Friday, January 11, 2013

Does Child Sponsorship Work?

Normally, I really like the Freakanomics podcast and think they provide many thought-provoking and educational articles/podcasts.  However, a quote from a recent blog got my ire up a bit.  The question was raised as to whether child sponsorship can improve the lot of girls in India, and here is what NYU economist  and  development scholar  William Easterly had to say.
"Stephen and Steve, can I volunteer my services to save you from embarrassment on the blog post today on sponsoring infant girls?  It’s been known in aid and development for decades that child sponsorship does not work (unless you by “work” you mean attract donations). The NGOs that originally did it (most notoriously Save the Children) have been forced by critics to abandon it, and no reputable NGO promotes child sponsorship today.  The reason it never worked (and in fact Save the Children was also forced to admit that they really never even actually did it) is simple: the administrative costs of tracking small donations from an individual donor to an individual recipient child are enormous, so that the administrative costs would eat up all of the donation and then some. So there’s no need to crowdsource this question: just ask any development economist or NGO veteran.

All the best,
To which I say, "balderdash!"  Having seen the results of child sponsorship first-hand and even blogged about it a bit here and here and here, I just don't buy it.  For one thing, Dr. Easterly seems to be using an unnecessarily stringent and misleading description of child sponsorship.  Of course child sponsorship doesn't work exactly the way he defines it most of the time.  First world donors donate every month to cover the average cost of providing the NGO's services for an individual child (e.g., typically food assistance, basic health care and most importantly education).  No child sponsorship organization that I'm aware of tracks individual dollars from all donors to the particular child recipient.*  Christmas and birthday gifts are most often separate donations, but even those are averaged out so that no child is left out if a family can't make an extra donation to cover the gifts and parties.    Honestly, it sounds to me like the guy is basing his opinion on either weird definitions of child sponsorship or shoddy, 30 year old "research."  As someone in the comm boxes noted, the only scholarly work that I'm aware of to look at this question found demonstrative positive effects, and this was looking at Compassion International (an organization that IMO is the leader in sheer numbers but not in the effectiveness of their child sponsorship programs).

Also, critically, I think Dr. Easterly is missing the whole point of the child sponsorship program benefits vs. other models.  The core idea isn't to link individual donations to individual children.  It is to average out the donations across large pools of people and to make individual personal connections.  That is the key.  Child sponsorship organizations don't just provide the opportunity for a first world family to provide for the average cost of education, food, etc. for a child in the developing world: they provide an opportunity for people to get to know each other across cultures and become close friends through letters, pictures and even personal visits (if the first world family can afford it).  So many of our charitable donations go to faceless organizations to provide services to people whom we will never meet or get to know and understand.  One of the most valuable services child sponsorship organizations provide is cultural exchange.  The opportunity for people in the first and 3rd worlds to get to know one another and to share their joys and dreams.  This provides hope and encouragement to kids in the developing world and a dose of reality to us cosseted first worlders who forget that we are some of the luckiest people on the planet, resource-wise.  In a recent letter that we got from our oldest sponsored girl, she wrote that she was looking forward to graduating from college "so that my father will never have to work again."   Talk about culture shock: how many American's do we know who could/would ever say something like that?  We live in a country that spends relatively little on education and children relative to what we spend on the elderly.  Grandparents often live on their own and have more disposable income than their grown children and grandchildren.  It is easy to forget that the developing world isn't like that.  It is kid's who get more government spending in the form of school subsidies while the elderly are mostly ignored and left by governments' to their families' care.  My wife has sponsored this young lady for over thirteen years now (since the sponsored girl was in grade school and before my wife and I were even dating).  Looking at all this young lady has overcome and accomplished and at how grateful she is to her father and others who have helped her along her way is very humbling and awe-inspiring.  She truly is one of my greatest heroes and I hope (if we have another daughter) to name her after this young lady and to be able to point my daughter to the letters we have received if she ever asks how/shy she got that name.
How many NGOs can you point to that provide such inspiration and proof of the excellent work they do, and all for the cost of a few translators.  Far from not working, child sponsorship through groups like the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging provide some of the most demonstrably effective aid of any group, anywhere.    
I recognize that the folks at Freakanomics are bigshots who would probably never read a podunk blog like this.  I also realize that they were posting someone else's opinion about which they expressed their own doubts.  However, I really think they missed the boat on this topic and posted some very inaccurate claims.  It is my hope that they look into this topic further and either offer some evidence/clarification on how/why child sponsorship (as  implemented in the real world) doesn't work or a retraction.  Heck, I'd even settle for them offering an alternative point of view, perhaps from one of the U. of San Francisco folks who wrote the article countering the claim of Dr. Easterly.

*As a clarification, I'm not saying donations from particular individuals to particular recipients *never* happens, only that it is rare and the exception to the rule for efficiency reasons.  As an example of an exception to the rule, when one of our sponsored kids got to college, her educational costs increased dramatically to the point that our sponsorship amount was only covering fraction of her tuition, books, etc. and she had to make up the rest with scholarships, jobs and meager family contributions.  When the economic collapse hit in 2008, one of her primary scholarships was cut due to funding shortages, leading her to write that she would be dropping out of college one year shy of getting her degree and would not be able to continue correspondence after a few months.  After our sponsored girl got so close, my wife and I could see that she was heartbroken at not being able to finish college and provide a stable and reliable income for her family.  I made a call to CFCA and was able to inquire as to what it would take to cover for the cut scholarship, allowing her to graduate.  However, such circumstances are unusual and not the rule.  That said, how much tracking is really required to implement something like that.  It took two phone calls between myself and CFCA's front office and an inquiry between the CFCA's US office and their overseas office to make all the arrangements to cover the increased scholarship/sponsorship donations for the next year.  That hardly seems like a exorbitant overhead burden, especially considering CFCA didn't have to (and wouldn't have) pursued special fundraising to make up the difference for one individual.  When the costs rise significantly above the average that they quote to donors, they most often have to cut the kids from the program.  There are too many other kids waiting for help for whom the average cost is sufficient.  However, in staying true to their mission, if an individual donor steps up their donations, they make sure the child gets it.