Confessions of a Sponsorship Skeptic

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I confess that until recently, the first thing that came to my mind when someone mentioned child sponsorship was Sally Struthers kneeling next to an emaciated  African child, mascara running down her face, telling the TV that “if you can just save one life, won’t it be worth it?”

 As passionate as I was about social justice and alleviating poverty, child sponsorship struck me as an old-fashioned model for giving in which a few select children essentially walked through a breadline to receive meals, schools supplies, and medical attention from far- away white “saviors” whose first-world guilt was eased by letters ensuring that their contributions made a difference. I worried that child sponsorship created dependency and that families were forced to attend church in order to receive assistance for their little ones. While I could certainly see the value in saving “just one life,” I longed to invest in efforts devoted to solving the underlying problems that perpetuate poverty in certain communities, rather than simply easing the effects of that poverty among  a few. 

These concerns didn’t stop me from sponsoring children, (especially after India), but they kept me from advocating on behalf of the sponsorship model.  I think that a lot of Christians in my generation are wary of the suggestion that our responsibility to the world is limited to caring for “just one child.” We long for justice to roll down like streams of living water, not for charity to drip out like a leaky faucet. 

The most radical change I’ve experienced during this trip to Bolivia is that my view of child sponsorship has been turned on its head. A model that once inspired indifference has ignited a passion. While I can’t speak on behalf of all NGOs who participate in such programs, I can now state with confidence that World Vision’s child sponsorship program consistently exhibits the following: 

1. A community-based model: As I wrote in Monday’s post, when you sponsor a child, you may very well be sponsoring a dam too! World Vision takes a trickle-up approach to poverty that begins with identifying and addressing the needs of children and then works to address the root causes of those needs in the community. Sponsorship donations are pooled so that one portion goes directly to the child and his or her specific needs and another goes to the needs of the community.  This week I have seen how sponsorship money has funded everything from guinea pig farms to after-school programs to hearing aids to irrigation systems to marriage counseling to maternal health programs to alcoholism support groups. What starts as a mustard seed grows into a tree in which the birds of the air can nest. 


2. Sustainability and empowerment: When World Vision begins working in a community, the goal is to maintain presence in that community for fifteen years and then slowly make a transition so that all the programs, systems, and opportunities it provided are handed over to the community to maintain. For example, we visited a bakery in which the women of sponsored children were employed. (Oh it smelled heavenly!) These women are now providing rolls, cookies, and cereal not only to World Vision-related projects but to several public school systems in the area. They are turning a profit and making better wages than they would make at a similar job in the city. The goals is that the bakery will continue long after World Vision has made the transition away from this particular ADP. Similarly, the dam that we visited on the second day of the trip was built, managed, and maintained by men in the community. (World Vision partnered with the local government to provide initial funding.) One man proudly told me that when floods damaged part of the structure last year, the men themselves repaired it, without any help from World Vision. 

3. Local Staff: Over 90 percent of World Vision’s staff consists of people who are local to the communities that they serve. Every staff single member we have met on this trip has been Bolivian. ADPs are staffed by folks who represent the best and the brightest of their countries. A single ADP may include doctors, engineers, agricultural specialists, food specialists, teachers, pastors, accountants, and administrators. By employing and empowering locals, World Vision ensures that no cultural barriers stand in the way of progress and empowerment. 

4. Contextual Spirituality: In Bolivia, where over 99% percent of the population identifies themselves as either “Christian” or “Catholic” World Vision staff is free to partner with local churches (of various denominations)to help host Bible schools and faith-related activities. But aid is never withheld from families who do not participate in such activities, and World Vision staff members do not make a habit of proselytizing. For example, yesterday we met with four couples brave couples who shared deeply personal stories about how their lives had been radically changed by marriage counseling offered by a local pastor though a World Vision ADP. One man confessed that he had once been jealous and controlling of his wife; she had to get permission from him to even leave the house. But now he gently put his hand on her shoulder and said that he supports her autonomy completely. With a focus on being the hands and feet of Jesus, World Vision can even work in countries where Christianity is illegal, because the goal is not to win converts but to love as Jesus loved. 

So, are you a child sponsorship skeptic? What questions still linger in your mind about this particular model for giving. (I’ll try to address them this weekend.)

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