We’ve been exploring whether or not sponsorship is ethical or exploitive. One concern some have is whether sponsorship reinforces a paternalistic relationship with Low and Middle Income Countries and creates dependency in children.

What is paternalism?

When many people talk about paternalism in aid, they mean a top-down approach to helping others: those with the resources decide what’s good for those without resources and impose their ideas on a community. This can foster a sense of helplessness within those being helped. It can also reinforce the idea among those who give aid that those they are helping really are helpless. Tragically, this can lead to dependency on aid rather than empowerment—the exact opposite effect to what was desired.

Many countries that give or receive aid were colonized or were colonizers—and still grapple with the unhealthy relationship patterns from colonization. Just as the colonizers were in a position of power over the colonized, those who give aid are often in a position of power over the receivers. Add to this the extreme differences of culture and communication styles, and you have a recipe for a lot of misunderstanding and negative relationship dynamics that can lead to ineffective aid.

Looking at past failures of development can be discouraging and even defeating. But at Compassion, we believe we have a biblical mandate to help people in need. So as we strive to help others, we work to continuously improve how we do it.

Partnering rather than parenting

One major way that Compassion strives to avoid a paternalistic approach is by partnering with local churches. We look for churches who already have a similar vision to ours—churches who know the needs in their communities and are already reaching out to the vulnerable children among them. Many times, churches approach us, knowing that our sponsorship programs will help them reach their goals.

A relatively new part of our process of partnering with churches is a series of Bible studies we have started holding with potential church partners, called “Qavah,” Hebrew for “binding together.” It’s a way to guide churches through the process of asking, “How can God use us to meet the needs in our community?” Through this process, Compassion helps churches think through what their vision for their community is and what resources God has already given them to meet these goals. This helps churches identify how God has gifted them with incredible resources to help others. It’s a refreshing alternative to asking churches for a list of needs.

Qavah also ensures that a particular church and Compassion would make good partners. Compassion doesn’t want to come into a community and impose our own vision on it; we want to partner with like-minded churches to empower them in reaching their goals of helping vulnerable children.

Freedom to contextualize

Another way Compassion strives to have healthy partnership relationships is by ensuring our field offices and church partners can contextualize our programs in a way that makes sense in their communities.

We call this “freedom within a framework.” The sponsorship framework creates consistency and helps sponsors know what their dollars support. But there’s room for a certain amount of freedom so churches working with Compassion can reach out in a way that makes the most sense in their community.

In one community, this might mean that a church partner decides more of their energy and budget goes toward keeping adolescents out of gangs, while another church partner might decide to focus more on helping young children avoid malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Allowing contextualization helps Compassion ensure we aren’t imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on church partners and the communities they serve, but that we engage in a productive conversation about how we can best help a community.

Creating empowerment not dependence

One of the primary criticisms of paternalism and aid in general is that it creates dependency, rather than helping people out of poverty.

That’s why Compassion’s sponsorship isn’t focused on giving children material things. Although children do receive many material benefits from sponsorship, we focus on equipping children to grow into adults who will be able to support themselves and be responsible members of their community.

We do this through not only giving children access to education, but also helping them develop the character to be contributing members to their society. We help them learn vocational skills and skills to get a job and keep a job. We lead them through life-planning tools that help children envision and prepare for their futures. And, most of all, we help them learn that there is hope—that God created them and has a good purpose for their lives.

Messy but beautiful

Any time two humans come together in an endeavour, it’s going to be messy. We each bring our own biases and faults to any relationship. Relationships are complex and imperfect. But at the same time, relationships are powerful and beautiful.

Many sponsored children consider their sponsors extended family—like godparents—and call them names like “auntie and uncle.” At Compassion we strive to educate our sponsors and sponsored children in such a way that these relationships aren’t based on unhealthy paternalism, but on deep mutual love and respect.

Just as any human relationship is imperfect but still beautiful, so is sponsoring. The relationship between Compassion and a church or a sponsor and a child are complex. They’re not always perfect. But we are part of a continual growth process to learn and improve as we not only help others but are blessed in return by those whom we help.

Written by: Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld is the Managing Editor of Compassion International's blog.