chosen child sponsorship
Poverty and Exclusion

Child sponsorship: giving children the power to choose their sponsor is nearer the kingdom of heaven

“It’s a new thing a missionary priest started last term. You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and
they christen a baby and name her after you. I’ve got six black Cordelias already. Isn’t it lovely?”

Evelyn Waugh outlined the model of child sponsorship in Brideshead Revisited (1945). It may be the first mention of the practice in English literature, and it’s interesting to note that the sponsor doesn’t simply give money benevolently, but receives reciprocally: Cordelia donates five shillings, and little black girls are christened ‘Cordelia’ and then hopefully flourish in Africa bearing their sponsor’s name. But Cordelia has no way of knowing from the colonnades of Brideshead whether her humanitarian effort leads to flourishing or not, hence the model of child sponsorship was extended over the decades to monthly giving (though probably not of five bob) and ongoing correspondence to provide updates which might sustain that ‘lovely’ feeling, inducing ongoing prayer and further feelings of charitableness.

More than nine million children around the world are now sponsored by Western donors on this model. According to research from the University of San Francisco, the lives of these sponsored children are impacted greatly by the programmes of many agencies around the world: “ sponsorship increased the probability of a child completing secondary school by 27%–40%, completing a university education by 50%–80%, and obtaining a white-collar job as an adult by about 35%.”

Dr Bruce Wydick, professor of Economics at the University, said: “I believe our research contributes to a new and growing body of investigation that seeks to examine the importance of ‘internal constraints’ to economic development—the importance of aspirations, self-esteem, goals, and reference points related to behaviors that are propitious to helping the poor escape poverty.” Back in 2013, the BBC examined some of the ethical aspects of child sponsorship, and Dr Wydick was emphatic about its virtues: “As a development economist I am used to seeing very modest outcomes from aid programmes, but we were amazed at the size of impacts on kids,” he told them.

So why is there a need to revamp child sponsorship to incorporate giving children the ability to choose their sponsors? Has the child sponsorship model become outdated? Does it need a ‘gimmick’ to raise the profile of its moral virtue and economic efficacy? Would Cordelia have donated five bob if the ‘power’ to take her Christian name had been transferred to the children as they grew up?

Graeme Newton, Director of Public Engagement at World Vision UK, is of the view that ‘Chosen‘ – their new approach to child sponsorship – is more godly because it empowers the child to choose, as opposed to the sponsor flicking through a series of children’s photographs and picking…

Well, who?

The prettiest? The neediest? The kindest looking? The one who likes animals?

Since all the information sponsors are given is a face and the barest background information, it’s hard to believe they are making their choice based on anything other than paternal/maternal feelings of attraction. And some faces are indeed prettier, happier and more appealing than others.

According to Professor Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, attractive people rate highly in positive character traits, such as competence, intelligence and trustworthiness:

“We associate baby-faced appearance with physical weakness, naïvety, submissiveness, honestness, kindness, and warmth. Baby-faced appearance includes relatively larger eyes, a rounder face, a larger ratio of cranium to chin. Neutral faces often resemble emotional expressions. Angry faces are perceived as less likable and trustworthy and more powerful, hostile, and threatening, while the opposite is true for happy faces.

“Troublingly, people also judge criminality and remorsefulness based on faces, as both Todorov and Walker have shown. Perceived criminality increases from left to right in the top two rows; perceived remorsefulness in the bottom two.”

So when potential Western sponsors are flicking through pictures of vulnerable children in Kenya, Uganda or Bolivia, there is a whole psycho-emotional transactional process going on, based on unconscious (and often insurmountable) facial biases which associate (imagined) character with looks. This means that some vulnerable children may be flicked over for many months before they find their sponsor, if they ever do.

This model of sponsorship obviously works, but for the Christian sponsor there is something a little disquieting about choosing your child based on outward appearance (cf Jn 7:24). The remedy would be for ‘blind’ matching, permitting the organisation to allocate children to sponsors based on need (or random apportioning). But that removes the individual choice of the sponsor and is consequently less appealing, which may affect take-up and so diminish income.

So transferring the choice to the child not only mitigates the sponsors’ potential sin of judging rashly and erroneously by appearance, but it empowers the weaker party – vulnerable children who are often entrenched in poverty or trapped by conflict or natural disaster.

Graeme Newton explains:

Letting children choose their own sponsor – rather than being chosen – reflects our unshakeable belief in these children. Our belief that, with the right support, children can change their own lives and their communities. That they, themselves, can be agents of lasting change.

This is an exciting opportunity for Christians to say yes to God’s plan. In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that he came so that we could enjoy life in all its fullness. It’s an indication of the infinite potential inside all of us – wherever we’re born – to rise above the challenges we face.

A few chapters later, in John 15, Jesus says: “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” Chosen joins in with God’s heart, and his belief in the children we serve.

And he touches on some of the choice-evaluation problems outlined above:

Seven-year-old Ndinda in Kenya waited more than a year for a sponsor to pick her. But she didn’t have to keep waiting. Her community took part in Chosen and she picked out a couple – Chrissy and Regis – from hundreds of pictures of potential sponsors who had signed up at church.

Ndinda was captivated by Chrissy’s warm smile. She looked familiar, and she knew immediately that this was who she wanted as her sponsor. “I was very happy because she looked like my mother,” Ndinda says.

It would be interesting to see photographs of Ndinda, and, indeed, to meet her in real life, and then evaluate whether the photographer did her justice, because so much depends on the art of the one who captures the portrait by which a child’s character and soul are perceived.

Ndinda now treasures a photo of Chrissy and Regis. She keeps it in a special box and takes it out every day. “When I look at the photo after school, I smile,” she says. “It makes me feel happy.”

Ndinda says she chose Chrissy because of a warm smile and a sense of familiarity, corroborating Professor Todorov’s research. Being an orphan, she was hoping and praying for a sense of family and security, so wouldn’t have been attracted to powerful, hostile or threatening facial features. Interestingly, when Chrissy found out that Ndinda had chosen her and Regis to be her sponsors, she says she experienced a profound understanding of God’s love. “For me to be a little taste, or a little reminder of who her mum was, to hopefully be another loving female in her life that reminds her of her mum – I feel really honoured. It’s just so, so special,” she said. “I want everyone to have this experience. To know in this moment I am loved, and in this moment, I am chosen. It’s a sacred grounding.”

Graeme Newton adds:

It is transformational to know that through Chosen you have shown a child that they are loved and valued. And even more wonderful, it’s not just one child you help. Donations are pooled to fund programmes that lead to positive changes for everyone in a community. In fact, for every child you help, four more children benefit as well.

You can empower a child to take hold of their future, while giving yourself the joy of being chosen. We all need someone to believe in us. To know they see our potential; that they trust we will flourish. When we show children that we believe in them it builds their self-esteem – a belief that they can reach for the stars.

Chosen‘ doesn’t simply transform the life chances of the children; it changes the sponsor, and so the Church. The adults are saying to the children in need: “I believe in you, and trust you.” And by knowing that, a child would feel empowered. And since their visual apprehension of their potential sponsor is based on the need to be wanted and loved – yes, judging the adults by appearance, but as little children they are nearer to the kingdom of heaven  – the sponsors’ temptation to choose the prettiest or kindest-looking is eradicated, and the more righteous judgment prevails.