Monday, 3 August 2009

Sponsor a Child... in the UK

It was with great anticipation I watched the first episode of the docu-drama How the Other Half Live. The set up was this: super rich family meets super poor family. But not just that, the super rich family would also sponsor the super poor family, quite like sponsoring a child in a developing country.

Just that this was in the UK.

Now, I’ve always had an uneasy attitude to child sponsorship programmes. My godmother sponsored a child on my behalf and I remember getting meaningless photos and short notes, all to do with us white, rich, Western-Europeans who of course had all the wisdom how to do democracy and economy, making good in black Africa, where children would otherwise starve. In Germany, you don’t do much charity. There’s no running a marathon or 2k for this or another cause, very occasionally you’ll have some TV charity event comparable, if on a smaller scale, to Comic Relief or Red Nose Day. What we did was sponsor a child, give to the church collection. Buy one set of Christmas cards (we don’t do Christmas cards really either) for SOS Kinderdorf (villages for orphaned children). So this was the rare occasion that I saw my family give to charity. I’m not sure what happened, just that at some point the contact must have broken off or my godmother didn’t renew her subscription, eh, sponsorship of the child.

Thus, introducing a similar concept to a rich UK family sponsoring a poor UK family, especially if the poor family happens to be black and from Zimbabwe (are we thus almost sponsoring the same starving African child of my childhood? Of course I, having worked with refugees for many years, know better that this is not the same, but does the majority of the audience?), turned my face into a funny shape.

I’m open minded and watch the programme with interest, trying to stay objective. This was difficult, because my gut feeling was that there was something seriously wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the programme was doing a great job raising awareness of what it means to live in poverty in the UK in every day terms. This is much needed because there are lots of people out there who don’t think there is such a thing as child poverty. I also know that the media, if asked to highlight child poverty, needs case stories (real people) and some angle that keeps people watching. Something that captures interest. So, let’s transfer the concept of sponsorship to a family on our own doorstep.

This is where my agreement with the ethics of the programme ends. The poor family was a saintly stereotype: saying grace before meals, humble and overly grateful for the money and presents they received from their sponsors. There was no exploration about the impact of cash donations on benefit payments. There were tears with every gift or cheque received, something I found humiliating to watch. You see, having worked with families like the one portrayed, I know just how grateful particularly asylum seekers/refugees are, but I also know they are entitled to what little they get and yet vilified for it. They are victimised, abused, attacked, kept in poverty by the state that doesn’t allow them to work, detained, their mental health destroyed. And the public keeps expecting them to be eternally grateful. It makes me sick.

So did the rich family. While the parents were reasonable and bearable, when the daughter said something about being rich but not super rich, after all they didn’t live in a mansion, I felt like shaking her and making her look at the mansion she lived in, spoiled brat. The visit to the poor family became an educational experience for the rich kid, so she knew how the poor people live, and kept trying hard at school to stay on the right side of the economic divide.
I didn’t feel much better about the female bonding between the two girls who really had naught in common save the general girl’s interest in clothes.

The programme suggested that the reasonably modest donations of money and gift items, the latter linked to real necessities of the poor family, had the potential to turn around the outlook of both the mother’s and her children’s lives. It seemed to empower her to take up education with a view to becoming self employed, while her three girls firmly believed that education was the way out of poverty for their own future.

In general, I have a real issue with linking financial assistance with empowerment. We don’t get empowered by the money we have, but the skills and mindset we possess. Poverty of course has a negative effect on people’s mind sets and ability to change their situation because theirs is a situation which takes a full time job to manoeuvre around in, to make ends meet and keep on top of debt and the bare essentials of life. What we need are people who are resilient, and giving money, at the end of the day, creates dependency. Dependency is not a good starting point to take control of one’s life and move out of poverty.

Looking further afield at the big picture, there are few super rich families who also happen to be philantrophically inclined to part with some of their wealth while there are lots of families living in poverty. This individual giving, while having the advantage of creating real contacts that may otherwise not exist, can only ever be a drop of water on a hot stone. Evaporate it will in most likelihood.

The difference of this approach is of course that rather than having a more progressive tax system (which I would strongly advocate regardless) where wealth is redistributed, and the widening gap between rich and poor in the UK could be bridged by government intervention, it is put into the hands of willing individuals who may be more likely to sign up for parting with their money if they see where it goes. This appeals, but can never solve the massive problem that is income inequality in the UK, and in its worse form, severe and persistent child and family poverty.

However, if the whole point of such a sponsorship scheme is for people to understand and appreciate how the other half live, and nothing more is expected, there may be some value in it. As long as both parties really know what they sign up for.

Save the Children, who were involved in the making of the series have a very comprehensive FAQ up on their UK site, with further information on their campaign to end child poverty in the UK, while the Poverty News Blog has posted this review by the Guardian's Tim Nichols, which takes a more positive view on the series.

I'm interested to see how the three part programme is going to pan out - the next episode will be on at 9pm on Thursday, on Channel 4.


Anonymous said...

I have never ever heard of this kind of sponsorship before this programme - I watched it with my hands covering my eyes peeking through the cracks in between my fingers cringing. Coming from one of the many tens & thousands of families on the bread line who has to make do with goverment benefits I am a bit miffed to think that these families are getting rich handouts & benefits on top of this. Fair enough each to their own if some families wish to participate in this but speaking with passion & pride in my heart I can honestly say I would rather juggle benefits and shop at charity & thrift shops & count those pennies endlessly than take handouts from a rich family who have no true idea about poverty - what happens when the payments stop for these sponsored families - they are no closer to solving their problems - if not possibly made worse by the lack of nice chunky cheques coming in & thinking that money grows from the postmans bag

cartside said...

I'm not sure if this is meant to be a new programme, I thought the child sponsorship within the UK idea was a gimmick for this TV programme, rather than a serious idea - but that's just my understanding and it may be wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the refugees are grateful..that family get £150 a week more than i do as a single parent nursing student. Throwing money at people may not be a means to an end but it's hard to become, and stay motivated when you can't afford to pay your bills/buy food or take them out just for one day during the holidays. You obviously have no idea cartside. It's a soul destroying life, therefore a little bit of help can create immense positivity in one's outlook..for starters.

cartside said...

Anonymous, I really welcome your comment.
And it's good to hear your view, especially because it's different to mine. I do realise how soul destroying a life it is if you constantly have to struggle. I do have an idea.

And yes, I did see that the bit of help did actually turn around that family's life. It still creates dependency and power by the rich family over the poor family. They call the shots. This is what I'm uncomfortable with. Maybe wrongly so, but I am.

Maybe the pragmatic approach, the one where such a sponsorship scheme can make a difference, is valid in it's own right, and I'm just too idealistic to embrace it.

The question stays why we allow as a society that people live with not enough to get by while other bring home six figure incomes. Poverty and income inequality are systemic, and personally I think the state has a responsibility to create greater equality if it doesn't happen of its own accord.



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