From The Lutheran – February 2008
(reprinted with permission)

Story by Elizabeth Hunter

The ads show a hungry child that you—with just a few cents a day—could help feed, clothe and educate. Child sponsorship sounds like an easy way to help. Yet the ELCA doesn’t follow this model for its projects. Why? The Lutheran posed that question to Kathryn Sime, director of the ELCA World Hunger Appeal .

The Lutheran: Why doesn’t the ELCA World Hunger Appeal use a child sponsorship approach?

Sime: We’ve made an intentional decision to not use child sponsorship in ELCA international relief and development efforts. The ELCA World Hunger Appeal focuses on comprehensive strategies that combat the root causes of hunger and poverty. For example, we look at diseases from water sources, community education and health care.

But child sponsorship typically involves a focused effort on one child, really in the nature of relief. It may do wonderful things for that child, but yet not address root causes [of poverty] or make a recognizable difference in the life of the child’s whole community. It can also pit family against family—or family member against family member—if one benefits from a sponsorship and another doesn’t.

Yet that’s something of which many of us wouldn’t necessarily be aware.

Of course not. And I certainly know that all gifts given in God’s name are doing wonderful things. It’s just that we’ve intentionally made the decision through the ELCA World Hunger Appeal to focus on the root causes to eradicate poverty, long term. It’s hard when we [as givers are] so far removed from the benefits that are realized. [The desire is for a] relationship and to feel good about “what I’ve done.”

But there are ways to do this that don’t build dependency. The companion synod program, for example, provides a marvelous way to build relationships with real people and learn about the resources of our companion churches.

Would administering a child sponsorship program cost more?

From what I’ve seen, child sponsorship efforts done well require a much greater level of administration, diverting funds to supporting the mechanism that maintains child sponsorship. The ELCA World Hunger Appeal is committed to maintaining low administrative costs—about 7 percent. We can do that because we have a strong network of partners around the world doing effective, efficient work, and a strong network of hunger leaders in this church.

Is the ELCA’s goal for people to eventually support themselves, to be able to send their children to school … to not continually have to wait for children to be sponsored?

Yes. Children are helped when parents have income-generating activities. Families can build stable livelihoods. [With development] spread across the entire community, a specific family can look to the community for support. To solely focus on relief or help for one particular child creates dependency models because the whole community [lacks] access to those resources.

Even if a child is well-sponsored in a thoughtful way, if she has resources in a community with few resources, [eventually her only option may be] to leave that community … in which case those benefits leave with the child. It’s a brain-drain kind of thing. Working with our companion churches and world hunger partners, we can help an entire community, even beyond education. Schools need to have clean water. Teachers need to have appropriate housing.

And community-wide development makes a specific child’s life better?

In the long term, a child can’t be any healthier than his community. If there isn’t safe water to drink, if educational opportunities aren’t available, if she receives education but her siblings don’t, [that child] is still at risk.

It’s hard because sometimes changes are incremental. It’s not as easy to see as a child who is instantly lifted up with more resources. But addressing community-level issues in a sustainable and comprehensive way makes the most long-term difference. In Madagascar, for example, some World Hunger funds focus on primary health care. One part of that is immunizing at least 80 percent of children [to] reduce child mortality and create healthier families. Healthier families are better able to withstand hunger and poverty.

To Help

Contact your synod or the ELCA World Hunger office (800-638-3522, ext. 2764) to get on the program’s mailing list. Start to build relationships within your companion synod program. Speak out about hunger issues in your congregation. And send your gifts to:ELCA World Hunger Appeal , P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764, or give by credit card at 800-638-3522 or online.