Vinoth Ramachandra

Educating Donors

Posted on: May 30, 2013

“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.

But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?

Libraries groan under the weight of academic theses and books analysing poverty and theorising about development. They have provided employment and financial security to economists. They have done precious little for the world’s poor. The biggest single obstacle to ending poverty is not the lack of economic knowledge but the lack of political will. Politicians who truly care for the poor will somehow find pragmatic solutions rather than being bound by ideologies of the right or the left.

One doesn’t have to be a high-paid consultant or “poverty expert” to know that, for instance, corruption robs the poor; that social class is the principal determinant of school performance; that nutrition, healthcare and education are more vital for a nation’s security and well-being than missile systems, national airlines and superhighways. Yet the rich states continue to sell arms to poor nations and invest in projects that benefit their businesses more than the poor. Kofi Annan recently stated that capital flight from Africa to banks in the West (including tax havens which are British and American protectorates) amounts to three times what is given as official development aid.

The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.

No doubt child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for raising funds. That is why it persists despite repeated concerns expressed by local people. If the money raised does go to support a specific child, then there is at least a financial integrity about the program. But it raises some difficult questions. Who gets chosen and why? What about the children in the village or slum community who are left out? Since the cost of living varies enormously, how does a child-sponsoring organization based in the US determine that (say) $30 per month will meet the needs of a child in South Sudan, the Philippines or Bolivia? Are local economists and educationists consulted in the process? Never, in my experience. Quite simply someone or some group in the donor nation is employed to work out how much an average donor is willing to donate each month and this suddenly becomes what sponsorship costs! It has little to do with real costs on the ground. It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.

Many child sponsorship programmes have long moved away from real child sponsorship, and the photos and stories of children boil down to a means of hooking people into funding community development projects in which the children in the photos are among the beneficiaries. At a local development level this makes far more sense. At the fundraising level I think it does raise issues of integrity. Are the donors informed that this is how their funds are being used? Whatever the style of sponsorship, the process also inevitably exaggerates the importance of the donor over that of the local people providing the care and training on the ground.

The biggest and best-known of the child sponsorship organizations promises its donors, largely drawn from conservative evangelical American churches, that they will “present every child with an opportunity to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults”. For those of us living in societies largely hostile to Christian faith, and where churches working with the poor are often accused of using financial help as an incentive to “conversion”, such promises send shivers up our spines. Are parents and guardians consulted? Or does the promise mean that only orphans are helped, and that parents who oppose their children being taught Bible stories will be sidelined? This, too, raises ethical concerns.

Moreover, when a sponsor asks on the organization’s website questions such as “Should I visit my sponsored child?”, it is other sponsors who reply, not local people on the ground.

There is no shortage of Christians in poor nations who have learned the skills necessary to court donors from rich nations. They know what is the “flavour of the month” where giving by evangelical Americans or Singaporeans is concerned. That foreign donors need to be educated does not seem to register on their thinking.

33 Responses to "Educating Donors"

What you tried to present is indeed very true. Speaking from the point of a country receiving donations, as you rightly said Christians are very much accused of converting people of other faith into Christianity for financial aid. Moreover in India integrity part in many organization is questionable. We have a system where organizations are run for the sake of being run or sometimes to get rich!. Also a lot of funds that come to the aid of the poor are eaten by the officials in between. Outwardly seeing the students are getting food/whatever aid. But the officials do keep one part of it.

A more deeper question that again needs to be asked is eradication of poverty society by society rather than individual by individual. The present trend is that financial aid is given to the chosen few. But at the same time a lot others are neglected. (the reasons for this may be because of lack of sufficient funds)[ofcourse some good is better than nothing !]. But the outcome is on the one side, few families develop and on the other jealousy and a feeling of favoritism is induced in the other families belonging to the same community. This may go to another extent of racial or religious rivalry too.

Thank you for this article. I agree with your arguments. Just a comment about the fishermen. The swiss television was making a report in Senegal, after the government decision to end some contracts that were allowing large cargos to make industrial fishing. Through this decision, local fishermen are now able again to catch enough fish and the local economy is becoming healthy again.

The problem with educating foreign donors is that many of them resist education. Who wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

For a moment I though maybe Vinoth and I would agree on something. Alas, I was disappointed yet again. I can cite countless articles from around the world where it is the local fishermen who completely depleted the fishing stocks. There are numurous species which are nearly extinct because of local fisherman. Even in my local waters of the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, there are fish that have gone extinct 50 years ago from local fisherman. I have been all over the world and worked in countless poor villages. Most of these villages piped the waste straight into the rivers. So please spare me the myth that locals are sustainable because they are local.

[…] quote comes from a very thoughtful blog post by Vinoth Ramachandra which goes on to question one of the most popular forms of helping the […]

Luke Moon, talk about an adventure in missing the point. Surely the least we can do is be attentive to the argument an author is wanting to make. Instead you read the first paragraphs of the post and go off half-cocked about a minor sub-point in the article. Way to go! Btw, I can cite countless articles proving the complete opposite of your articles. And where exactly does Vinoth say that locals are sustainable because they are local? Please keep having conversations with yourself and spare us your ill-informed indignation.

I’m not sure where this leaves me, a relative rich westerner that wants to help. Should I stop sending money?

Yesterday, I read the cover article from the most recent Christianity Today: ‘Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child” in which the economist makes the claim that studies show child sponsorship does make an significant impact on poverty. Many of the issues raised by Vinoth are not addressed in this article (such as which children are chosen, how you standardize the amount per child across various countries, etc.). Even so, I am struggling with where this article and Vinoth’s post are reconcilable and where they are not.
My understanding is that Vinoth is trying to promote that fundamental political systems/structures need to be as a priority over giving money to organizations who help selected children. But apart from trying to make a difference in political structures, I am wondering what are more effective ways for US American individuals to help the poor from other disadvantaged/exploited countries. Are micro-lending agencies such as ‘Kiva’ a better vehicle or do they have similar deficiencies as child-sponsorship organizations?

@Mark: some constructive ideas can be found here: is helpful.

@Andrew. I’m a big fan of and would be more inclined to think that supporting entrepreneurs in pursuits they have initiated – although still at an individual level – remains constructive in that entrepreneurship is an essential component of any poverty eradication strategy. (Also, with Kiva, it’s not set up with donations being the necessary method of support; your loan is, after all, paid back.)


There are other (perhaps more costly) ways you can contribute than merely sending money. Some of my previous Blog posts mention what we would like our friends in rich nations to be doing within their own nations which can help us…

But if you do send money, give it to ministries and organizations (whether Christian or non-Christian) with whose aims and strategies you agree. And do some research into how they actually operate. Part of that research should include:

(a) Finding out who sits on their Board and who are the decision-makers on the ground? If the organization claims to be “international”, yet its Board comprises mostly people from one nationality or living in the same country, SHUN IT!

(b) If you are interested in a particular country, find out something about the history of that country and the state of the Church (preferably not books written by Western evangelicals). Try to get to know some local people from that country, perhaps even living in your own city. Write to some national church leaders (not just one) to find out how they perceive the ministry or organization that you are supporting (or their local partners).

Generally, I would suggest supporting a “home-grown” ministry or organization, other than an international one, because their overheads are much lower and they are usually more effective.

Andrew S,

Firstly, I didn’t speak about political systems/structures (though they are significant). I spoke of politicians who had the will to promote justice and alleviate poverty- especially in poor nations, but also in rich nations that trade with poor nations. (As an example, read what has been happening in some Latin American countries in recent years). Leaders count.

Secondly, please note that Christianity Today is an American magazine written for a conservative Christian readership in the US. Even the articles on Asia and Africa are written by Americans. And that readership loves to imagine that they can change the world. They are constantly looking for simplistic solutions, easy answers. And I cannot help thinking that child sponsorship is perfectly designed for that kind of audience.

Thirdly, similar things have been said about micro-credit (see my post “Micro-Credit Hype”, 26 December 2011, as well as “The Poverty Business”, 15 January 2010). If only we can make all poor people into little capitalists, all will be well!

How very hard we find it to speak of this without the child becoming objectified as the metric of our piety and the success indicator of our sense of “economic justice”.
Judgments about children in sponsorship programs are made in terms of comparisons set to indicators which take western developmental benchmarks as ‘normative’.
Western childhoods therefore are also commandeered as a metric of superiority also.
Meanwhile western discourse of childhood recognises its own deep moral failure in objectifying, problematising, manipulating and trophy-making our own children.
An unfitting thing for all of us.

Thanks for the post Vinoth. Food for thought …

I’ve been puzzling over this post for several days now. As a part of the world-wide Anglican communion, I’ve met Christians from other nations, and have avenues for contribution outside the large organizations you describe. Our church, as well, works in partnership with diocese in other parts of the world, funding projects determined by leaders in those places. But most Christians I know have no idea how to find indigenous mission organizations, or how they could give more directly to needs in other nations – or even, too often, to needs in other neighborhoods.

This suggests a need for churches to build partnerships – between suburban, urban and rural churches, between churches in West and East. But more immediately, it also suggests a need for indigenous mission organizations to be made more visible to those who would like to help. I’ve given through Christian Aid, which supports hundreds of homegrown ministries. I’d be interested to know if there are other avenues for giving more directly to on-the-ground ministries, or successful attempts to make direct giving more accessible.

In part i think it highlights the difficult cultural lens that christians see through. A western individualised culture leads easily to an individualised gospel in which we can easily feed our god complexes with our white saviour actions. This lens helps us understand why child sponsership and microfance enterprises are so popular in our culture. The poorest of the poor are often not helped by mircofinace… not everyone has the personality make up to run a business. Poverty is not packagable and unfortunately the aid and development sector in their desire to engage western donors has often told told stories that give the impression it is.
The real answers require much more work of exploring the real issues, hearing the diverse voices from the ground, not being satisified with sound bites and a reductionist world. We are meant to get our hands dirty, be affected by the complexities, feel connected to our brothers and sisters in christ and realise our own complicancy. It is in this process of sitting in the uncofortable places that we can come to Christ humbly realising that we arent the answer and are dependant on him. I have found TEAR Australia helpful in in that journey….giving voice to the people on the ground, being real about the complexities, working to make equal partnership with local organisations. I am sure there are many others.

[…] an excellent blog on educating donors Vinoth Ramachandra argues that ‘child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for […]

Hi Vinoth,

You raise good points but, like Carol, I’ve been wondering what I – a rich westerner – can do with them. Here are two thoughts:

1. Handled appropriately, child sponsorship itself can be an excellent way to educate donors. I’m currently reading a Psychology for a Better World by Niki Hare (available as a free download from the author’s website). The book looks at what psychological research can tell us about how to go about effecting social change. One point she makes is that people are more likely to respond generously to the plight of one person in need than to the plight of many people in need. Child sponsorship makes use of that psychological trait by giving a potential donor a single person to respond to.

Once the potential donor has responded in that way, the agency providing sponsored children is in a position to further educate them about development needs and where they can help. However, without the ‘hook’ of sponsorship, the agency would have been unlikely to be able to provide such education: child sponsorship gives them the entree into the life of the donor and can provide an educational opportunity.

I don’t know about other Western countries, but the two main Christian agencies in New Zealand that provide child sponsorship (TEAR Fund and World Vision) both give donors the opportunity to support many other development and emergency relief projects and actively educate donors about them. For myself, as a young adult at a Christian music festival I was moved to sponsor a child through one of these agencies. Over time, I came to understand more about development and have supported a variety of other projects instead.

2. The advantages of directly supporting indigenous development initiatives are obvious but, in practise, it’s very difficult to do. I agree with Carol that it’s difficult to find such initiatives – I suspect that the majority would, indeed, be impossible to find as it’s not trivial for people with little access to resources to have a web presence.

However, in two cases I have come across indigenous initiatives that I have been keen to support. In the case of one (BEN Namibia – which provides bicycle ambulances etc. in Namibia) this wasn’t too difficult: through their website I was able to make a credit card donation and could have set up monthly donations etc. just as I could for a New Zealand charity. In the other case (Al Nayzak – an organisation which provides extension education to gifted kids in Palestine) I needed to make an international bank transfer directly to their account. I was unable to do this at first as my NZ bank appeared to have no links to their Palestinian bank and, in the end, I had to transfer money into their Israeli account from which I gathered they would – with difficulty – be able to transfer the money to Palestine.

My ability to support both of these indigenous charities depended on them:

– having a web presence

– being able to communicate with me in English

– having access to the international banking system

This doesn’t seem ideal!

I suspect that a better way for people such as myself to support indigenous initiatives is for NGOs in our own countries to take up a brokerage role. They can identify reputable charities overseas, bring them to our attention and then handle for us the communication and money transfer aspects. In New Zealand, TEAR Fund has taken on this role, and it sounds from Carol like TEAR Australia and Christian Aid do something similar.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking post.

–Heather 🙂

Heather, thank you. Your last paragraph sums up what my wife and I have long been requesting foreign NGOs to do. This, surely, is what respectful partnership involves, rather than diverting resources away from local initiatives.

I know that TEAR-Australia does this well; I don’t have any experience with TEAR-New Zealand, but am planning a visit to your country in late July/early August, so hope to dialogue with them (and any others interested) on similar issues.

There’s no Tearfund in the US, but it’s possible to give to TEAR in other countries through

Apparently there’s a Christian Aid in the UK that addresses poverty. The Christian Aid I mentioned is based in the US but exists specifically to fund indigenous mission in other countries: The founder, Bob Finley, wrote a book on this topic: Reformation in Foreign Missions, encouraging mission dollars to be directed to training and supporting indigenous missionaries rather than the expensive training and relocation of missionaries from developed nations.

As you may know, IFES operates a child sponsorship program in at least one country. It would be interesting to hear what you do or don’t like about that particular operation

Greg, this is news to me. I suspect you are confusing it with another organization. Please give me more information.

There is an indigenous missionary organization called AIM (Advancing Indigenous Missions) that, interestingly, has its head office (very tiny and grassroots) here in Winnipeg. Its thrust is the training of indigenous pastors in the 10/40 window area by providing ongoing seminars and other educational supports. Adjunct to this is ANM )Advancing Native Ministries)- that works with native ministers and missionaries in the U.S.

I give to Kiva because there are few hoops to jump, and there is accountability required from the borrowers. As with any investment, the business may succeed, or not. If so, the original donation/investment (minimum $25) can be put into another business. If not, that’s how it is. There is usually a request for a $3.75 ‘donation’ to cover admin costs.

I don’t know of any Christian lending groups (other than MEDA — thru the Mennonite church, which requires a fairly hefty initial investment). If anyone can help me here, I would be most grateful. But so far, Kiva is fine. One can support small business entrepreneurs (and by extension, their families) from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

FOCUS Uganda runs a child sponsorship program.

Details are on the FOCUS Uganda website. I don’t think WordPress will let me paste in the link

Gregg, this is not IFES- IFES is the network of over 150 national movements, every one of which is independent. If students or graduates of a national movement like FOCUS-Uganda want to start a community development project, and they concentrate on helping orphans and other vulnerable children, well and good. It is not my concern. But if they try to “export” this project worldwide, then I have to get involved.

At least their project looks like having been locally initiated and locally owned, and I trust that their donors are well-informed about how their donations are actually being used.

Furthermore, you seem to think that I was making a blanket condemnation of child sponsorshop. That is not so. I raised concerns that have been around a long time but which don’t seem to be addressed by those who promote child sponsorship as a panacea. The questions I raised were about who makes all the decisions that need to be made, what promises are made to donors and why, and how the funds are administered.

I generally agree with you that supporting a child overseas is not always the best way to do missions.
However, when I was in Kenya, I met several families who told me how helpful the money had been in keeping their children in schools. They were recipients of Compassion International. One was a Masai mother whose only son could now go to school. Another was a widower, a pastor, with five children. They were so grateful.
Before meeting them, I had first given to Compassion, then let it drop. I speak fluent Spanish and some French, and specifically asked for a child with whom I could communicate. I received a Haitian boy whose Kreyol letters I couldn’t understand. I lost touch with Compassion when we moved.
But having met these parents in Kenya, I have thought of doing this again. However, I have also met individuals from Africa who have caring ministries and give my money there now.
I want to mention a group, Solidarity Uganda, which is working to prevent the government from taking away family farms and thus throwing those families into poverty. I am also working on a project to purchase solar generators in countries where electrical power is uncertain and diesel fuel to run generators is expensive. I am again working with people I came to know through either through relationships or through facebook..with names and causes I could check on (they named people I knew to talk with about them.)
There are a lot of immigrants in the US…get to know some, and they may give you a direction for ways to help.


I am aware of the structure of IFES and should have been more precise in my original post. An IFES member movement operates a child sponsorship program in Uganda.

I am not sure what in my brief question indicated that I thought you were making a blanket condemnation. I just thought your perspective on an IFES affiliated organization would be interesting and it might possibly be an example of a program that addressed some of the issues you raised.

Vinoth, here is the story that Andrew referred to. I think if you read through it, you’ll see that many of cautions that you raise are actually answered. It isn’t Christianity Today who did the research. It was an academic endeavor, and peer-reviewed.

James, I am sorry but I don’t think any of the concerns I raised are addressed in this article.

Do we really need research to tell us that giving a child money towards schooling improves his or her educational outcomes? Or that self-worth is an important factor in child development?

The voice of poor communities is typically missing in this research. Why is the director of Compassion (who lives in the US) interviewed and not local economists, community leaders and development practitioners? Sure, foreign donors can send money to children towards their education, but what determines the quality of education they receive- or whether they even have teachers in their village?

Hi Vinoth

Although this post has been written a while ago, I just read the following and remembered the discussions here:

[…] balanced and managed and donors need to understand the issues. Vinoth Ramachandra recently wrote an excellent post exploring some of these […]

[…] balanced and managed and donors need to understand the them. Vinoth Ramachandra recently wrote an excellent post exploring some of these […]

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May 2013
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