Good Deeds Through Travel: How to Sponsor a Child in a Developing Country
I was having a picnic lunch with my friend Katharine in a sunny Soho square last summer in London, as our offices were relatively close, and we were catching up after her trip to Cambodia. I haven’t been there since my big trip to Asia eight years ago (gulp, has it really been eight years since my gap year?!) and I recalled some of the places she’d visited.
Cambodia is a slightly different destination. It’s main tourist pull is the Seventh Wonder of the World, the temple complex of Angkor Wat, but most trips to Cambodia include a visit to the capital Phnom Penh, where tourists see the country’s dark side and the proof of the Khmer Rouge’s regime in the 1970s at the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s just horrific and as a visitor from outside it really impacts you. You see the many street children and the orphanages and it really opens your eyes to just how lucky you are to have grown up elsewhere, far from that level of atrocity, poverty and hardship. I remember that feeling of sadness and helplessness in Cambodia, shocked at how much evil and inequality there is in the world, wishing I could somehow do something, anything, to make it better.
Has travelling to a developing country ever given you that feeling too? Has it ever prompted you into action?
We all know that travel broadens your horizons and opens your eyes to people, places and situations you’d never have encountered in your home country. We all know that travel increases our self-confidence, independence and new life skills. We all know that travel teaches us cultural awareness, tolerance and flexibility. But travel also gives us a conscience and makes us better, more altruistic people.
To combat that feeling of helplessness, there are ways to make a difference in a developing country, such as my 4 months volunteering in Nepal recently. However I’m not suggesting we all give up our day jobs back home to volunteer with an NGO in a developing country, as for the majority of us we can’t simply renounce our commitments / families / mortgages back home. One popular option for travellers looking for an ongoing connection to a place they feel deeply about is to sponsor a child. Sponsoring a child over several years tops a one-off large donation for three reasons.
Why is sponsoring a child better than a one-off donation?
1. It’s ongoing – It provides sustained support for a child and their community over a longer period of time than a one-off action or donation. Development work takes a very long time and quick fixes simply don’t stand the test of time, so by committing to several years of support you ensure that the child and their community receives the necessary support right up until they reach adulthood. It’s also a direct debit donation every month, so it doesn’t require me to consciously remember to donate (which I would inevitably forget to do).
2. It’s personal – You maintain letter correspondence with your sponsored child and you get to know them, understand their daily life and you have individual connection to that child on the other side of the world. Each child only has one sponsor and they will come to know you well over the years. You can even arrange to visit and meet your sponsored child in person.
3. It’s financially more generous – By donating monthly for example, the dent in your wallet is small but over a year or 10 years it adds to much more than you’d be able (or willing) to donate in one lump sum. For example, I donate £15/month to a 10-year-old girl I sponsor in Honduras, and even while I was on sabbatical and not earning any salary, I knew I could always still afford this. This adds up to £180/year, and over the 8 years until the girl turns 18 and my sponsorship ends, I will donate a total of £1,440. Could I afford to donate £1,440 to charity right this second just like that? Frankly no I couldn’t!
I sponsor a 10-year-old girl through Plan UK, a children’s charity I know very well through being a Digital Ambassador for them, and for whom I also fundraised £1,400 by running the Athen’s Marathon last year. I know there are also other charities that run similar sponsorship programmes, but here I’ll talk about my experiences with Plan UK. The steps to take to sponsor a child are very simple.
How to sponsor a child with Plan UK
On Plan UK’s website you are given the ability to express a preference for three things about your sponsored child: (1) gender (2) age range (3) country. If you have no preference of you own, then for each criteria you’re also able to choose “whoever is most in need”. Personally, I knew I wanted to sponsor a girl, as I feel very passionately about girls’ and women’s empowerment. I was flexible about the age. When it came to the country, I set about shortlisting the developing countries that I felt a particular affinity to and where I thought a child would most need my donation. I was in email contact with a very kind Supporter Relations Executive called Ely at Plan UK who answered my many questions and gave me more information about the various countries I had shortlisted (Plan UK are a long-established charity that work directly in over 70 countries worldwide). Another good tip is to browse the website and country profile of each country you’re interested in to see what projects they focus on and their previous success stories. Plan UK translates every letter sent and received into the relevant language, so language is not a barrier, but I really wanted to be able to communicate first-hand with my sponsored child so I settled on a Spanish-speaking country in Central America, and the very kind Ely suggested that I choose Honduras, as a country where 40% of the population are under 14, where 220,000 boys and girls don’t go to school, and where crime rates are terrifyingly high, where 27% of women have been physically attacked and where 8% of children have been sexually abused. In addition to choosing the country which your sponsorship goes to, you can also choose exactly how much you can afford to sponsor, with a minimum of £15/month.
Soon after signing up on Plan UK’s website about a year ago, I received a thick envelope in the post containing information about the 10-year-old girl I sponsor (for child protection reasons I won’t go into too much detail about her on my blog) including a photo and a letter, and information about the community she lives and the wider challenges facing children in Honduras. It also contained a blank return letter and pre-stamped envelope for me to write and send back to Honduras, with some tips and subjects to write about. It takes a couple of months to get the letter sent, translated, delivered and to receive a reply back, so it’s a gradual relationship that builds up – not a weekly letter-writing chore!
What does the sponsorship money go towards?
Plan UK are very upfront in explaining where the sponsorship money goes. They say that by providing sponsorship money to just one child in a community, that would alienate that child and create an imbalance and jealousy among other children and families in the community. So instead of my monthly sponsorship going to just one girl, it goes to her community, helping to make a difference for all the children she lives near. A perfect example can be found right in the valley in Nepal where I spent 4 months volunteering this spring. After the 2015 earthquake that destroyed an enormous number of buildings in Nepal, Plan Nepal (the local operation on the ground) used donations from sponsors to build 3 temporary classrooms in the nearby school in Dhading, ensuring that all the children in the valley could continue going to school. And through my interactions with the government office that run the valley, I learned that the school can’t actually afford to stay open and pay teachers’ wages through government money alone – if it weren’t for Plan Nepal’s funding, then Dhading’s school that educates 771 young Nepalis aged between 5 – 18 would have to close, leaving them with no education whatsoever! In this example, a sponsor’s donation is far more useful in keeping a school open, rather than going into the pockets of one individual child’s parents.
What’s more, I receive regular updates by post and email on Plan’s work in Honduras and worldwide, which reassure me that my sponsorship money is being used wisely and delivering real impact through the charity’s campaigns. Plan’s big campaign currently is ‘Because I am a Girl’, which you might have seen me write about in the past. For me personally, sponsoring a child on a monthly basis reassures me that even though I’m no longer out in the field volunteering first-hand in a developing community, as I was in Nepal, I’m still contributing to development work and I’m still involved in making this world a better place, even if only in a small way, one that’s affordable to me. And high up on my wishlist is a trip to backpack around Latin America, and as soon as I make it to Honduras on my travels, then I will most definitely love to meet the girl I sponsor, a meeting which Plan UK are more than happy to arrange for me.
Would I recommend sponsoring a child in a developing country?
Most definitely yes. For me it’s the most affordable and sustainable way for me to contribute to international development. I can’t run a marathon every month to fundraise for charity, and I can’t move abroad permanently to volunteer unpaid in a developing country like Nepal. But I can set up a simple direct debit and stay in letter contact with a young girl half-way around the world, and hopefully contribute to giving her and other children in her community an opportunity to escape poverty and the inequality that they face in rural Honduras. In comparison to the young girl I sponsor, I’ve had an outrageously fortunate upbringing, full of opportunities, role models and promise for the future. If I can ensure that even 1% of the opportunities I had reach a young girl living in poverty-stricken Honduras through a small monthly sponsorship, then that is the very least I can do.