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10 May 2013

Does child sponsorship work?

Child sponsorship has been criticised over the years, with some bemoaning its approach as wasteful spending and the cause of family rifts within the cultures that they are in fact intending to help.

But a wide-ranging new study based on the work of Alliance member Compassion has found that child sponsorship does indeed work.  

The independent study – published in the Journal of Political Economy - was carried out by academics at the University of San Francisco and found that children who took part in Compassion's holistic child development sponsorship programme stayed in school longer.

The research looked at sponsorship in six developing countries – Guatemala, India, Kenya, Bolivia, the Philippines, and Uganda, and involved interviews with more than 10,000 adults – comparing those who had been sponsored with those who had not.

It found that sponsored children were more likely to become leaders in their communities and churches than their peers who did not participate in the programme.

Tim Hanna, Compassion Australia's CEO, said: "I'm very excited about the results of this research. We have known for many years that Compassion child sponsorship is making a deep and lasting difference in the lives of individual children—now we have world-class independent research to support this."

Despite around $3.2 billion going into child sponsorship – and more than nine million children around the world enrolled in some sort of child sponsorship programme, little extensive research has been done into just how effective it is. Until now.

The results showed "large and statistically significant positive impacts from child sponsorship on years of completed schooling, primary, secondary and tertiary school competition, and on the probability and quality of adult employment".

World Vision UK is another Alliance member that runs child sponsorship programmes. Sharon McCleod, the organisation's sponsor ambassador, said: "Child sponsorship is a great way to link people in the UK with families thousands of miles away, where children are often exposed to violence, abuse and exploitation including child marriage.

"In some places, parents are struggling to provide even the most basic things for their children like education, food and clean water.

"The generosity of sponsors in the UK turns this situation around, helps to save lives, and benefits entire communities.

"What's more, our sponsors get the chance to write to and receive letters from their sponsored children, send cards at Christmas and birthdays and learn about life in a community they may never have heard of otherwise."

Ian Hamilton, CEO of Compassion UK, told the Alliance: "The results are really encouraging because the research was so extensive. We are aware of the criticisms of child sponsorship, but this study validates our own findings. That's not to say that other models are not valid."

Alliance member Tearfund explained the reasons why they have stopped their child sponsorship programme in favour of other methods.

Andrew McCracken, Tearfund's UK director, said: "We used to offer child sponsorship but we stopped because it's actually a very difficult way to serve the world's poorest and most vulnerable children. We celebrate anything that gets people thinking about the scandal of poverty, but we believe that it's not the best way to achieve our vision of building a network of 100,000 local churches to lift 50 million people out of poverty.

"Child sponsorship makes it difficult to guarantee that children can be tracked and monitored over the long-term, so we don't do it because we need to find sustainable ways to help people."

But Compassion thinks differently. Especially when they see lives transformed. Like that of Ntale David in Uganda – now a veterinary specialist, but who lived in poverty as a child.

"Life was not good at all," said David, 33. "We used to sleep on the ground with no mattresses." David's parents couldn't read or write and were what he calls "peasant farmers" in the Ugandan town of Nakatete.

"Sometimes we used to eat once a day, sometimes twice and, when lucky, thrice a day."

He entered Compassion's child sponsorship programme when he was nine and it was at their child development centre in Nakatete that he learned more about herding goats, sheep, pigs, and cows. He also learned about gardening, carpentry, personal hygiene, nutrition and became a Christian. "If it wasn't for Compassion, life would be bad," he said.

Compassion UK's Ian Hamilton said that child sponsorship doesn't just transform the life of the child, but also has a big impact on the adult sponsor. "The benefit for the sponsor is that they are connected to an individual child as opposed to some nebulous giving where they can only hope that it's having an effect."