Waylaid Dialectic

March 30, 2012

Child Sponsorship

Filed under: Aid,Poverty — terence @ 11:07 am

A few years back I was surprised to discover that at least a couple of my old surfing buddies were sponsoring children in developing countries through child sponsorship programmes.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them but, within the development community, child sponsorship is – how shall we put it – rather uncool.

Uncool, because it’s a form of development assistance that is primarily driven by NGO marketing departments. It’s done, not because it’s thought to be the best possible way to tackle poverty, but rather because it’s one of the better available ways of prising open people’s wallets. As Stalin was supposed to have said ‘one death is a tragedy; 10,000 deaths is a statistic’. Similarly, in aid, when confronted by the chance to tangibly help one kid people are more likely to donate than if the plea for help is pitched to them in terms of funding lawyers to contest trade deals to shift GDP growth by 0.1%/annum.

However, just because something is uncool doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Via Lee (again, thanks!) one of the first ever impact evaluations of Child Sponsorship is available, as a PDF, for you to read.

The juicy bits:

Our estimates yield large and statistically significant effects of child sponsorship on a broad array of adult life outcomes. Using an estimation procedure that accounts for possible spillovers onto younger siblings (but not for the possibility of endogenous child selection), we find that child sponsorship results in, on average, 1.53 additional years of completed formal schooling for sponsored children (t = 11.08).3 Instrumental variable estimates that account for endogenous child selection show an impact on the sponsored child of 2.42 years (t = 6.41). Using a pure eligibility instrument that allows for spillover impacts onto non-sponsored children of eligible age in the same village, we obtain an estimated impact of 2.85 additional years of schooling per sponsored child (t = 7.40).

We find child sponsorship to be a “great equalizer” in the sense that the educational impact on sponsored children across the six countries is driven largely by counterfactuals. In the countries where existing (counterfactual) levels of formal schooling were low, we find larger impacts of the sponsorship program than we do in countries where existing levels of education were already high. In places where schooling was higher among boys, we find larger program impacts on girls. Where it was higher among girls, we find larger impacts on boys.

We also uncover impacts on many other adult life outcomes in the six countries that are both large and statistically significant. Our OLS and instrumental variable (IV) estimates indicate that child sponsorship resulted in a 19.6 (32.6) percentage point increase, respectively, in the probability of secondary school graduation, with significant spillovers onto younger siblings, a 7.1 (17.3) percentage point increase in the probability of white collar employment, a 7.3 (8.0) percentage point increase in the probability of sending remittances back to the family. Moreover, marriage by age 20 fell by 4.9 (11.5) percentage points and female childbearing by age 20 dropped by 3.3 (11.8) percentage points. We also find significant increases in the probabilities of living in a house with electricity, with indoor plumbing, and with an improved floor in adulthood, as well as an increased probability of owning a cell phone and almost a doubling of the probability of being a church, community or village leader.

Three things to note:

1. This may be a somewhat atypical child sponsorship programme in that quite a lot of the sponsorship does seem to be focused on individuals rather than communities which, despite what the adds suggest, are often – very sensibly – the focus of this sort of work.

2. These gains are statistically significant and significant in the real sense too (i.e. the magnitude of improvement’s is not to be sniffed at). However, they’re still not telling quite the same tale of inevitable transformation that Child Sponsorship organisations depict in their advertising.

3. The evaluation doesn’t answer perhaps the most important question about Child Sponsorship: is it better or worse than other NGO aid? In this study the counterfactual is no assistance, as opposed to a a good ongoing NGO project that wasn’t designed with marketing in mind.

However, to tie this post back to my surfing buddies, I don’t think that in their case the counter factual was ever going to be donating to an impeccably scoped and designed ideal NGO project. Almost certainly had their consciences not been tugged by the evocative adds they would have kept their credit cards in their wallets, and not donated to anything.

So, in that sense, you’d have to say that – uncool or not – on the basis of the best available evidence child sponsorships come out looking quite good.

On the other hand…This is the second ever impact evaluation of a child sponsorship programme. Second. Ever. After all those years of people sponsoring kids. That’s appalling. What we really need now is an NGO that sponsors poor, orphan impact evaluations…



  1. I also wonder to what extent this gives credence to something like GiveDirectly. If we are to assume that the data points to the success of providing money for an individual has an impact, the question will be to what extent the programming matters. Is it the money that helps, the money plus the individual programming or just the individual programming. I have a feeling that it would be in the middle which brings to question to what extent NGOs and aid can craft programs that are tailored to individuals rather than communities.

    I am with you that there need to be more published studies on this. And for that matter, I would like to see the marketing department start sharing how much of a difference it makes in terms of revenue for child sponsorship programs. As it seems, the success is not the sponsorship per say, rather it is what is done with the money. Formal sponsoring is not needed to implement such programs. And getting back to my earlier questions, to what extent do sponsorship programs impact the way a person understands aid and development? I am interested on what it teaches people, changes in them or reinforces. How does it change their giving and so on.

    Comment by Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave) — March 30, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  2. “And for that matter, I would like to see the marketing department start sharing how much of a difference it makes in terms of revenue for child sponsorship programs.”

    Definitely agree with you on that one…Thanks Tom

    Comment by terence — March 31, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  3. Did the study say which actual program was reviewed? Was it actually reviewing a development model that uses child sponsorship as the funding model – as child sponsorship could be just the funding model and the model on the ground can vary greatly by organisation. Ie, some child sponsorship organisations are using the funding model for community development, others use it for holistic child development. Be good to know more

    Comment by Paul — April 1, 2012 @ 7:33 am

  4. Hi Paul,

    As best I can tell, the model used actually involves individual sponsorships which, as I noted in the post, is sort of atypical as I understand it.


    Comment by terence — April 1, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

  5. The study is based on Compassion International. I believe they are focused on the individual in sponsorship, but do provide assistance for family and community without entirely limiting it to the specific child.

    Comment by Jason — April 10, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  6. Thanks Jason!

    Comment by Terence — April 25, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  7. This is quite an interesting finding. At least it gives proof that child sponsorship fundraising after all, changes people’s lives. In my own experience in the sector, I have seen the lives of individual children as well as that of their own communities change. In the cases where the individual children have also benefitted directly through either getting scholarships or their siblings or even other children getting the scholarships, or an improvement in the learning environments, I have seen tremendous progress in the education of those children.

    When the funds are applied for say community projects which are more encompassing beyond the immediate family for example, mobilizing people to advocate for the fulfillment of certain rights e.g. the right to land, the benefits may not be immediate and sometimes the sponsored children and their families may not see the immediate benefits. However, when it is sustained over a period of time, the changes in policies start having a trickledown effect to the communities.

    The challenge in this second scenario is to ensure that the families have a clear understanding of what is their role in the bigger picture.

    Comment by Maurice — April 25, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  8. Thanks Maurice – I agree. That’s definitely a challenge.

    Comment by terence — April 26, 2012 @ 5:37 am

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