn't all the thousands of dollars spent on airline tickets and room and board be used to hire local labor to do the work, providing jobs and money to the local economies?  Are visiting tourist-humanitarians really valuable or is it best just to send our money? 

There is healthy debate about such mission trips. While World Vision does not have volunteer projects such as the ones you describe, we do help to arrange short trips to take selected donors, pastors, and advocates to see our work in the field and to learn more about issues of poverty and injustice. 

These can be life-changing trips whose value is difficult to quantify, causing people to become lifelong advocates on behalf of the poor. 


From Russell:  Being affiliated with an NGO, how do you respond to the criticism that there are too many NGOs and that they do not communicate well enough to be efficient with time and money? 

One of my favorite sayings from Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., is that that development work is rocket science. Given the magnitude and complexities of the issues of poverty and injustice, it would be hard to agree there are "too many" NGOs. There’s just too much work to do. 

But there are a lot of NGOs. It’s essential for NGOs to be deliberate about communication and collaboration so that we wisely use the resources entrusted to us. The donations we receive are gifts often given with sacrifice and prayers from a person who really wants to make a difference. We strive to continue to decrease our total overhead (currently at 15 percent) to send more funds to programs. 

In emergency situations, for example, responding in East Africa to the drought and hunger crisis, we work with other NGOs and those coordinating emergency relief responses. NGOs will tackle different locations of types of aid distributions based upon their local partnerships or expertise. We want the right amount of aid to get to those who need it, without duplication of efforts. 
The same is true for our long-term community development work. When we go into a sponsorship community, we assess what other organizations are there. We find out what they are doing and what else is needed so we can do more together than either might be able to do independently. 

Even in our fund-raising efforts, we work with other NGOs. World Vision is a member of InterAction, a consortium of U.S.-based organizations who advocate on issues of international assistance and foreign aid. 

From Trish: I'd like to see the writer address common myths about humanitarian work in general, including foreign aid.  (Full disclosure, I work in this profession and so I have a definite bias toward wanting people to be more informed about how our aid dollars are spent, what the field is actually like, etc.) 

Two links that might be interesting: Foreign Aid and Myths of Relief Aid.  


I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot from this interview! For example, I didn’t realize that the majority of World Vision’s overseas staff consists of men and women who are local to the area.  Since reading Half the Sky, I’ve come to believe that this is crucial for achieving long-term success in alleviating poverty at the grassroots levelDo you have any additional questions that you would like me to try and answer from Bolivia?

To learn more about my motivation for going to Bolivia or to sponsor one of the 6,000 Bolivian children waiting for a sponsor, click here or on the image below…

World Vision photos ©2011 Jon Warren/World Vision

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