Child sponsorship: Off the shelf vs lucky dip.

Child sponsorship in theory is a great concept. A one-to-one relationship between the donor and the child. The ability for the donor to feel like more than just another dollar, and to see that their support alone is making an on the ground difference. Most people do now understand that the money does not go directly and only to the child, but instead to the community that supports them. Even with this knowledge, the process of sponsoring a child still gives people a sense of control over where their donation is going and an emotional connection with the child.

Child sponsorship is an income engine for development organisations. It strikes an emotional chord with potential donors, more so than program or emergency appeals. Behind the big brown eyes of the chosen child the money does get pooled and spent on community projects.

However, I have always struggled with how child sponsorship is portrayed to the public. In short, how the child is ‘marketed’ to a potential sponsor. A crass word to use when relating to supporting children who do genuinely require help, but a concept that must occur for these children and their communities to receive the support they need.

What level of ‘marketing’ is required and acceptable to encourage people to sponsor children?

Is it wrong to have all the pleading faces lined up on your computer screen so that you can flick through and select the cutest one with big brown eyes? Or is this a level of engagement that is necessary for the people who are attracted to child sponsorship to get that feeling of connection and control?

Is it natural to want to ‘see before you buy’?

Being able to choose the jacket in red over the jacket in blue. Even though you know they are the same design from the same material, but for no particular reason you just like red better. It is horrible to compare child sponsorship to online shopping. But people do have preferences. Even good people who want to sponsor children who do need their help. When committing to handing over money every month it is only natural to want to see what your money is going towards.

Lucky dip.

Some organisations do offer child sponsorship in absence of photos and information about the child. People choose to sponsor an anonymous child for $42 per month and only after the credit card details are entered the donor is allocated a child to sponsor. Thus removing the meat-market pre-purchase scenario (and the horrible risks associated with having photos of children online) but at the same time also removing the choice and control over where the money is going and the selective one-to-one relationship which is unique to child sponsorship. Does this un-marketed version still provide the same level of incentive to sponsor a child? If you do not see photos of the child and do not engage ‘pre-purchase’ are you still as likely to sponsor the unknown child?

So many questions and a personal moral dilemma.

For an organization to run sustainable long-term programs it needs a reliable income flow – which child sponsorship provides and I understand. In a bid to increase this income an online shelf of pleading children drives a higher level of emotional engagement and hence more donors. But to what point is it ok to market these children online? Should we just take the blue jacket, hand over our money and put the choice of where our dollar goes into the hands of the experts and bypass child sponsorship altogether. Yeah probably.

24,000 mothers will lose a child today.

We take access to quality health care for granted. Even if you refuse to pay for private health cover, and complain about the waiting times in the public system, you still have medicare and a qualified doctor is never too far away.  You can also pick up the phone and chat to a qualified nurse about a weird stomach cramp at any hour free of charge or do self-diagnosis via google. Accessible medical assistance does save lives, and not everyone is privy to such a service.

Every year 50 million woman in the developing world give birth with no professional help and 8.8 million children and newborns die from easily preventable or treatable causes. 24,000 mothers mourn the loss of a child each and every day.

If these woman and children had access to health professionals millions of lives would be saved. And then if these trained health professionals had access to technology… well the ripple effects would be remarkable. As discussed in the PSFK Future of Health Report, recent advances in technology could dramatically decrease the barriers to medical advice in less developed markets.

The State of the World’s Mothers Report 2010, ranked 160 countries based on mothers’ and children’s health, educational and economic status. Norway ranked number 1, Australia 2, the U.S. 28 and Afghanistan last.  The differences between Australia and Afghanistan are so severe, they are not even comparable – check out the table below.

Australia Afghanistan
Average years of formal education a woman receives 21 4
Number of children that die before the age of 5 1 in 166 More than 1 in 4
Risk of maternal death 1 in 13,300 1 in 8
Average female life span 84 44

The varying level of access to qualified health professionals corresponds directly to the level of health of woman and children in particular.

Trained health workers are present at pretty much every birth in Australia, in comparison to only 14% of births being attended to in Afghanistan.

Over the last 20 years certain developing countries have shown that through investing in training of female health workers lives are saved. Bangladesh has reduced its under-5 mortality rate by 64% due to tens of thousands of female health workers who have promoted family planning, safe motherhood and essential care for newborns. Nepal has achieved similar reductions in maternal and child mortality as a result of training 50,000 female community health volunteers in rural areas.

The role that technology could play in expanding the network of health workers in developing countries, and strengthening their skills and impact is enormous.  Through ideas such as HealthPal, employing a universal health language and making live videos of health workers– all proposed in response to the PSFK Future of Health Report – the gaping health disparity between countries such as Australia and Afghanistan could begin to be diminished.

Check out the short flick below from Save the Children UK about their campaign to make Africa fit for mothers and children.