Why phase out child sponsorship?

In 2010 Embrace the Middle East decided to phase out gradually its child sponsorship programme in Palestine and Lebanon, mainly because we were not convinced that child sponsorship was the best way to focus help on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, especially in countries where there was reasonable state education provision and high levels of school enrolment.

A recent independent study has suggested however that child sponsorship does indeed improve lives. It looked particularly at children supported by the UK Christian charity Compassion. The report was covered in The Church Times, and prompted a response from me in the letter columnns of this week's newspaper. This summarises why Embrace is withdrawing from child sponsorship:

From Mr Jeremy Moodey

Sir, - The research that showed the positive impact of Compassion International's child-sponsorship programme (News, 3 May) should not really surprise anyone. It is self-evident that individual financial support will improve educational and other outcomes by enabling children to go to school or to stay at school for longer than they might otherwise have done.

But this rather misses the point, which is that there are much bigger problems with child sponsorship. In particular, the potentially negative impact on the wider community (including those children who do not benefit from sponsorship) and on the sponsors themselves, and the administrative burdens of running a child-sponsorship programme.

It is precisely for these reasons that Embrace the Middle East (formerly BibleLands) began phasing out its longstanding child-sponsorship programme a few years ago. This provoked quite a few complaints from some of our supporters. But we were convinced that, in moral and developmental terms, it was the right thing to do.

Having visited schools in Palestine where Embrace provided child sponsorship, I have seen how potentially divisive such support can be: not only between sponsored and non-sponsored children, but even between sponsored children, where some are showered with letters, cards, and gifts, and others receive hardly anything from their sponsors. This can have a demoralising effect on the child. No wonder a 2008 study by Sussex University into child sponsorship found there was "anxiety, jealousy and disappointment among those children and families who receive no letters or gifts".

Then there is the issue of the donors. Child sponsorship can create an artificial and unhealthy attachment between sponsor and child which may insulate sponsors from an understanding of the wider issues contributing to "their" child's poverty, and also create cultural confusion for the child. Indeed, there are times when child sponsorship seems to be more for the benefit of the sponsor (especially if the sponsor feels the need to "personalise" his or her charitable giving) than for the child, who may develop a close bond with his or her sponsor only for that link to be broken abruptly and traumatically on leaving school.

Finally, and as pointed out in the 1989 New Internationalist article, child-sponsorship programmes are notoriously expensive to administer, given the need for charity staff to process letters, cards, gifts, and restricted donations.

Of course there will be some benefits from child sponsorship. But the weight of evidence still suggests that these are more than offset by the significant disadvantages.

Chief Executive
Embrace the Middle East
24 London Road West
Amersham, Bucks HP7 0EZ