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In a conversation with a friend a few years ago, we began discussing international child sponsorship. We wrestled back-and-forth for some time, discussing both the good and the bad. Since that initial conversation, I have repeated that discussion time-and-again, including a lengthy conversation with a colleague who was himself sponsored as a child in the Dominican Republic. His insights have informed this post significantly. It is a sensitive issue and I pray, even while I write this, that my reflections are gracious and balanced.

Child sponsorship has been a wildly successful in connecting donors with poor children around the world. Billions of dollars are funneled every year to international organizations through child sponsorship programs. Letters are written back-and-forth and funds are given faithfully every month. But, is it doing long-term good? Or could it actually be perpetuating the problems it claims to solve?

I am reminded of Christ’s admonition to us… “Be shrewd as serpents and kind as doves” (Matt 10:16).  In that light, I will highlight both the good and the bad of child sponsorship programs and allow you to disseminate accordingly. First, a few strengths of child sponsorship:

  • Jesus had a special place in his heart for children (Matt 19:14). Without exception, children are our world’s most vulnerable demographic. Christians are mandated to defend and protect orphans throughout Scripture.
  • The majority of people which enter into a relationship with Christ do so before the age of 18. How can we ignore this important demographic? The data supports this as a strategic age upon which the Church should focus.
  • Helping children can change the future. As children are educated, equipped and mentored, we have the opportunity to train the next generation of leaders.
  • Many organizations are “doing it right” and I am convinced that Compassion International, to be very specific, does child sponsorship better than anyone else. The centrality of the Gospel in their curriculum, their close partnership with local churches, their laser-focused precision on children, and their grounded and principled operations set them a notch above all others.

That being said, not all child sponsorship programs are as effective. While “helping children” is an amiable aim, we need to examine the long-term impacts. Several important considerations:

  • These programs can undermine the role of parents. I had a friend who visited a community in Ghana and an angry mother chased him out of her neighborhood saying, “I can take care of my own children!” She thought my friend was with a child sponsorship organization. An extreme example, but worth considering. God’s design includes parents as providers for their children. Only a small percentage of sponsored children are truly orphaned.
  • Child sponsorship can have the same impacts of a bad welfare system. In an email I recently received, a friend shared a story which communicated just that. “My sister is a missionary in Chile…She knows of families that live off the money they get from child sponsorship programs. As one child outgrows the sponsorship program, the parents have another child so they can continue to qualify for the funding.” Yikes.
  • These programs can pitch wealthy Americans as the “great heroes” to the poor children in the developing world. Are we sending a message which paints a picture of the donor as the healer and the child as the patient? The nature of this type of relationship can be unhealthy.
  • Many of these programs are wrought with fraud.  A friend who worked in Congo shared that one of the Christian child sponsorship program directors wrote (not translated) the kids’ letters to the donors. She would often come to his office and he would have piles of letters which he authored, pretending to be the sponsored children.
  • Jealousy is alive and well. My colleague who was sponsored as a child talked about how it stirred up jealousy among his peers. He would receive special gifts (baseball gloves, toys, etc.), a better education, hot meals, and a chance for college scholarships and the un-sponsored children would not.
  • Child sponsorship can encourage dependency. Poorly designed charitable aid can put a choke-hold on ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Our goal should always be to help those on the margins stand on their own feet so that continued support is no longer needed. I have met with countless friends working in orphanages and with sponsorship programs who have expressed concerns about kids who graduate from their programs being unable to fend for themselves.

I’ll end with a suggestion from an expert, Jonathan Martin. Jonathan was a missionary in Asia for over ten years and is currently a missions pastor in Portland Oregon. His fantastic bookGiving Wisely?, devotes a chapter specifically to this issue. He ends with a list of four hard questions which he suggests we all ask the agencies through whom we sponsor children:

  1. How does this program seek to get the children out of a cycle of dependency?
  2. How does it encourage work?
  3. How does it keep the responsibility upon the shoulders of the parents and the society to take care of its own?
  4. What time frame does the agency have for getting the community to stand on its own feet so sponsorship is no longer needed in a given village?

No intervention or program is perfect (as I’ve written previously) and this is not an indictment of an entire approach, but rather a call to prudence and accountability. Not all child sponsorship is created equal.