Profs Tackle a Big Question: Can Child Sponsorship Programs Really Make a Difference?

Christianity Today this month covers new, highly-significant research for those who care about vulnerable children. It’s written by Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. He introduces the article:

“What can an ordinary person like me do to help the poor?” When people find out at parties and social gatherings that I am a development economist (and yes, we economists do attend such events), often they ask me this question. For a long time my response was the same: “Perhaps sponsor a child?”… But over time my autopilot response started to annoy me. The truth was that I hadn’t the slightest clue about the effect child-sponsorship programs had on children.

The article describes how Dr. Wydick and his colleagues waded deep into sponsorship programs, seeking firm answers in data. Ultimately, they studied the results in six countries—Uganda, Guatemala, the Philippines, India, Kenya, and Bolivia—of sponsorship programs run by the CAFO member Compassion International.

The results are remarkable. You’ll need to see the article here for the full results, but here’s one glimpse:

In all six countries, we find that sponsorship results in better educational outcomes for children. Overall, sponsorship makes children 27 to 40 percent more likely to complete secondary school, and 50 to 80 percent more likely to complete a university education. Child sponsorship also appears to be the great equalizer in education: In areas where outcomes are worse, such as sub-Saharan Africa, impacts are bigger. In countries where existing outcomes aren’t as bad, like in India and the Philippines, impacts are significant but smaller. In countries where existing outcomes are higher among boys, the impact on girls is larger; in countries where the existing educational outcomes are higher for girls, the impact on boys is larger. We even find some evidence for spillover effects on the unsponsored younger siblings of sponsored children.

This certainly doesn’t prove that all sponsorship programs work. But it does indicate that well-run sponsorship models can make a difference…a big one. That’s something we all can celebrate.

I particularly appreciate some of the closing conclusions the author makes, gleaned from the qualitative side of the researchers’ work. It isn’t exactly scientifically provable…yet. But it gets to the heart of what the most wise and thoughtful leaders seeking to address poverty and other physical needs have always emphasized:

The traditional approach to development work has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals and provide doctors, or we drill a freshwater well. If their small businesses are stagnant, we provide microcredit so they can borrow. While each of these interventions can be helpful in the right context, mere provision fails to address the root of poverty: the behaviors, social systems, and mindset that are created by poverty. The key to ending poverty resides in the capacity of human beings—and their view of their own capacity—to facilitate positive change.

Indeed, every time we provide something for someone else in need, we send a subtle message to them that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. While some interventions are necessary, especially in the area of health, they come at a cost of reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor. Good development organizations understand this. Along with providing some basic resources that allow children to progress farther in school, the child-development approach advocated by Compassion appears to get under the hood of human beings to instill aspirations, character formation, and spiritual direction. In short, it trains people to be givers instead of receivers.

Yes, on both a quantitative and a qualitative level, these are truths worth investing in!