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Development for whom?

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Development for whom?

/ 10:01 PM September 28, 2012

I worked for a child sponsorship and development organization for more than two decades before retiring in 2011. I was based in the Philippines but travelled to 12 countries in Asia almost every year. I will always remember these scenarios: ramshackle houses, derelict schools and clinics in the city or countryside; frail children in grimy clothes chasing one another in open spaces; women and men here and there making a living, or in dark corners blankly staring at commuters; rundown buses, vans, taxis, and pedicabs belching smoke and sideswiping rickshaws or bicycles in heavy traffic; and fried rice, eggs and anchovies, fruits, juice, and yoghurt for the buffet breakfast of hotel guests.

Over the years, I learned the intricacies of like-minded organizations from knowledge management persons and materials. Not long after joining these groups, front-line and office staff become unmindful of the fundamental question: Development for whom? (They have to carry on with their daily routines.) The sponsored children, as well as their families and communities, immediately come to mind, but it does not require rocket science to realize that this is not so.

Child sponsorship and development organizations strive to make a difference in the lives of children by addressing their basic needs and/or fulfilling their rights. The urgency for development aid was first acknowledged more than half a century ago (1944 Bretton Woods Conference). The perspectives, policies and guidelines of development aid have evolved since then (2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness). Not surprisingly, the road to development is littered with junked development approaches, frameworks, strategies, academies, theories of change, etc.

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Euphemism and rationalization will not cover up the fact that child sponsorship and development organizations make money. In fact, they do not get mere nickels and dimes exporting accounts and images of misery in the Third World to prospective clients in the First World. Obviously, their selling point is the promise of a better life for deprived children, families and communities. There has been a captive market in wealthy and/or compassionate individuals. They shell out no less than $25 monthly for family/community development purposes regardless of the state of the world’s economy.

It appears that child sponsorship and development organizations have yet to report an impact on children’s wellbeing with solid evidence. In the Web, the available reports are mainly on good practices and lessons learned, which, by the way, include the observation that the rights-based approach will only succeed if justice, peace and freedom are pursued. Therefore, advocacy for the fulfillment of children’s rights addresses only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, it looks like no child sponsorship and development organization has done away with implementing similar projects year in and year out. This is despite the fact that serious doubts have been raised about the efficacy of discrete projects.

Every fiscal year, thousands of dollars are spent on various interventions on health, education, livelihood, child protection, capacity building, emergency assistance, etc. in one operational area alone. But at the end of the fiscal year, it comes as no surprise that some families of sponsored children get nothing more than a calendar or T-shirt.

In the rights-based approach, it is theorized that children’s lives will be better once the outcomes (e.g., changes in policies, attitudes, behaviors, etc.) are achieved. But what happens in case the expected impact on children’s wellbeing does not follow? In other words, children and their families make claims/demand for their rights while duty-bearers listen and act accordingly, whenever appropriate. Alas, there is no resultant increase in the proportion of children who are well-nourished, healthy, in school and not dropping out, protected from abuse/violence, etc., and in the number of financially secure families. And there is no significant improvement in the delivery of social services by the government with or without emergencies.

There have been advances in the monitoring and evaluation of development programs, as well as strides in organizational learning and knowledge management. However, child sponsorship and development organizations are hard put to go beyond speculation in ascertaining their impact on children’s wellbeing. This is extremely pathetic because it is their reason for being, for which they are accountable to the sponsored children, families and communities, as well as the sponsors.

All the while, the expatriate country or national director and her/his family live in a secure and comfortable house free of charge. This is usually in a gated subdivision not far away from the country office. There is a car driven to and from an international school or favorite mall. S/he has other perks not unlike those of business executives, although for most of the year, s/he might have been no more than a paper pusher. For more than 50 years, millions of dollars that should have been spent on children’s immediate needs are deliberately allocated for this aberration. Nonetheless, no one should begrudge her/him such good fortune. As they say, “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

But given the foregoing, a no-nonsense inquiry into the workings of child sponsorship and development organizations is long overdue. At the strategic level, the national government should revisit how they are regulated. With huge resources from ever increasing sponsors and grantors, they have provided stable employment for a national staff for a long time. However, they have consistently missed out on their mission to improve the lives of target populations, particularly children, to which they are accountable. At the same time, they are making money from “working for and with the poor,” which raises profound issues on ethics, morality and human dignity. This is acknowledging, though, that “it takes two to tango.” For a long time, they have been off the radar of public scrutiny.

At the intervention level, if only for technical reasons, it is time to introduce measurement indicators in tandem with targets without “from-to” end states. Anyway, “from-to” end states are contentious (e.g., why increase from 40 percent to 50 percent, not 55 percent?). This will rectify objective/target setting in quantitative terms, which is often hit or miss. This innovation may come across as simplistic, but will simplify the measurement of impact on children’s wellbeing provided baseline data are available. Child sponsorship and development organizations will then have the tool to generate the much sought after solid evidence once and for all. Of course, attribution or contribution is another story.

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Nono Felix worked for more than two decades in the development sector.

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