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.
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…