Seeing where the money goes

LONDON, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - Commuters on the London Underground may have looked up from their newspapers recently and found themselves looking into the dark, wistful eyes of an African or Asian child. For just 50 pence - well under a dollar - a day, the child sponsorship advertisements promise, you can change this child’s life, and you can do it today, right now, just by sending a text message.

Action Aid is one of Britain’s longest established chid sponsorship charities, with 40 years of experience in the field. Sponsoring a named child is a tried and tested model for attracting donors and is extremely popular because of the immediate connection it offers to the beneficiaries.

Action Aid’s Andrew Robinson says it was always conceived as an approach which had accountability at its core. “It makes giving manageable,” he told IRIN. “It breaks down a global problem into a local problem, and lets donors see that they are making a difference in a child’s life.”

But once the text message is sent, the actual process of child sponsorship has changed very little over the years. Sponsors communicate with their allocated child the old-fashioned way, by written letter, via the sponsoring charity, and sometimes receive photographs or school reports, perhaps once a year. And in reality, most child sponsorship money is used for projects in the child’s country or local area, rather than going to one individual child or family.

Compassion, a church based agency, is one of the few which does use the money for the named child, to pay for a place on one of its programmes offering education, health care and social support, and it also allows sponsors to send gifts of money to the child’s family.

For its sponsors, like Chrissy Dove who has recently been linked up with Habitamu, a six-year-old Ethiopian boy, this is a very significant relationship. “For years I wanted to do this, but part of me was a little bit confused about whether it was the right thing to do. Now our youngest child is leaving home and it felt like the right time to start looking after another child. I have a photograph, and I will be praying for him. Knowing that there is a child out there who I can pray for makes a big difference.”

For Dove the chain of accountability runs through her own church to Habitamu’s church in Ethiopia, giving her a feeling of personal connection and of knowing where her money goes. This is the kind of connection that the bigger agencies can struggle to create.

Anna Forwood is one of those who have turned their back on the big-name NGOs. She says: “I just feel that something like Oxfam has become this gi-normous juggernaut. When you think of how much money they now get from the government, and they still call themselves a charity - I just think, ‘No’.”

Instead she channels her support through a much smaller organization, the Burkina Women’s Education Fund, which helps young women in Burkina Faso to go to university. She can see a chain of accountability through someone she knows personally, a former colleague who became involved in the project after his retirement. “I trust him, basically. And he blogs and sends letters with pictures of who he has been talking to, so you see the girls and you see them as real people.”

So would she like to go a step further and communicate with the beneficiaries directly? For Forwood that would be a step too far: “I wouldn’t really want a personal connection. I have enough going on in my life!”

It is perhaps these smaller, more personal charities which have benefited most from the new technologies. Once a personal relationship of trust has been established with the beneficiaries, they can now operate without any kind of permanent, in-country presence.

Mobile phone order

One tiny charity which supports two schools in Liberia recently provided a motorbike for transport to a remote village near the Guinea border. The order for the bike was placed by mobile phone; it was paid for by money transfer; the agreements for its use were exchanged by scan and email; and proof of its safe receipt came in the form of a photograph which could be posted on the charity’s Facebook page for all its supporters to see.

The group’s treasurer, Peter Nettleship, says: “'Liberia is still a difficult place to communicate with but without the mobile phone network - accessed by Skype to keep costs down - we could not do anything. We're eagerly looking forward to the next steps. Wider direct internet access, as it spreads, should make life a lot easier and cheaper.”

Bigger organizations are also starting to explore what can be done. The Kenyan NGO Vetaid is currently vaccinating against East Coast Fever. By supplying its local vets with basic smart phones, it can use a programme called EpiCollect to map exactly how many animals have been vaccinated, where and when and what with. Funding partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can see exactly where their money is being spent.

One of Vetaid’s founders, Nick Short, told IRIN: “At the moment this is just for large donors, but I can see a time where the general public might see where Oxfam, for instance, was spending their money. At the moment they don’t quite know where the money is going, and if they could see photos of progress they would feel tied into it more.”

Middle-aged supporters

Over at Action Aid, Andrew Robinson, as the organization’s Digital Acquisition Manager, is exploring the way he can provide child sponsors with more of this kind of feedback.

Action Aid’s core supporters are middle aged, people with children of their own and enough disposable income to sponsor a child overseas. They are happy to communicate by letter and, he says, don’t want to ask for more feedback if it might take money out of programme work. “But,” he says, “I would expect that to change as the twenty-somethings of today move into our target age group. With their experience of using technology ever since they were little, I would expect that kind of demand to increase.

“It’s challenging for us because we work with the poorest and most excluded children, so by definition they are the farthest from urban centres. The big advantage of digital communication is its immediacy, but we have children in Nepal whose villages are a day’s vehicle travel from the nearest mobile phone signal. People aren’t necessarily asking for direct contact with a sponsored child, but they are interested in the community and the impact of their help on the community. And we need to be able to show the difference we are making.”

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