Cover image courtesy of ChildFund International
–by Nicole Larsen and Alec Wilson–
This article will analyze the impact of the child sponsorship organization ChildFund International. Though donors to ChildFund are brought in with the narrative that their donations will go towards supporting a single child, funds are actually pooled and redistributed to local partners. Within these partnerships, ChildFund retains authority over local leaders who promote education, health, and vocational skills trainings; if these partners at any point institute policies that conflict with the ideals and goals of ChildFund International, ChildFund reserves the ability to cease funding and funnel donations to different partners (without notifying donors at any point in the process). In this article, we will assess the consequences of this lack of transparency with donors, as well as the attention ChildFund misleadingly puts on the donor’s relationship to the child. Throughout its commercials, social media, and website, ChildFund focuses on the children with a distinctive lack of representation of their parents. We argue that this lack of representation creates a system that allows donors to feel that they have assumed the role of the child’s parents, while the control ChildFund holds over the local partners shows that donors are not necessarily buying what they are sold.
Section 1: Introduction
Child sponsorship has become an extremely popular form of philanthropy in the modern day. According to an article in Christianity Today, between the years of 2007 and 2011, donations to child sponsorship groups increased by over 70% just among evangelicals. Most of these programs share a common structure; Western sponsors are provided with profiles of individual children in developing countries and are asked to choose one to donate to monthly. In this paper, we will focus specifically on the sponsorship organization ChildFund International. In analyzing ChildFund International’s business model and advertising campaigns, numerous flaws and lapses in logic were seen. These flaws chiefly include a lack of transparency with donors, problematic relationships with local partners, harmful portrayals of African parents, and the commodification of poverty in advertisements. These flaws hinder ChildFund’s ability to empower the people it wishes to help, and have the potential to cause more harm than good.
Section 2: Background to ChildFund International
Almost all sponsorship organizations follow a similar model. When sponsors seek to participate in a child sponsorship program, they first are presented with the choice of many different children to donate to, and are asked to choose one to donate to who has a story that touches them in some way. They then make a set donation to the child each month for the duration of their participation in the sponsorship program. What these donations are used for varies by organization, but generally they go to support children’s education, health, and development, as well as provide necessary goods such as clothing and food in some cases. Some programs require or encourage the sponsor to communicate with the child through letters, and the children, in some cases, will respond back via letters written with the help of the sponsorship organization.
In this article, we will focus specifically on the sponsorship organization ChildFund International. China’s Children Fund was founded in the United States in 1938 and expanded in 1951 to work with children all across the world who were impacted by World War II, when it became known as Christian Children’s Fund. A final rebranding as ChildFund International came as a result of the creation of various interconnected internationally-based operations. With this name change, ChildFund altered its mission statement and advertisement strategy to de-emphasize the religious roots of the organization. Today, ChildFund works in over 30 countries and raises hundreds of millions of dollars each year to help achieve its goals across the world.
Section 3: Organizational Transparency
There is a incorrect belief that when a child is sponsored, the money given by the sponsor goes directly to helping the child, and ChildFund does little to combat this misconception. In his dissertation on the topic of child sponsorship, Peter Ove interviews a sponsor who states that child sponsorship is effective because of its individual nature “as opposed to something like United Way or so on where there is a huge pot of money that you throw yours in with”. In actuality, sponsorship through ChildFund is a lot less individualized than advertised. Instead, money is pooled together and distributed to local partners, who are to use the money to improve the community the child is from. The sponsored child is ultimately helped, although in a much more indirect way than suggested to donors. This dissonance between perception and reality is not necessarily harmful, but it shows that ChildFund’s work is as much about giving donors what they expect as it is about helping children.
Donors are sold the opportunity to change a child’s life, and more importantly are sold a relationship with the child; there is a priority placed by ChildFund on how donors benefit from giving to them, rather than going into great specificity of what donors are actually paying for. Ove describes how “Organizations such as Christian Children’s Fund [now ChildFund] … do ‘a great job of making you feel like you are making a difference.’ … sponsorship programs (justifiably?) ensure sponsors feel like their donations are significant”. This pandering to the ego of donors can become dangerous if ChildFund chooses to take actions further away from how donors believe they act. This is by no means to say that ChildFund is inevitably going to lose all transparency, while selling itself as a child sponsorship program. But it is a danger to be aware of if they are not held accountable by donors.
Section 4: Local Partner Relationships
Because the way in which ChildFund pools donations is not openly acknowledged, very little transparency exists regarding the relationship that ChildFund has with its international partners. An internal document that outlines the local partner strategy of ChildFund for the fiscal years between 2014 and 2020 sheds more light on how ChildFund views its relations to local partners. In this document, ChildFund acknowledges a desire for partners to achieve a set standard of quality with the services they provide, as well as ChildFund’s power to terminate any partner relationship upon the grounds of subpar service provision. They state that consequences will be established for partners who are considered “low-performing”. Though “low-performing” is never defined in the document, it does mention several times the importance of partners aligning with the mission and desired means of ChildFund international, which suggests that partners who at any point fail to do so would certainly be performing below the set standard. Though it makes sense that any business model would include a set of standards for the product they were producing or the service they wished to provide, in the unique context of ChildFund international, there are several reasons why this could be considered a problematic approach.
The first is that the process of imposing a Western set of goals and standards on international organizations leaves the door open for ChildFund to ignore the will and advice of the communities that it seeks to help. Almost all members of the executive team for ChildFund are Caucasian Americans, and so are the majority of the people who make up the board of directors for the organization. Because of this, the objectives that ChildFund decides to pursue stem from an overwhelmingly Western worldview. Because ChildFund requires unity with its goals and holds its partners to a specific set of standards that are determined without their input, organizations in the countries where ChildFund works are forced to comply with the plan that ChildFund sets forth without providing their own recommendations for a mode of action, or suggesting more culturally appropriate ways that help could be given to the specific communities. Ironically, this means that these partners are given no power within the relationship that is theoretically meant to empower and support them. This is not a suggestion that ChildFund does harm in the communities where it works, or that it works against the wishes of the communities that it benefits because of its structure. In order to achieve efficient functioning in an NGO, unity centered on a common goals is a necessary foundation. Rather, this is meant to point out that this is a clear area of growth for ChildFund; humanitarian work is most impactful when done according to the insight of those that are being helped in each situation. Only when this is done can cultural insight be used as a critically important asset.
Another possibly more consequential complication in the relationship between ChildFund and its international partners exists because monetarily incentivizing compliance with these Western goals has the potential to promote dependency. Local organizations, though they may have valuable suggestions about how a program could be implemented more effectively given the unique culture of a community, may neglect to raise these concerns for fear of losing their funding. It would not be extreme to suggests that this could result, in more minor cases, in a loss of productivity or efficiency, or in worse cases, in effectiveness altogether. Even if the situation is not as drastic as this, organizations may still find themselves struggling to stay afloat monetarily in the circumstances that they did find themselves cut from the ChildFund partnership program. The implication here is not that ChildFund should cease to distribute money to its international partners, but simply that it should do so while taking the advice of these partners into larger consideration than it currently does, and that partners should be given advance warning of termination from the program so that they may create an effective plan to make up for the loss in funding.
Section 5: Problematic Social Media Strategies
Surveying ChildFund’s social media accounts and various other means of advertising uncovers a completely separate problem from the ones outlined above; throughout these media, African parents are either not mentioned at all, or are portrayed as cruel, uncompassionate, or neglectful – in some way distinctly unfit to fill the role of caregiver and protector. A television spot called “For 92 Cents” depicts forlorn looking children walking through trash dumps or sitting inside derelict homes, and the only adult shown in the video is the American spokesperson, entreating Americans to help these children. The lack of parental figures in the spot suggests that these children are orphans, without anyone to care for them except for a potential sponsor.
Much of ChildFund’s media that does depict African parents does so in the context of child marriage. In a blog posted to the ChildFund Alliance website, a young Kenyan girl retells how her father beat her almost to the point of death when she refused to marry a 60-year old man with three other wives for a payment of sugar and goats to her family. ChildFund’s official website also echoes these ideas of African parents who are unfit to provide for their children; the “Our Approach” page mentions parents who cannot afford to send their children to school or fulfill their basic needs. In contrast, on the same page, American donors are called upon to act as a “guardian angel”, to fill the role of not only a parent but also a savior and protector.
The presentation of African parents as either absent or unfit to fulfill their role is problematic for several reasons, the most obvious being that it perpetuates a stereotype that creates harmful Western perceptions of Africans. Earlier in history, Western paternalism was displayed through colonialism; it seems that in the current age, this attitude persists in the Western depiction of African children as needing superior white parents to provide for them.
ChildFund, on its “Core Issues” section of its website again urges visitors of the site to “be a guardian angel”. By promoting this idea wherever it can ChildFund plays into the ego of the Western donor. With the presentation of Westerners as “guardian angels”, child sponsors can come to feel a sense of responsibility and connection, similar to that of a real parent, towards their sponsor children. These feelings exist despite the fact that these children more than likelyhave living biological parents or other significant parental figures. A comment on the ChildFund Facebook page illuminates this phenomenon; child sponsor Benedicta Froelich mentions the close connection that she has felt with all of her sponsor children, as well as her feelings that sponsoring children has allowed her to provide them with emotional support that allows them to grow up psychologically healthy, which would not have happened without the influence of her sponsorship. Danger comes when views like those of Benedicta delegitimize African parents and their ability to care for their own children. Views like these can unintentionally promote the idea of the Western savior complex, where western nations, because of their superiority to nations in the developing world, have the opportunity and moral obligation to come in and save the people in these developing countries.
Section 6: The Commodification of Poverty
Another problem exists beyond the promotion of a savior complex within child sponsorship advertisements; the commodification of poverty within these advertisements is an effective mode of fundraising, but perpetuates stereotypes and ultimately causes more harm than good. These stereotypes exist as children who “are generally portrayed as malnourished, sick, under-educated, and in desperate need of external support”. The problem with generalizations is that they present child sponsorship as the solution to giving these children what they lack, but ignore “the complex historical, political and economic relationships between project and donor countries”. Showing suffering children and claiming that sponsorship is an easy way to alleviate suffering is a much easier fundraising campaign than trying to teach the public about the complex issues that influence the cycle of poverty. But unless these issues are addressed, the effectiveness of poverty alleviation is hampered.
In recent years, there has been a general shift away from advertising the suffering of children and focus has moved towards the work that ChildFund is doing. Poverty and the disparity between first and third world is still at the forefront, but the gross exploitation of suffering has for the most part been addressed. Janice Nathanson describes the changes in these advertisements as being the first step in changing perceptions of Africa. But this is only a step in the right direction and until Westerners are able to honestly analyze the role that they play in the relationship between donor and receiver, the underlying problems cannot be solved.
Section 7: Conclusion
With the increasing popularity of child sponsorship it is important to realize that the feeling of connection is what is being sold to the donor by ChildFund. These feelings are often not mutual between the sponsor and the sponsored, and the money that is given, while definitely increasing quality of life to a degree, is not going to guarantee the child’s escape from poverty. The advertisement and money distribution methods of ChildFund carry dangerous implications. Promoting a savior complex or the idea that providing a child with food or clothes or an education for a period of a few years guarantees future success is flawed, yet this is how ChildFund presents itself. Until ChildFund, or any other developmental NGO for that matter, is able and willing to assess problematic relationships and ideas created by the organization and its advertising, they will be unable to achieve maximum efficacy in bringing lasting change to African communities.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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