The BBC reported yesterday on a study by researchers at the University of San Francisco showing that Ugandan children sponsored through Compassion International have significantly better lives than those who are not sponsored.
According to a release from the University of Chicago Press Journal of Political Economy, “the study finds that international 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%.”
According to Bruce Wydick, one of the researchers quoted in the release:
“Too often we have focused our development efforts on provision for human beings rather than the development of human beings. Although child sponsorship does indeed provide help with school fees, access to health care, and other tangible benefits, Compassion’s particular approach focuses on the more holistic development of the child, such as development of self-esteem, aspirations, spiritual and ethical values. In follow-up studies involving currently sponsored children, we measure very large impacts in these areas, which we believe play a significant role in what we observe in the difference in adult life outcomes.”
The release goes on mention aspirations, goals, and self-esteem as underestimated factors of economic development. The BBC also reported this argument, as well as that “the spiritual aspect of sponsorship might be intrinsic to transforming children’s lives.”
So what’s unethical about child sponsorship?
According to the article’s lede, the research “has reopened a long and fierce debate over whether this hugely popular form of giving to the poor is either ethical or effective.”
Well, we’re beginning to have some facts about effectiveness, and it’s looking good for Compassion. So what about ethics?
The BBC cites and quotes several individuals, including a woman who grew up as a sponsored child, who believe sponsorship programs have a positive effect on the child and his or her community. The article includes no voices arguing that such sponsorships are unethical. In fact all we get are the lede (claiming that there is a fierce debate), a paragraph in the middle of the story referencing “critics of this form of child sponsorship,” and the last sentence, stating “this issue will still be hotly contested”.
Now, there may actually be ethical problems of the sort briefly mentioned in the article:
But critics of this form of child sponsorship argue it is unfair and discriminatory; while one child is helped others in the community are left behind.
But we wouldn’t know. There isn’t any background on the “fierce debate”. No critical voices are quoted. If this were part of an ongoing news trend, this might be forgiven, but the average person isn’t up-to-date on the fierce debates over child sponsorship. The only information we’re given is that many groups, such as World Vision, have moved away from individual child sponsorship to broader development projects. But just because many groups have moved away from a particular type of project doesn’t mean that project is unethical.
Most of the story is good. It reports the facts found by the researchers and quotes some relevant individuals. But framing the story as being about the ethics of child sponsorship feels contrived.
One might wonder if this is religiously motivated, or more properly, motivated because of the religious nature of Compassion’s programs. The article does mention that “Compassion has often been criticised for proselytising, with its sponsored children being selected by local churches and given an evangelical Christian education.” But I don’t really think this is the motivation for the attempted ethics angle. The same paragraph goes on to read, “But Dr Wydick found the spiritual aspect of sponsorship might be intrinsic to transforming children’s lives.”
All in all, it’s a good, interesting story that is unfortunately poorly framed. The outcomes of the Compassion programs are, as the researchers mention, quite amazing, and this research is an important step in the validation (or invalidation) of such programs.