During my trip to Zambia in September 2011 I had a chance to witness the challenging realities of child sponsorship programs. I was able to visit a community in Southern Province of Zambia through the networks of a local Christian NGO. On the day of the trip to the school that was part of the child sponsorship program managed by the NGO, we traveled in three Toyota Land Cruisers along with some of the program officers. When we arrived on site we were informed that we would be paired up with the sponsored children at the school so we could help them write letters to their sponsors. I remembered some examples I have had in the US where those who sponsor children in a far away place really cherish the letters they receive “from their sponsored children,” and wondered if it was okay that we would be helping the children write the letters to their sponsors.
We arrived at the school and we were soon a spectacle—all the students at the school stopped whatever they were doing and stared at the visitors. One of the teachers at the school welcomed us into one of the classrooms that had been emptied of ninth grade students who had been studying pollination and hybrid agriculture. When we sat down we were briefed about the procedure of the visit by one staff member from the NGO. He basically said that he needed our assistance in helping the kids write letters to their sponsors because the kids mostly did not speak very good English and needed some help in constructing their letters to their sponsors. Our local guide told the hosts the reason for us being there stating, “we want these students to tell the sponsors that they have seen the sponsored children. The sponsors in America want the kids to tell them if they have received the money sent to them.”
I know a little about child sponsorship because I have taught courses in community development that focus on that very issue. I remember having my students read a book by Erica Bornstein on development as implemented by faith based organizations in Zimbabwe titled “The Spirit of Development.” When they finished reading a chapter on child sponsorship they became so skeptical of the value of the program. I had to intervene and help them see the value of the program especially when it is done well and when all those that are involved clearly understand the cultural contexts within which each operates (so as to sharpen their understanding of expectations). In one such courses I remember a student asking me in class if I knew why her aunt gets letters from sponsored children that look different (like they are written by different people) and whose stories make no sense. This question came after we watched a documentary about aid in Africa titled “What Are We Doing Here?” in which one part showed children in a child sponsorship program in Ethiopia where the monies sent from abroad did not go directly to the kids sponsored but instead went to the family and community. The students felt that this kind of arrangement was unethical because the organizations ask for money on behalf of a child and then channels it to the community. The argument by the community officer in the video was that when a community changes for the better the child changes for the better. In other words the child is a part of community and she/he is in that condition of need because he/she is part of the larger system in the family and community. You cannot seek to make his/her life better apart from her community unless you take him/her completely out of her community. One the one hand the recipients of sponsorship dollars know only too well that few sponsors will give money if they are told it is to go to help a community. A child is a much more appealing “tool” to get money from sponsors than a family or community. But children are part of families and communities in which there are other members that are in need too. On the other hand sponsors want direct communication with the children they sponsor, they want to know how the money they send to the child is used and if it has any tangible results in the child’s life.
Being at that school in Zambia that day brought my students into a reality check. They were able to see twenty individuals struggling to assist as many kids write letters to their sponsors. I had a young girl who was in sixth grade named Steria. First of all she did not respond to my questions and kept looking away and had her hand over her mouth as she was talking to me when I pushed her to speak. I was told that in the local culture being silent is a sign of respect as was averting one’s gaze. The latter I am familiar with because it is common in many African cultures that I am familiar with where a younger person does not look an elder in the eye when talking. But here I was trying to speak with this sixth grader who could barely speak to me or speak English. I was determined to help her write to her sponsor. I had with me a pencil and a template of a letter to a sponsor provided by the local NGO. Earlier on the program officer from the NGO had mentioned that he writes the letters on behalf of many of the children. He has a thousand children in the program so far and because the majority of the kids cannot write the letters it made sense that he was the one who ended up writing to their sponsors. In my case I had to literally tell Steria what to write. At first I tried to ask her what she wanted to say to her sponsor but nothing was forth coming. I wondered what her concept of her sponsor was and if she ever imagined or even pictured what that person looked like or thought. A colleague helping a young boy next to me did not have any luck either. I think the boy ended up writing his letter in Chitonga (the local language). After helping Steria write, “My name is Steria Munsaka I am in grade six,” I asked her to write something else and she wrote “tgay seman,” telling me it was something about her teacher. I knew we were going to spend the whole day on one sentence. I had to actually show her the letters of the words I was asking her to write. I remembered our youngest daughter who last year as a sixth grader was reading books of more than 300 pages and here was a girl her age who could write nothing else in English except her name. The inequality was astounding! How does Zambia compete in the global market? I finally asked Steria to draw something to be taken to her sponsor and she drew a girl and a boy. I then showed her how to write “thank you” and asked her to write her name. That took us 40 minutes to complete. If I were to expect that each child will really write a letter to her sponsor and would need about 40 minutes then how do I make sure a 1000 of them do so in a way that the sponsors can decipher the intended messages? I know that there were a handful of students from 9th grade that were quite ready to write and did a good job but the majority were those who basically needed the letters written for them.
This scenario (which is repeated in many communities all over Zambia) forces the NGO officer to become the mediator between the sponsored child and the sponsor. And since the child does not really have any tangible relationship with the sponsor the NGO representative also decides what the sponsor needs to know about the child. I heard many of my American students trying to share with the local students some of the things they might consider sharing in their letters. They asked the local students questions such as, “what do you love to do when not in school”; “what subjects are you enjoying in school”; “what do you want to become after finishing school”; “what sports do you play”; “tell me a little about your family,” etc? These are the kind of questions an American child might consider important to answer about self but I wonder how many of these kinds of questions really are part of these local Zambian kids’ realm of experience? Given that the kids are given gifts not money because the money goes to pay for costs related to their livelihood what should they tell the donor? I asked the NGO program office later what the kids get and he mentioned that they get supplies for school including uniform and books as needed, medical care, and their families get food, cooking oil, and other things such as a mattress for the child that he/she is allowed to share with siblings.
How else do you assist a child if not within the context of the household he or she is living? Can you just buy food for the one child who is sponsored? But that is the reality of transnational development. It is what I would call the “challenge of accountability” that requires individuals that have been sponsored to report to their sponsors what direct benefits the sponsorship has brought to their lives. It is expected that a sponsor should make sure that money given is being put to good use of the child in whose name the money is requested. However, we are dealing with two very different cultural contexts: one is based on individual autonomy and the other is based on an individual as an integral part of a community that works to achieve a common goal. Standing out in such a community is not highly encouraged or even a common reality. Given this scenario, therefore, my assumption is that to the sponsor in America it is not enough to have a member of community write on behalf of the child and say in general terms what the sponsorship has done for the child and community he/she lives in (because no one sponsors a community and yet the child exists in community). Even before these sponsored kids got to worry about their education, they would have to have their other basic needs met. Many of the children I saw in that school had signs of great economic need; many had no shoes and their school uniform was torn. The school itself has 571 students and only ten teachers (an average of 57 children per teacher) and goes up to grade nine. The classrooms had dirt floors and some had no windows or doors. How do these children really use education as their bridge from their current status of poverty?