As we have just paid the 2015 batch of sponsorship for The Lwazi Programme, I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting on the whole process. Mainly, I am dealing with the internal dilemma around the ethics and morality of child sponsorship, why I feel very vulnerable about The Lwazi Programme, and why I feel so bad trying to do something good.
Whether enabling kids to go to school is a good thing or not, to me, is a no brainer. Not only does it obviously help their empowerment and opening of future opportunities, but it importantly gives them a childhood; a chance to play, and interact with their peers. Yet, I am dealing with an internal dilemma about the ethics and morality of the whole process. I feel vulnerable. And ultimately I feel bad trying to do something good. Is this because it is actually bad or because I am internalising others’ criticisms or, because I am transposing my own cynicism of development and development aid onto the programme? There are a lot of questions and important aspects to consider in a programme such as this.
In trying to make sense of my feelings and questions I did a bit of research. I came across one of the only academic studies of child sponsorship programmes. Compassion Canada runs a child sponsorship programme in many countries worldwide and some of the ‘alumni’ to come through their programme were studied later in life to ascertain the impact it had. The 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”. While many proponents have grasped hold of these findings in attempts to change attitudes to child sponsorship, I’m still mindful that this is just one organisation that has a different approach to others, including The Lwazi Programme. The findings are positive regarding the effectiveness of child sponsorship but there are still many ethical considerations that need to be dealt with.
As Compassion Canada states on their website 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 exploitative?
- Does sponsorship encourage paternalism and dependency?
Criticisms of child sponsorship programmes are rife and have been for a long time. Here’s a quote from an article in The Guardian which again came up during my research into this:
“Schemes were shown to cause family rifts by supporting just one child in poverty-stricken communities, to engender cultural confusion and give sponsored kids unrealistic aspirations. Plus, the mechanics of sponsorship – which include recording a child’s progress, translating letters and taking photographs – put a financial and administrative burden on the charity.” (I think the original article is rather narrow minded…).
Overall, I don’t think there can ever be a definite answer about ethics either way but the criticisms towards child sponsorship are very present in my mind. Here are my thoughts and the underlying view of those of us running The Lwazi Programme.
Divisive and inequitable – Benefiting some, not all
The biggest issue I am grappling with is that, because we focus on individual children, we are inherently selective at a number of stages – from which children are classified as vulnerable by the Headmasters, to their gender, to even the random selection process of pulling names out of a hat. Ultimately, there will be those who benefit and those who don’t. Many critics of this kind of child sponsorship claim that it can cause jealousy and disharmony in households or communities, which in some cases is probably true. But should being unable to help all children mean we shouldn’t help some? Of course if we could, we would sponsor every child on our lists but we don’t have the resources and there are many more ethical dilemmas to deal with in taking an entire village’s generation into a development programme.
In our villages the children are used to school being somewhat selective. The Government of Zimbabwe runs a school sponsorship programme called BEAM which selects a few children, through a local committee, to be funded for a year. Some children receive it and some do not. Those selected then only get funding for one year so they do not know from one year to the next whether they can continue with schooling. At least with The Lwazi Programme we are encouraging sponsors to make a commitment to sponsor each child throughout their duration of their primary and secondary educations. Completing secondary school is the best means for a child living in these isolated and stagnant villages to have a more independent future, and that is what we are striving for. Yes, unfortunately, we cannot reach each child (and that is why we make the selection of each child as random as possible) but there are numerous knock on effects that will positively impact more than just those sponsored; households may then be able to send more children to school or put more food on the table or use the money to pay for medical treatment for a sick parent so they can start to earn an income again, etc. It’s not ideal but surely it is better than nothing.
To take a quote from a blog I came across which I think provides a nice logical argument on this topic:
“The argument is that child sponsorship is an inevitably selective form of charity, and such selectivity is unethical. Is this a good argument? It seems to me not, and fairly clearly so. Let me offer an analogy: suppose I was desired to give some money to support higher education in the UK; is it more ethical to divide that money equally between all universities, or to give a large sum to just one? As far as I can see, I am at liberty to do either, ethically speaking. Again – and more strongly – suppose I am trained in first aid and arrive quickly at the site of a train crash, where there are dozens of injured people. Should I attempt to split my time equally between them, or should I help one until she is stable and then move on to the next? I think we all know the answer to that one…”
Increasing dependency – They will always expect outside help
This criticism of child sponsorship programmes exacerbating this ‘culture of dependence’ annoys me (or in fact any discussion around dependency in this sense). It patronises and discredits those receiving the benefits as though they do not appreciate the generosity and good will with which they are being helped. Education was the most valued aspect of development participants in my research stated. Second only to food security (and even then not always) children of a household receiving an education was paramount. They didn’t ask for us to start sponsoring their kids nor did they expect us to. I also truly believe that the majority of children involved and their adult relatives will feel nothing but an appreciated responsibility to make the most from any opportunities The Lwazi Programme brings.
One related thing we are very aware of and want to manage is the risk of the sponsorship creating an unrealistic idea of what life is like in the world of the sponsors. There are many horror stories of sponsors writing to their sponsored child telling them all about a luxury sailing or skiing holiday, sending pictures of their mansions with swimming pools, and the like. While we at The Lwazi Programme appreciate that many sponsors do want to know what is going on with their children (and due to the isolated location of the villages this communications forms part of the accountability and trust building process with the schools) – we have encouraged people to write about things that will be relate-able to children in a rural village. When we were in one of the villages we were asked to give a presentation to the school children about what life is like in the UK. They wanted to know what the countryside looked like, how people farmed, what animals there were, and what food people ate. This is stuff they know about and can learn from. We encourage our sponsors to write about things like this, not their luxury holidays, so that the sponsors become just normal people rather than falling foul of the ‘rich, white, donor’. It could also be argued that not having communication between the sponsor and sponsored actually manifests the same risks as those the critics list about letter writing in the first place by money just arriving with no human element to it.
What next? No long term opportunities
We are very aware that there are limited to no opportunities in these villages for the young adults who graduate from secondary school, as we hope all of ours will (if they want to). There is virtually no economic activity within these villages with families reliant on insecure agriculture in turn reliant on weather – which generally turns out to be unreliable! On being told this, someone once asked me “so what’s the point of paying for them to go to school?”. I didn’t justify the question with an answer but it is important to think about what these young adults can do next. First, by completing secondary school they are in a much better position to find employment, apprenticeships, or further education than without graduating. Many will have relatives in the cities with whom they can go and live to find employment. These relatives are reluctant to take them in while they are in education as this means they then have to pay the fees and cover their subsistence costs. After graduation, those moving in with their relatives will be employable and earning a living to contribute to the household income. Thus relatives are far more amenable to having them come stay.
Second, we will also be encouraging the students to volunteer in their villages while they are at school. Activities such as providing adult literacy or numeracy classes are very much in demand, especially by the women. This gives something back to the community as a whole, empowers those they are teaching, and gives the students good experience to further increase their employability.
When researching into this there were a lot of articles focusing on the fact that while you may be led to believe you are sponsoring a child, you are actually just contributing to a development aid programme and the children, or emotive photos of such children, are just used to play on the heart strings and pry open wallets. It’s easy for us to say from the outset we are not doing that. We are purely and simply sending the money from the sponsors to the schools of the sponsored children for each specific child. The sponsor will be connected to that child for the duration of their primary and secondary education (financial circumstances permitting, otherwise The Lwazi Programme will take over with a slush fund to make sure those committed to continue to be supported). We will never force anyone to sponsor a child nor to continue sponsoring a child if they find they are no longer able to. But we do ask all potential sponsors to commit to as long term as they can. This means some sponsors request a younger child so they have longer to get financially settled before the fees increase for secondary. Others sponsor those in the higher grades because they can already afford, and are willing, to pay the secondary costs. And yes, we are creating a slush fund through extra fundraising that will provide a buffer should a sponsor drop out.
To take more words from the blog:
“The fact is, with finite resources, we often cannot help everybody but this is never a good reason not to help anybody. The result will, in some sense, be ‘unfair’ – one person will be helped and another not, for no good reason, but that’s OK, ethically speaking”.
For me, the main checks and balances come from the Zimbabweans involved in The Lwazi Programme. My two Zimbabwean friends and colleagues who founded the programme with me grew up in rural areas and have struggled their way to the position they are in today, helped along at times by initiatives similar to The Lwazi Programme. They have so much energy and enthusiasm for what we are trying to do together that it gives me confidence. Likewise, the Headmasters are fully supportive expressing their gratitude and praise. In part this is because there is very little being done in these villages and they feel somewhat forgotten, but it is also because they too understand the value of educating the children in their villages and the value that being in school brings to the children and and to their families. We also have support from the District Educational Officer who upon realising we do not want anything in return for implementing the programme in two of ‘his’ villages, gave us permission immediately. These are the people I am listening to more than the little devil on my shoulder telling me people in the development field would disagree, think me naive, and shake their heads at the idea. As time progresses we will also be getting more feedback from the families and children involved in the programme to make sure there are not any untoward and unexpected consequences.
Reflexivity such as this is good, constructive, and responsible but it can also be restrictive and mean nothing ever gets done. There will always be moments of doubt, areas of concern and people who disagree with what we are doing. I will continue to reflect, the organisation will continue to reflect, and if at any point we reach the stage where we cannot morally answer any concerns, we will reconsider what we are doing.
In such a complex world, there are always issues, always knock on effects, always cons to the pros, and always opportunity costs or conflicts in what people think are the most important things to be dealt with. At the end of the day, this programme is about giving some vulnerable children an education, a childhood, and a chance at a better future. There are knock on effects, positive and negative, but overall if there is money given to do this, who are we to turn it down? (I think this may be another post soon enough)… !
On another note, we have just become an official Charitable Trust (hurrah). This now means we are governed by charity law and regulations (gulp). Massive thanks to Andrew Statham and Louise Edmunton who have willingly boarded this journey as Trustees.