I need a sponsor, the words quickly escape his mouth as if they’ve have been festering in his mind for quite some time. A sponsor, I think, an English word that has nestled itself into Haitian verbiage and become a part of the Creole dictionary. It’s a word I hear often, from children and adults alike, many who don’t even speak English. My friend looks at me, with deep sincerity and a hint of desperation, and I realize that this grown man is completely serious. It’s difficult for me to comprehend such a request as he has a job and is, to my discretion, fully capable of providing for his small family. But that’s just it; my perception versus his reality is completely different. And it isn’t the first time an adult has approached me with this kind of plea. At first, I was cynical, startled and slightly offended that my friends would ask such a thing of me. Do they not understand that I, too, am required to find sponsors for my own living needs? But the more I have been acclimated into the Haitian culture and the more time I have spent in the world of missions and non-profits, the more I understand the gravity of this vocabulary.
I couldn’t tell you when the word “sponsor” found it’s way into the language, but I can tell you Western foreigners began flooding Haiti following the traumatic earthquake in January 2010. Haiti, a once rich country devastated by natural disasters and political turmoil, has always welcomed visitors, but suddenly, this small dot of a country on the world map became the target of aid. Thousands upon thousands traveled into the country, flights now full of strangers rather than native Haitians, of course with good intentions of offering their services and helping those in need. But despite the “good” these visitors brought with them, there were and still are repercussions.
There has long been much controversy over the topic of short-term mission teams. There is no right answer. There is no perfect solution. But evidence exists of effects of this kind of influence simply in the conversations I have had with my adult peers and beloved friends.
Another friend pulls me aside in the middle of the day, a woman I have known for years. She has suffered much – emotionally, spiritually, physically, and she now does her best to take care of the four kids in her care without a husband by her side. She makes enough, but barely enough. Can you please help me find a sponsor? My heart breaks. I know this story well. This precious woman, in her mid-thirties, undoubtedly needs more income. For those who imagine Haiti is a cheap place to live, I can assure you it isn’t, especially in a failing economy with a corrupt government where the average person is thrilled to make two hundred dollars a month. Of course, I would love nothing more than to help her. But here is the problem. She is well aware that the term sponsor is associated with financial aid. Most organizations have adapted this model, sponsoring a child at a monthly rate to assist with school fees, basic living necessities and medical attention. But what the foreigner has done, myself included, is create a dependent system upon which not only children rely, but now adults too.
Sponsors write letters back and forth with the child they have chosen, a face in a photograph or on the screen of the computer. Some even have the opportunity to visit the children. But while healthy relationships are essential to the development of an individual, this mentality is much more complicated than what the well-intentioned donor perceives in wanting to make a difference in the life of a child.
Today, it seems as if one gives of his or her financial resources only if there is a return on the investment, if there is a benefit from giving. If you sponsor a child at $35 a month, you will receive…However, the blame cannot be placed on the donor. Sponsorship programs, whether unknowingly or aware, have been branded as a give-take relationship and organizations have crafted well-intentioned scripts that offer an opportunity to help those in need, but there is often a cost at the expense of the sponsored child.
The beauty of anonymous giving has been exchanged with a system that perpetuates a deeper issue – dependency upon foreign aid. It is difficult to normalize an ideology in which the “white savior” supports a child or a family in a developing country. And by now, both parties are fully aware who holds the power within the relationship, even though this was never the sponsor’s objective. Can you imagine living in circumstances, barely able to support your family, barely able to feed your babies, barely able to make it through a day? Cue the sponsor. He or she arrives at your home, clad in nice, clean clothes, carrying gifts for you and your child you could never afford, exclaiming that he or she is, indeed, the one who sends your child to school. Although somewhat uncomfortable, you would never refuse this individual, nor would you refuse these gifts, because you know you need this assistance. You need this sponsor. Your friends and family convince you that you are one of the lucky ones because you know a blan (the Creole term in reference to the white foreigner). But can you imagine the emotional toll this may have on your self-esteem? Maybe even subconsciously, you have been made to feel unworthy to make your child happy while someone across the world fills the gap for you.
It is an incredibly, thought-provoking complex. It truly is a wonderful initiative. The giver has sought out a reason to give and has stumbled across a cute picture on the internet or has even met the child in person. Soon, a credit card is filed and an automatic monthly donation will begin at the giver’s command. So far, the process of giving is just and completely helpful. But it is after this step that the black and white becomes a bit gray.
I am certainly not suggesting that no sponsorship program is successful. In fact, there is a wave of change, a movement of recognition that perhaps the world of giving has been more harmful than helpful amongst the community of expats, missionaries and volunteers living abroad. But still, I arrive at one thought – why can’t someone give without being recognized for his or her giving?
Human nature is prideful, and for whatever reason one chooses to give, there is this small tinge of, wow, look what I have done, look what I have given, look what I have accomplished. It feels good to know that your dollar has given a child in the developing world a chance at a better life. Suddenly, dollar amounts are compared. One giver’s sacrifice is just pocket change to another.
I, too, fall guilty. I, too, am a sponsor. But the problem is not the sponsorship. The problem lies not in the giving but in the motivation to give. The problem is the need for the sponsor to be recognized as just that – the sponsor.
Life certainly cannot function without relationships. It is, arguably, the reason for existence. But to paint the picture that a sponsor will change the life or his or her sponsored child is not realistic. In fact, it only encourages a spirit of pride rather than a spirit of humility. The barriers due to language and culture are ever-present, despite translation. Developing friendship and trust requires time, making it difficult to bridge the distance between two people who live on two different sides of the world.
Today, it is not difficult to find the word “sponsor” plastered on Facebook pages and websites, places children, even in the developing world, have access to through the usage of a smart phone. Kids begin to see these marketed requests, maybe even posted with a picture of themselves, advertised as though they are an object to be sold and purchased.
These words are heavy because actions have already been taken that cannot be undone. Most people in the developing world do need a sponsor for their children, especially in regards to education. There are no free public schools in Haiti, and often, without the help of a sponsorship program, parents are unable to send their children to school. There is, unfortunately, always another side to the story.
These scenarios are never easy. The cynicism I once felt in my heart has transpired into grief for those I love. How can I say I would not do the exact same thing if I were in their situation? I simply cannot understand. In these moments, I struggle to find peace because the issues are greater and graver than that which a sponsor or a sponsorship program can fix.
I am not an expert nor do I claim to know everything about this topic on sponsorship. My intent is not to offend but rather provoke necessary commentary and conversation that must be had. But what I do know and what I can attest to is how this word has affected those I care about, those who are navigating these unfavorable circumstances and traversing this difficult life. This is an ongoing discussion, one which requires much thought, much grace and much understanding. At Papillon, it is a gift to provide men and women with sustainable jobs that not only provide them with an income to relieve them from such severe financial burdens, but also with empowerment and with dignity that they are worthy of providing for their children and their families.