Did the money do any good?
September 12, 2014 11:09 PM   Subscribe

 
This part was pretty interesting:

...Bruce Wydick, a developmental economist at the University of San Francisco and a Compassion sponsor himself, decided to study the organization. He found that sponsored kids are nearly 27 percent more likely to graduate from high school, have a better chance at getting a white-collar job, and make an average of $14 to $19 more each month. When nearly two-thirds of the country lives on less than a $1.25 a day, as they do in Haiti, that’s a substantial improvement.

I'd be very interested to see this studied by a non-christian non-donor as one can't help but wonder how his own investment in the organization would influence his methodology or conclusions, but still, it's intriguing to think this kind of aid might actually help. I've always assumed it's a net harm.
posted by latkes at 11:27 PM on September 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


Lots of charities do some good. But they are not cost effective or efficient ways of genuinely concerned people helping.

I do think that a program such as GiveDirectly - which gives unconditional cash transfers to poor households in Kenya & Uganda - is a good standard to judge your giving by. If you really want to do good, this is the kind of program you need to be competing with. I don't think unconditional cash transfers are a panacea or end goal of humanitarianism - but if you can't demonstrate that your program does better or roughly as good - then it is very hard to see the justification for the alternative.

Of course, there is another very easy way that America in particular could help Haiitian people - allow them to immigrate to the United States without restrictions. Will never happen of course but would solve the crisis at a stroke.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:29 AM on September 13, 2014 [23 favorites]


So--$14 to $19 more a month. And how much per month was paid for how long to get them that? I have to say that, while it might help, the idea that it only helps at this magnitude... I'd sooner just send cash directly to a family somehow.
posted by Sequence at 1:20 AM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's the jstor link to Wydick's study.

Here's a 2011 ungated link. Not sure what changed between the two versions if anything.

The study was published in the journal of political economy, one of economics' top 4 journals. It's practically improbable to get publications there. I say that only to highlight the scientific importance of the journal as a credential and a cost discriminating signal.

Wydick's methodology employed shouldn't change based on whether he is a supporter or not a supporter of the program. The methods are transparently laid out in the study itself. Economists agree on what constitutes estimating a mean causal effect, and this study follows that logic and work.

Here is a description of the Wydick study written by Wydick and published in Christianity today. It's an impressive result quite frankly. That they authors believe the mechanism by which the intervention influences adult outcomes is via altering child aspersions is fascinating. I can imagine how in poverty traps that aspiration and beliefs about ones own potential is self reinforcing. It requires oftentimes voices outside oneself to say to us that we are valued and possess potential. But since social networks are often formed through homophily connecting, its easy to imagine how someone can get so embedded in a hopeless cycle of poverty that that doesn't occur or may not be personal enough.

www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/june/want-to-change-world-sponsor-child.html#bmb=1

I decided to start sponsoring someone through compassion international after reading Wydick's study. It is rigorous and methodologically sound. And the results are large. But I definitely can understand how someone would want to find an alternative way to help bc of their discomfort with the evangelism. I just am a Christian and see compassion as being effective on non-religious outcomes, and rarely is my giving able to know a priori as much reliable information about the program.
posted by scunning at 1:52 AM on September 13, 2014 [25 favorites]


So--$14 to $19 more a month. And how much per month was paid for how long to get them that? I have to say that, while it might help, the idea that it only helps at this magnitude...

If the article is anything to go by, $35/month for 10-15 years. Given those numbers you'd have a net positive effect as far as money goes, with the donated money being "earned back" in about 30 years. Plus of course that the donated money would help to pay for teachers/schools during the donation period and therefore have a positive effect for other students as well. It does sounds like a limited impact, but at least there's some evidence backing it up. As the article pointed out, Haiti has had an enormous amount of NGOs come in and basically do nothing of lasting value.

However, it seems like there are more effective charities to support. For instance the de-worming programs of Schistosomiasis Control Initiative come out at less than $.50 per child per year and according to this document by Evidence Action "deworming reduced school absenteeism by 25%, increased hours worked as adults by 12%, and increased future wage earnings by 23%". There's a list of more charities with notes on their effectiveness over at The Life You Can Save.
posted by bjrn at 2:43 AM on September 13, 2014 [15 favorites]


I am a big fan of SCI and other public health charities like Deworm the World & the Against Malaria Foundation

For people who want to commit to making difference I encourage people to join Giving What We Can, an initiative set up by Oxford University professors which combines rigorous evaluations of charities with a commitment to giving at least 10% of your income to charity.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:14 AM on September 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


My response to this is colored by the fact that for me, the question isn't "are you doing good with donor money" but "are you doing the most good with donor money." Given the huge number of nonprofits out there, and their tax advantaged status, I think it's a question worth asking. This is why the ALS ice bucket challenge annoyed me; in general, "making donors feel good about themselves" is pretty low on my list of why a charity should be favored. Especially when that charity is essentially putting a band-aid on a problem that should be addressed in a more comprehensive way.

One of these charities worked in the refugee camp where I was lived as a child. I was happy for the kids who got "picked," but it was frustrating to see my fate rest in the hands of random rich people a world away. There was definitely resentment and hostility at times. So I'm glad that the study found that donors' money is actually helping someone, but I don't think that's really the right question to ask.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:18 AM on September 13, 2014 [14 favorites]


I inferred from the article that most of the money went to the pastor.
posted by brujita at 5:35 AM on September 13, 2014 [45 favorites]


Helping people, both here and abroad, is the kind of thing I think my government should be doing with the massive amount of money they collect from all of us... instead of giving it to organizations dedicated to overthrowing anyone who doesn't sell their oil in dollars.
posted by MikeWarot at 5:48 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I inferred from the article that most of the money went to the pastor.

It sure sounded that way, even if the author didn't take the step of actually saying so directly.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:48 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


paging AKoT?
posted by bitteroldman at 5:58 AM on September 13, 2014


Helping somebody who needs it is never a bad thing
posted by Renoroc at 6:13 AM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think it's worth noting that if we're doing math, it's not just that an individual hears $14 - $19 more per month. That individual will likely have children, and that money means the children will have better access to education. We talk a lot about breaking the poverty cycle; this outcome is that.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:19 AM on September 13, 2014


I inferred from the article that most of the money went to the pastor.

That's exactly what it sounds like.

The insects already cover my arms and legs when the pastor says we have to leave, that we’ll be staying at his house tonight. It’s only a five-minute walk from Ervenson’s, but it’s as if I walked into a house in America. He has glass windows. There’s a large cinder-block wall surrounding his acre-plus property. His bedroom, which he graciously offers to Ben, Jeannot, and I, has a queen bed with a headboard, footboard, and mattress. There are two dressers, like you’d see in any American home. His wife has maybe five dozen porcelain figurines spread on every flat surface available. “This is the nicest house I’ve seen here,” Ben says.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:41 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


yes, that was my take as well. The Pastor was skimming the whole time.
posted by evil_esto at 6:43 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


You would think that one of the first priorities would be to get the families mosquito nets.
posted by Biblio at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


When I was 18 I was drinking at a pub and met this Kiwi guy and we struck up a conversation. He was a self-employed carpenter and I worked at a public hospital and we soon discovered that we were both quite earnest political junkies.

He was, by dint of his job, strongly pro-conservative and I was something of his mirror image, a great believer in the social good of government and the like. We both approached politics intellectually. We believed in principles rather than blind ideology, which allowed our several-hour discussion to stay civil and, in fact, we both gave a lot of ground and we ended up agreeing on a lot of things. But at the end, when we parted, we came to a conclusion, after 7 or 23 beers, that the only thing that either of us could do that would be wholly positive in the world was to sponsor a child in a less fortunate country.

I sponsored a young guy in El Salvador for about 5 years or so and, as usual in life, I'm sure *I* got as much out of it as he did just because it makes you feel good to help other people. I encouraged maybe 10 other people to do the same over the years. It's a good thing to do on various levels.
posted by peacay at 6:47 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I guess the article sort of performs the same function, but I do wish he had contacted the organization to say that he had valued his time supporting the kid and that he was going to support another kid, but at the same time that he was deeply uncomfortable with the pastor's wealth and that they should investigate. Their aid model only works if most of the money actually does reach the families, so if they are serious they would not want excessive siphoning going on.

He's a great writer and clearly committed to writing about this thoughtfully and honestly, but he is also palpably uninformed about poverty and development. I hope this article leads to parts two, three, and beyond as he continues to grapple with the issues and dilemmas.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:52 AM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


The author should have dropped this particular sponsorship program like a hot potato the minute he found out that they had cut off his sponsoree before he finished high school. It was because he didn't attend their mandatory religious sessions. But high school was the reason for the sponsorship, to give him a chance for a better job than his father.
posted by jb at 7:12 AM on September 13, 2014 [17 favorites]


Not that high school or sponsoring one kid will change the massive un and underemployment in Haiti, which is the root of poverty.
posted by jb at 7:14 AM on September 13, 2014


Yeah, I thought to myself, that family is NOT getting the amount of money that he is sending, by a long shot. So, no mosquito nets but if they get malaria I am sure the pastor, through his kindness, sends the family member off for treatment. Also, the boy failing to meet Compassion's rules, was that a call made by the pastor? Since the young boy met all the rules for years why all of a sudden non-compliance? Did the family/boy on realization that they should have gotten way more questioned the pastor and then were punished by the pastor for complaining for how little they received with now getting nothing? There is a lot to unpack in that article by inference and extended thoughts. Many days, I think about the phrase, "and Jesus wept", well, I don't need his tears but I would like his smiting hand, now and then.
posted by jadepearl at 7:15 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder if it would have been possible for him to continue his relationship with Ervendson, outside of Compassion's structure, and send him money directly?
posted by elizilla at 7:18 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ervenson has left Compassion’s program because [of] unjustified absence from program activities for two consecutive months.

That seems like a really sad sentence. Does that mean, like, he didn't go to the weekly Jesus meetings or was having trouble attending school or something and so they just kicked him out? If so, that's kind of awful.
posted by lwb at 7:30 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


We do a sponsorship program where you are connected to a kid but the money goes to the general pool, and no kid gets anything extra or less for not being sponsored, and the donor doesn't pick the kid matched, we do from interviews on both sides.

The admin involved is very high, but a chunk of that is admin we'd do anyway, and the funds make a big difference. However the advertising for it is a big challenge compared to typical sponsorship programs and those are just so much easier to run and generate funds, and for any child charity, it's a no brainer for fundraising.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:35 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


“This is the nicest house I’ve seen here,” Ben says

The pastor totally skimmed it. Even if the author won't admit it, because he's more interested in navel-gazing the effectiveness of his half-hearted charitibleness, Ben totally knew. Ugh.
posted by warm_planet at 7:49 AM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


On non-preview, even if the pastor made the call about the "unjustified absence" for his own reasons, it's still part of the organization's policy to drop kids for noncompliance, and that's awful. I'm reminded of this incredibly sad article about sanctions for unemployment benefit recipients in the UK which was linked on mefi recently.

These support systems which are (in theory) put in place to help people who are struggling, should be based on some sort of empathy with them, some level of understanding of the barriers they. Instead we apparently just shrug and cut them loose as soon as they miss a meeting or two. There's no decency, no respect in that.
posted by lwb at 7:49 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Christian organizations (meaning Protestant generally, and evangelical especially) often have an aid-for-proselytization policy. You see it at soup kitchens in the US and in any number of programs overseas, where the direct policy is that you don't get access to the aid unless you sit through the sermon, attend the church, or otherwise participate spiritually at least with your presence. It's not a universal thing at all, but it's incredibly common. Personally I think it's a crappy and coercive way to help people, but it's their money and as long as they are transparent about it it's legit I guess, though not very Christian in my interpretation.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


I assumed that Ervanson was dropped from the sponsorship program for not attending high school. Though of course there are many good reasons he might have stopped, the organization didn't consider his reasons good enough. Without knowing the reasons, it's hard to know what to make of that.

The pastor was probably using money he got from the charity for his house, but it doesn't seem to follow from that that "most of the money went to the pastor." The article says that 80% of the money went to the child as a cash payment, it seems. Even if the pastor got all 20% of the rest (and 20% of that other kids' money and 20% of that other kids' money, and 20% of that other kids' money), that's still most of the money going to the kids.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:19 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I sponsored a little girl through Compassion. When she was about 15, she got pregnant and they dropped her. I called them outraged; doesn't she need help now more than ever? Well, they said, it's against our rules in the program.

One other thing that struck me is that the quality of her (translated) letters remained exactly the same from age 9 to 15. Maybe the translator was doing a half-assed job. Or maybe she wasn't learning.

They graciously invited me to sponsor another child, now that they'd booted a girl who dared to get pregnant (and god knows if it was even her choice to do so). I graciously told them not to call me anymore.

I try to give through my church and through Heifer International. I am intrigued by the cash-gift programs too. But Compassion can fuck off.
posted by emjaybee at 8:25 AM on September 13, 2014 [28 favorites]


I used to sponsor as well through Compassion, but got extremely turned off in 2008 after reading this.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:28 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The nickname for that is "rice Christianity" in my area - a church gets lots of converts fast and glowing field reports when they provide aid to their converts. When the rice stops, so does the church attendance.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The pastor was probably using money he got from the charity for his house, but it doesn't seem to follow from that that "most of the money went to the pastor." The article says that 80% of the money went to the child as a cash payment, it seems. Even if the pastor got all 20% of the rest (and 20% of that other kids' money and 20% of that other kids' money, and 20% of that other kids' money), that's still most of the money going to the kids.

The problem is that the pastor should be living on a level comparable to the people in his community and parish.
posted by mistersquid at 8:41 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The problem is that the pastor should be living on a level comparable to the people in his community and parish.

There would be no pastor. Maybe if this were a Catholic charity, there would be a priest even under those conditions because priests get no choice. Evangelicals have a choice and I don't think I could blame anyone for thinking that it would be irresponsible to take their family from a house in the US to a living situation that would put them at risk of malaria and cholera. Further, does the charity really need to be treating his malaria and cholera, too? You can bet he'd be going to the US for his treatment.

Volunteer workers from developed countries tend to have better digs than the locals because that's the only way there would be volunteers and aid workers. Now they need not live in absolute luxury (and maybe this guys does, and maybe he does it with money he gets from the charity), but I think expecting them to live as the people they serve is unreasonable.

And yeah, if they're cutting people (ok, not all people, just girls) off for getting pregnant, fuck'em.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:49 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I lived near a Compassion village about fifteen years ago, and I decided I wasn't interested in supporting them. They choose one child from each family to sponsor. In a lot of ways this makes sense, because their goal is to lift as many families out of poverty as they can, and one child getting a good education can sometimes do that. But in other ways it's terribly sad, because only that child gets treatment if they're sick, only that child gets to go to secondary school, etc., etc. I found it heartbreaking talking to mothers about their experiences with that.

I very much prefer the traditional Catholic mission model of building a hospital and school in a remote mission location and serving anybody near enough to get there. (Well, I suppose sometimes it was anybody who can get there and convert. I'm not trying to say Catholic missions have an uncomplicated history either.)
posted by gerstle at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


It looks like the pastor is a former Compassion International-sponsored child, and is studying social work through a Compassion International program:
Eustache Salomon is studying social work through Compassion's Leadership Development Program in Haiti. He poses for a photo in the classroom at Haiti's Human Science College where he was sitting minutes before the January 2010 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. Eustache was taking a break outside in the courtyard when many of his classmates died in the earthquake. Today, he helps dozens of other children deal with the stress of such a disaster.
And it looks like the Leadership Development Program (PDF) is another sponsored position:
Compassion’s Leadership Development Program was instituted in 1996 in the Philippines to help students receive a university education and Christian leadership training and mentoring. Today the program has expanded to 19 countries, identifying promising young leaders in the Child Sponsorship Program who have the potential to influence their communities and countries for good. Students receive a first-class education and are trained and discipled to become Christian leaders. Upon graduation from the program, these young adults emerge as doctors, lawyers, teachers, public servants and other leaders passionate about using their considerable skills and influence to end poverty...

Leadership Development students receive rigorous Christian leadership training via curriculum that covers 24 leadership topics taught from a Christian worldview. The program requires that each student meet monthly with his or her Christian mentor, who provides professional and spiritual advice. Monthly meetings with a peer care group are also required, to develop community and accountability. The goal is to prepare students to create change in their families, communities and nations through responsible, productive leadership.

Sponsors play a vital role in the growth of their Leadership Development Program student. The adult-to-adult relationship of sponsor and student allows for deeper levels of communication, challenge and encouragement. Sponsors can act as “mentors at a distance,” reinforcing a student’s value in their own eyes and helping them feel empowered to affect their spheres of influence. At the same time, this relationship creates a personal ministry purpose for the sponsor as well.
Which doesn't mean that he's not necessarily skimming money, but it would appear the Compassion International is employing and overseeing him fairly closely. It wouldn't surprise me if the house was paid for directly by the organization.
posted by jaguar at 9:49 AM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


More information on Compassion's Leadership Development Program.
The leadership Development Program (LDP) is more than an undergraduate degree. It provides leadership training and a fully Christian worldview. Each student has a personal mentor and is nurtured through care groups. Every student plays a role in their church. And throughout their education, Compassion’s 24 module leadership curriculum develops skills and mindsets in everything from communication and job search to financial stewardship and sexual purity....

Sponsorship helps provide tuition, books, room, board and transportation when necessary. Students also receive Christian leadership training and help with additional school-related expenses....

The cost for sponsorships is $300 per month or $3,600 per year (cost subject to change). Your support covers a full-time student’s tuition, books and school expenses at an approved university or college, along with a congruent program of Christian leadership training. Most students take four to six years to complete the program.
None of this is intended as an argument that Compassion spending money on a Christian bachelor's-degree-level social worker is the best use of funds, but it does suggest it's less likely he's skimming money, given he's getting money directly.
posted by jaguar at 9:56 AM on September 13, 2014


My response to this is colored by the fact that for me, the question isn't "are you doing good with donor money" but "are you doing the most good with donor money."

This assumes a constant amount of donor money, which is almost certainly false. It seems likely that a lot of the money the ALS challenge raised was discretionary spending that would have gone into ice cream, lattes, fast food, etc. rather than money that was already set aside for charitable giving. Charities that offer some kind of direct connection with a person you are helping seem to raise a lot more money than other kinds of charities.

And which is better, a charity that puts 50% of donor money into fundraising, but ends up raising and putting to good use 50 million dollars, or a lean charity that only spends 7% of donations on administration, but struggles to raise even a million dollars?

Maybe you can invest your charitable money in a regular business and get a better ROI than a charity's fundraising machine (although you need to factor in the long-term benefits of turning non-donors into donors). Or maybe you'd do better giving your money to a company that lobbies the government to spend more tax dollars on helping people (which may be a kind of all-or-nothing gamble, which, even if you win, might be reversed by a later administration).
posted by straight at 10:13 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


The first priorities should have been to improve the school building, provide adequate educational materials and to improve the homes of ALL the families in the community, not just the pastor's.

The pastor may well be demanding funds from his congregants too.
posted by brujita at 12:07 PM on September 13, 2014


I sponsored a little girl through Compassion. When she was about 15, she got pregnant and they dropped her.

Oh, hell no.
posted by Cosine at 12:32 PM on September 13, 2014


This assumes a constant amount of donor money, which is almost certainly false.

There's plenty if evidence that the are significant cannibalization effects. But even if that were not so, I would still want people to think deeply and do due diligence before they give.
posted by snickerdoodle at 1:21 PM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


My mother, a Christian, sponsored kids but would generally not do it through Christian ministries because of her stance on birth control - she felt it was just throwing money away to contribute to impoverished areas without simultaneously giving women reproductive choices.

Whenever I'm tempted to condemn all Christians because of the bad actions of a few, I think of her.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:52 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


So, are there similar secular charities, where people can sponsor children sans religious indoctrination?

Or at the very least are there liberal religious organizations where people can sponsor children, but where the young people won't get kicked out for sexual activity and may be provided with birth control/reproductive health options?
posted by el io at 3:19 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I used to sponsor as well through Compassion, but got extremely turned off in 2008 after reading this.

Short story on this link: They won't forward any communication that 'promotes' a homosexuality, nor anything that promotes sexuality outside of a hetero marriage.

I would imagine that coming out of the closet might be one of the things that gets you kicked out of the program.
posted by el io at 4:17 PM on September 13, 2014


"Ervenson has left Compassion’s program because [of] unjustified absence from program activities for two consecutive months."

I jumped to the conclusion - perhaps incorrectly - that Ervenson's hopes were crushed when the author turned down his request to come visit him in the US, and he basically gave up after that. Remember that Ervenson invited the author down to Haiti in the first place, and it seemed like he was building up the courage over a couple of days to ask the question that he'd probably been thinking about for a long, long time, asking someone who'd faithfully supported him for years, someone who really could massively transform his life for the better by saying "yes"... and then the awkward, crushing, "visas and documents... not an easy thing..."

If that's what happened, I can see how it would be incredibly hard for Ervenson to keep his motivation up afterwards.
posted by clawsoon at 4:25 PM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Thanks for linking, nice piece. A few thoughts:

It’s one of the few organizations in the $3.4 billion child-sponsorship industry where you can exchange letters and develop a relationship.

There's reasons why this is the case - 1)because for the majority of charities the 'sponsorship' relationship is far more loose. Your money is helping build infrastructure or a school or whatever that 'your' child in the village will benefit from - and so will all the other children. World Vision takes this approach, for example.

Why do they take this approach? Because it's viewed as unethical, basically, to give shower one child or one family with cash and resources when the whole community is lacking. And there are question marks about efficiency. For those facing absolute poverty health is often the primary limiting factor. Malaria and malnutrition prevent adults from working, children from attending school. You could put reproductive health in terms of contraception under that, too. Education comes (and can only come) after that.

So there's no point paying for a kid to go school, if her malaria prevents her, or her parents' malaria means she has to work, or stay home to look after younger children. Development is interlinked - though many charities for reasons good and bad - like to zero in on one particular facet. You can't extricate the child, or their problems, from their environment so cleanly as all that - which is why community-orientated projects tend to get more focus from aid orgs.

Finally, it's an unnecessary overhead. It's really more of a marketing exercise to facilitate more donations, but again because most orgs focus on community projects, there's a feeling it's unethical to pretend there is a meaningful one-on-one relationship and direct connection with your money and this kid, than there is. World Vision have copped flak for this in the past.

More broadly, I have to chuckle as his obvious (and justified!) discomfort with the program and its outcomes, yet happiness in signing up to sponsor another kid. Missing from his piece is what - now that Ervenson is kicked out of the programat won't make it to high school - advantage his thousands of dollars over the years have conferred upon Ervenson and his family. Did Compassion train him in any vocational skills that would serve him in good stead? His home still appears to be unstable and an unsafe. He and his family are still exposed to malaria. Those new shoes won't last very long.

It's true that there are many studies showing how important education is for outcomes in developing countries, however once again it's challenging to break "education" out of the cultural, demographic, health matrix for these kids - and there are a hell of a lot more Ervensons than Compassion kids-turned-doctors-in-parliament, I'd wager. And what, precisely, are the outcomes for them?

I feel like Aid is a complex, ambiguous and long-term project, always warring against broader economic, social, and cultural contexts that can subvert and muddy outcomes. But as Westerners, we have clear preference for - if not Just-So stories - clean narratives with an obvious Cause and Effect, a sense of progress (even if it's an illusion, or just not that simple), and blanket prescriptions that can be applied to group of people, in any country, at any time. This is not reality, and feel like it promotes a real schism in the aid world, and thinking about aid.

Obviously, a framework and metrics is important, but people on the ground are well aware of the complexities. There is a reluctance to discuss them in marketing materials and public-facing comms, however, as Aid orgs are afraid that it:
1. Encourages a sense of hopelessness (So why bother?)
2. Promotes a view of the Aid Org as ineffectual
3. Makes people feel that Aid Org has something to hide, or is shifty and lying. You see this a lot in the reticence to acknowledge the scale and scope of corruption in Aid, the view from within Aid that a certain amount of corruption is, in some countries, simply the cost of doing business and beyond the capabilities of any aid org to address.

I feel sometimes like this Story vs Reality, Complexities vs Panacea thinking has bounced back on Aid and Aid policy to an extent (you see this with Gates Foundation, as one example, and the way they are shaping the sector as a whole). There can be a perception that if it can't be clearly tracked or explained, cleaned of confounding factors, then it is Bad Aid, Ineffective Aid, etc etc. I don't think this is always necessarily true - though I acknowledge myself that metrics are important (I prefer case-by-case evaluations).

But this is a conversation of depth and nuance, and I feel like aid orgs - and people donating to aid orgs - can often shy away from these conversations as they frequently expose the limitations of donors, aid orgs, humans in controlling and overcoming the terrible environments we have created. It can be a shame, as I think they have a lot of value.


As a sidnote, as a very firm atheist who occasionally donates to religious aid orgs (not evangelical, though): concerns about proselytizing and conversion attempts are often overblown in my experience - I'm more concerned that the full on religious orgs often waste a lot of money paying westerners to do things locals could do and stupid spending on religious crap.

The proselytising thing is not such a big deal to me because:

1) The populations most aid orgs in Africa and the Americas work with are generally already super religious, usually super Christian. Africa and the Americas have been well-trod ground for mercenaries for like four hundred years; there is not a lot untilled ground there; from a conversion pov it's often Mission Accomplished.

2) Not every religious charity aggressively does this. Catholic ones generally don't (oh there may be some Graces at the free lunches etc, but it's not totally fruity shit like the evangelicals). World Vision... is a complex one, there are some accusations that they do it a lot, and some defenders. I think it varies a lot on a case by case basis, and likewise, a lot of ostensibly secular charities have very religious people working for them on the ground.

3) The populations may be Christian - often conservative Christian - but it's not always quite like the churchgoers back home imagine... (Conversation with a Maasai near the Kenya/Tanzania border last year: "Oh yes, we Maasai are Catholic. Very Catholic. But we still all believe in polygamy.")
posted by smoke at 4:28 PM on September 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Africa and the Americas have been well-trod ground for mercenaries for like four hundred years;

That should be missionaries, lol, but oddly apropos I suppose.
posted by smoke at 4:35 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Here lies the irony, if my theory above is correct: The author wanted to see for himself whether his aid was working, because he felt ambivalent about its effectiveness. When he went to see for himself, he communicated his ambivalence to the target of his aid. The result was a collapse in Ervenson's motivation, and, thereby, a near-instant destruction of much of the good which the aid had done.

Direct aid like this could be seen as a form of long-distance alloparenting. As children and teens we're highly attuned to the signals we get from parental figures, whether or not they're our biological parents: Do you care about me? Do you believe I can do this? If I put all this effort in, will I be rewarded with your approval and pride?

We can try to design and statistically analyze massive aid programs for children, but - similar to the challenge for students in MOOCs - we're still ultimately working with the complex motivations and hopes and fears of a whole bunch of individual humans. Like smoke says, aid is something complex, ambiguous, and long-term.
posted by clawsoon at 5:57 PM on September 13, 2014


There's a less discussed aspect to child sponsorship which is the ethics of patronage. We're lucky in that the worse a kid behaves, the more they qualify for our help, but I've had donors get very pissed off over kids dropping out of school for trauma reasons and yank support for an entire program because the kids don't 'value' education. It's partly mismatch of donor expectations of gratitude and similar values on education, but it's also fundamentally cherry picking, looking for the kids most likely to succeed and funneling help to the more resilient. I have met people from appalling backgrounds who've made it, but that leaves behind the people who aren't resilient, the kids twice damned by being poor and untalented.

Patronage gives you the role if all powerful fairy godmother, bestowing help and affection. It's intoxicating and almost inevitably with troubled kids, ends in disappointment because the donor decides it's too hard. It's the organizations responsibility to buffer that and provide realistic expectations - on both sides. Out kids ask for money often in their letters - why not, comparatively you are Bill gates rich. We have a policy to handle that and tell the mentors to expect it and either ignore the request or say that the org doesn't allow it, and we also go over the guidelines with the kids. It's too much of a slippery slope otherwise. If there's a real need, we sometimes behind the scenes meet it (a donor will give money for a house repair) but it's not known to the family that it was the donor to prevent more asking and expectations. It's too dangerous.

That's something else that's changing now - internet. We have kids searching for and contacting donors directly on Facebook! They've learnt English with us and computer skills, and net cafés are super cheap. So we have a social media policy too, but I think that's a growing crisis for traditional tightly controlled child sponsorship organizations - what happens when little Johnny starts talking directly to Mr Smith and they organization can't influence the messages both ways?
posted by viggorlijah at 5:59 PM on September 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


When he went to see for himself, he communicated his ambivalence to the target of his aid. The result was a collapse in Ervenson's motivation, and, thereby, a near-instant destruction of much of the good which the aid had done.

That's an awful reach Clawsoon, which involves a lot of knowing what's going on inside someone's head and life which the article gives us absolutely no information.

Maybe Ervenson got into drugs, maybe he got some (low) paying work and decided to/had to take it, maybe his relationship with his teacher collapsed. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It's a nice, pat, story you've formulated - but it's just a story.
posted by smoke at 7:07 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


viggorlijah: what happens when little Johnny starts talking directly to Mr Smith and they organization can't influence the messages both ways?

What does happen?

Is it bad?
posted by clawsoon at 7:09 PM on September 13, 2014


smoke: That's an awful reach Clawsoon, which involves a lot of knowing what's going on inside someone's head and life which the article gives us absolutely no information.

That's a fair point. I'm surprised that the author seems uninterested in the question, though. (Perhaps he is, but, as you implicitly recommend, he didn't want to speculate across the language and cultural barrier?)

One thing I do notice about the author's approach is that he's still got the evangelical conversion impulse, though he has redirected it: It feels to him "like the money failed". Why? Because, unlike others in a "large enough sample size" of aid recipients, Ervenson will not "move into the middle class". Conversion to the middle class is the goal. Like evangelical conversion, success is all-or-nothing for the author: If Ervenson ends up living a normal Haitian life like his father's, but made a little better by a nice North American man who sends money, where "he will work in the fields, he will collect wood, he will build a small house on his beautiful little island with views of the sea," the author feels that his money has "failed". Not that it has helped in a different way than he expected, but that it has failed.

This is not an uncommon attitude, I suspect. We don't want to give poor people money outside of disaster season unless they use it to become good God-fearing Christians well-educated middle-class people like us. Simply making their lives better by giving them money is felt to be a bad, dangerous thing.

Why is that? Is it bad and dangerous? That's a sincere question, by the way; I see that there are people in the thread with more experience in aid than I will ever have, and I'm curious to know what bad effects you see from aid not tethered to educational expectations or "curing poverty" or immediate disaster relief other than some poor people having more money for enjoyment than they otherwise would. (As you can see, I'm skeptical, but I'm willing to be convinced.)

I wonder if the author would ever drop money in the hat of a homeless guy asking for "a buck for a beer".
posted by clawsoon at 7:53 PM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


It can go great or awful - we have one girl who gets a lot of social support from the friendship she's developed with her mentor, and now she's semi-officially out of our program, and the woman mentoring her is a lovely volunteer who is thoughtful about her relationship and the cultural issues in a cross-cultural friendship. We had another where the girl left early to get married (not the best outcome, but not terrible), leaving our program and it's an issue we're trying to navigate in that her mentor wants to support her directly and we're trying to figure out what's culturally appropriate to advise him and her. Generally, it's the kids asking for money or gifts which is totally understandable, but an unprepared mentor can get flustered and make promises that shouldn't be made, or reject the child. We screen pretty heavily for inappropriate people and manage the match, so we haven't had grooming or indecent proposals, but it's an ongoing concern from talking to other organisations.

We had a recent discussion about recruiting local mentors and decided that for now it was emotionally safer to have non-financial group mentors locally, and only foreign mentors for the sponsorship program because culturally, there's a tradition of patronage. If you had an unrelated adult take an interest in a child and sponsor them, there would be expectations that their whole family is entering a patronage relationship with the mentor, with obligations on both sides - not necessarily creepy, but you would be expected to contribute to weddings, funerals, sibling educations, family crises - and likewise the child picked would be expected to seek your approval and advice for their education, job and marriage etc.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:07 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


It sounds like the near-extinction of strong patronage traditions in most of the West is the cause of a lot of the mismatched expectations and subsequent grief. Is that a fair statement?
posted by clawsoon at 8:16 PM on September 13, 2014


It's not about patronage so much as cross cultural conflicts layered on top of the general trickiness of general human communication.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:21 PM on September 13, 2014


I worked tangentially with an alternative high school in the US that admitted at-risk teens but required that each student have a mentor, which needed to be an unrelated adult who agreed to meet with the student at least once a month while the student was in school and then for a full year after the student left the school. I assume there were requirements in place for the mentor not to provide financial assistance, just because I never heard it come up as an issue. The students having an adult from their own community willing to meet with them and give them advice made an enormous difference, even if just to let them know that not every adult was as screwed up as their own family members.

The interventions identified as successful in the USF study probably don't have to be outsourced to wealthy Westerners.
posted by jaguar at 9:33 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The interventions identified as successful in the USF study probably don't have to be outsourced to wealthy Westerners.

As viggorlijah notes, there is a different tradition of patronage in some other countries, so the meaning and boundaries of that are going to be different. To be much more direct, in a lot of countries (including Haiti), there is a long and continuing tradition of supporting children and their families financially as a way of getting access (usually sexual, but also for labor) later. "Patronage" isn't altruistic for the patron, even if the expected benefits may be very long-term.

And in a country like Haiti with a minuscule middle class that is already stretched supporting extended families, finding enough volunteers to fill that need (and with an ongoing restavec phenomenon that includes very bad situations, with enough certainty of safety for the children), implementing that without relying on western donors like viggorlijah describes is going to be difficult.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:11 AM on September 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


We have really great local volunteers but they're better for now on formal positions with limitations and groups - teachers, teaching assistants and group meetings. I do know where families are being trained as mentor families but that's semi-professional work, not a donor providing altruistically, rather peer education with compassion. Shades of grey but important shades.

I read the piece earlier and I feel like it's missing so much context, not just the boy's situation which is maybe due to privacy concerns? But his own assumptions and motivations towards this stranger because he donated unthinkingly years ago. He seemed - callous or opaque somehow.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:23 AM on September 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


To be much more direct, in a lot of countries (including Haiti), there is a long and continuing tradition of supporting children and their families financially as a way of getting access (usually sexual, but also for labor) later.

Right, I wasn't clear -- Westerners are going to be the best source of financial support, and I agree with all the previous ideas that financially supporting entire communities and shared infrastructure, etc., are much better ideas than singling out individual children for financial support.

I was referring just to the aspect identified by the USF researcher:
Yet, Wydick’s research hit upon another important aspect of sponsorship. “Compassion does a good job of addressing the internal issues, which we’re finding to be just as important as external.” In other words, self-confidence may be just as crucial to finishing school (and overcoming poverty) as infrastructure. And a big part of addressing those internal issues, Wydick says, is the letters the kids get from their sponsors.

“They have these people telling them, ‘Study hard and you can be successful,’” says Wydick. “And they believe it.”
That part would, I'm guessing, be even more powerful coming from someone local and in person. It seems like that's partly the pastor's role here, and if Compassion already has the Leadership Development Project in place, it would seem that envisioning those participants as mentors to the local kids wouldn't be much of a leap. How much more powerful for a kid in poverty in Haiti to hear about succeeding from a doctor who was in the exact situation of that kid, rather than getting a "Stay in school" letter from an American who likely has no idea what the actual obstacles to doing so are?
posted by jaguar at 11:25 AM on September 14, 2014


I understand the personal desire to sponsor someone directly, rather than contribute to some general organization. That's a natural human trait, even if it's not the most efficient use of funds. I'm of the opinion that 'some' money is better than 'no' money, provided the agency has a general good track record.

What kills me though is the description of the author meeting Ervenson. How would you feel meeting some stranger who has been giving you money for years? (Through an organization that makes you attend church no less.) Appreciative but resentful? Uncomfortable? Feel pressured to act a certain way in order to make the sponsor feel good? Frustrated that you'll never be where they are? It's a weird scene all around. I'm not sure I'd ever want to meet a sponsor child like that, it's too much like a parent wanting kiss-back for their efforts and it pressures the recipient.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:46 AM on September 15, 2014


Ideally, more of the money would have gone to the student to help him and his family. But money got into the Haitian economy, where it does some good. If you want to help Haitians, consider Partners in Health. Founder Paul Farmer is the subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.
posted by theora55 at 10:30 AM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


What kills me though is the description of the author meeting Ervenson. How would you feel meeting some stranger who has been giving you money for years?

I assume some weirdness around this issue was the cause of the awkward shoe-changing incident.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:24 AM on September 15, 2014


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