Is child sponsorship ethical?

Part one of a three-part series exploring the ethics of child sponsorship

New research in the Journal of Political Economy shows that Compassion’s sponsorship is effective—really effective.

“You could beat this data senseless, and it was incapable of showing anything other than extremely large and statistically significant impacts on educational outcomes for sponsored children,” Wydick told Christianity Today. Wydick’s study showed that sponsored children were 27 to 40 percent more likely to complete secondary school and 35 per cent more likely to get a white-collar job when they graduated.

With the question of the effectiveness of sponsorship settled, what about the ethics of child sponsorship?

There are a couple different topics that come up regarding the ethics of sponsorship:

  • Is sponsorship divisive and inequitable because not everyone can be helped?
  • Is using a child to raise funds exploitive?
  • Does sponsorship encourage paternalism and dependency?

These are important questions. At Compassion, we want to do the most good while doing the least harm and treat every individual with dignity.

Is the selective nature of sponsorship divisive and inequitable?

Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program focuses on building into the lives of individual children. Children regularly attend a Compassion centre where they are taught using a holistic child development curriculum. They learn things such as healthy ways to interact with others, important hygiene habits to prevent disease, and how to have a positive self-esteem. They also learn about the grace they can find in Christ and the good plan He has for their lives.

Because our sponsorship program is so focused on developing the individual child, it is inherently selective.

“Any development organization has finite resources, so there are choices to be made,” says Chuck McGinty, Compassion’s Senior Director of Program. “That is true of community development, child development or disaster relief. There will be those that benefit and those that don’t. So Compassion’s model is to work with the poorest that we can reach through the local church.”

Reaching the poorest

Compassion’s programs are implemented through local churches in the developing world. That means people who know and love their community are the ones seeking out and finding those in most need.

From an outside Western perspective, we might look at a slum community and think, “They’re all poor; how could we help one and not the other?” But as you look closer, you find that one family can afford a motorcycle, but another can’t send any of their five children to school.

Compassion’s church partners get to know their communities to learn these distinctions and find those who are in the most need.

A Western concern?

The question of whether sponsoring one child and not another is divisive in a community is usually asked from within our own Western culture. In our culture which highly values individualism, individual rights and “being fair” are paramount.

However, in many of the communities where Compassion serves, the cultures are far more communal in nature. When one child is sponsored, it is considered a boon for the entire family. When resources or knowledge are gained by one, they are shared with the whole.

If all aid is selective, what is the most effective way to change a community?

Whether or not the selective nature of sponsorship is primarily a Western concern, perhaps the most important question to ask is if aid is selective by nature, then what is the most effective way to help others?

For a long time, the focus on helping others has been giving people things.

If someone is unhealthy, build a hospital. If someone needs education, build a school. But what Compassion has learned over the years is that things won’t change communities—people will.

When Jesus walked this earth, he intentionally focused on spending time with just 12 people. Jesus knew that to have the largest long-term impact, He needed to focus on changing the hearts of a few. Those few would multiply His message to spread across the world.

Compassion focuses on developing individual children—they learn they are loved, they are valuable and God wants to use them to help others. These children grow up to be givers and community leaders.

According to Dr. Wydick, “Child sponsorship appears to get under the hood of human beings to instill aspirations, character formation and spiritual direction. In short, it trains people to be givers instead of receivers.”

By focusing on individual children, we are able to impact far more people through the lives of former sponsored children than we would have been able to with just our limited resources.

It’s all about hope

We talk about hope a lot at Compassion. It might seem like we’re being too touchy-feely. But hope shouldn’t be taken lightly.

According to Shane J. Lopez, ph.D, Gallup Senior Scientist and the world’s leading authority on the psychology of hope, “How we think about the future—how we hope—determines how well we live our lives.”

Ending poverty in an individual’s life isn’t accomplished by handing her material resources. She needs to know she has the ability to get herself from point A to point B. In short, she needs hope.

“It’s not enough to change the circumstances of poverty; it’s about changing the heart and the mind,” says McGinty. “You have to build and instill hope where there is no hope. You have to work in the mind and the heart of the child to turn them around. We believe that is ultimately what will change communities—people who believe they can get out of their circumstances.”

Hope is built by not only equipping children with the things they need, but by helping them build a framework of hope. It’s teaching children they are inherently valuable to God and He has a plan for their future. It’s teaching them that they have the ability to make choices that will change their future.

To change a community, you have to change an individual. And that’s what Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program is all about.

Next: Is using a child to raise funds exploitive?

Written by: Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld is the Managing Editor for Compassion Canada. She is the author of Hope Lives and loves to help people learn more about Compassion's programs.