Many of our audience members will be familiar with the annual Radi-Aid awards, created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) after the success of their hilarious satirical music video “Africa for Norway”.
Each year, votes are cast for the best and worst charity fundraising ads, in an effort to highlight the harmful stereotypes used by development organisations to represent people in the Global South. The worst video – perpetuating stereotypes and portraying people lacking in agency and dignity – is given the Rusty Radiator Award. The best video – which uses creativity and challenges people’s perceptions – takes out the Golden Radiator Award.
In past years there have been some absolute shockers, and it seems already there’s a clear winner amongst this year’s nominees for Rusty Radiator: Compassion International’s child sponsorship video, “The Wait Is Over”.
The video begins with footage of a long list of names on a whiteboard and school children reciting in the background. The voiceover, presumably a school principal, explains that the “child data board is to know which children have sponsors and those who are waiting for a sponsor”. Next, little Halena Asti, a girl of about six or seven, explains how sad she is that all of her friends have sponsors and she doesn’t. Her parents, speaking to camera from inside their small home, look utterly dejected as her mother explains that she comforts her daughter by telling her, “Wait my child, God will provide”.
When Halena is finally “chosen” by an American woman called Renee, she and her parents break down into tears at the good news. “I have never known such success as this,” says her mother. The music is emotive and her family’s supposed dependence on their daughter gaining a sponsor is heartbreaking as little Halena cries into the photograph of a smiling blonde-haired Renee. “I feel so proud,” says Halena’s mother, “Even though I don’t deserve this response, God has responded.”
Okay. Where to begin?
Firstly, whether or not this were real footage of a real family is beside the point. If it were real, how horrible that charities are complicit in children feeling they aren’t validated until they’re privileged enough to be graced with the attention of a First World pen pal. And how tragic that her poor parents would feel so utterly undeserving and helpless as their daughter yearns to feel equal to her fellow class mates.
Secondly, let’s acknowledge that NGO fundraising is hard. Getting people to care enough about your cause (beyond just knowing it actually exists) to pull out their credit card and make a donation is very, very tough. This is especially difficult at a time when some of the most pressing humanitarian disasters are competing for our attention (and our hard-earned money) while at the same time living expenses are increasing and other charities are becoming increasingly innovative with their fundraising strategies. When you’re desperate for funding, it can make you seriously consider strategies that almost cross the line of what’s okay and what isn’t.
But none of this is an excuse for this kind of fundraising. “Poor people” aren’t waiting at home for a saviour. How frustrating that we have to keep shouting that and those who work intimately in this sector still don’t get it. Or maybe they do, and will ignore it all at the sniff of an opportunity to sell their beneficiaries’ dignities and contribute to an expansive and entrenched misguidance of the wider public’s attitude to poverty and injustice in order to squeeze every last fundraising dollar.
The adorable Third World sponsor child is not anxiously counting down the days until she’s selected from a line-up of her desperate peers by Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Australia (who really want to help Third World children but possibly wear clothes made through child labour and vote for politicians who endorse cutting the aid budget and bombing the sh*t out of countries where children regularly go to bed hungry).
These kids aren’t waiting for your letters any more than little kids in the Global North would be anxiously awaiting their pen pal from a cool, exotic faraway city in between running around in the playground or doing their homework.
Yes, these kids are living in poverty and yes, having a foreign friend to write to is probably kind of fun and maybe even brings them a lot of joy and hope. But please let’s stop short of encouraging child sponsors to believe that they’re the sun and stars of their sponsored child’s world. I’d hope that most child sponsors don’t even believe that, so why encourage it? And why perpetuate the myth that these kids are struggling because they’ve been desperately waiting for a white knight for months on end instead of, say, the fact that they’re living in a system that’s designed to make some people suffer so that others can prosper?
Let me get this straight: I’m not dissing on child sponsors. I’m dissing on charities who use irresponsible communications to fundraise and thereby discourage people from taking a critical view of the world we live in. I know people who sponsor children, and they’re really lovely people. They know their donations are pooled together with other funds to support development projects in local communities rather than directly supporting an individual child. They love receiving the kids’ letters. Who wouldn’t love that? Kids are cute, and their drawings are hilariously awesome.
But it must be understood that there is a complex balancing act of power at play here. Child sponsorship walks a fine line between facilitating friendship and human to human connection across geographic boundaries, and a centuries-old relationship of patronage between European descendants and everyone else.
If a development organisation is going to facilitate a child sponsorship program, then the onus is on them to walk that fine line and to encourage their donors to be on the right side of it.
You can watch the video here:
Featured image: People waiting for famine relief in Bangalore (Credit: Illustrated London News, 1877/Wikimedia Commons)
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