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What can an ordinary person like me do to help the poor?" When people find out at parties and social gatherings that I am a development economist (and yes, we economists do attend such events), often they ask me this question. For a long time my response was the same: "Perhaps sponsor a child?"

I suppose I gave this answer because I myself sponsored a child, and if I was supposed to know something about helping the poor, I should encourage people to do what I was doing. After all, child sponsorship makes sense: By focusing on youth instead of adults, it aims to nip poverty in the bud, providing children in the developing world access to education, health services, and, in some programs, spiritual guidance. But over time my autopilot response started to annoy me. The truth was that I hadn't the slightest clue about the effect child-sponsorship programs had on children.

Dissatisfaction with my pat answer began to inform conversations with my graduate students. "Have you considered researching the impact of child sponsorship?" I would ask. One student was interested, and she followed the topic long enough to find out that no one had ever investigated the topic, despite 9 million children sponsored worldwide, and the more than $5 billion per year being channeled into sponsorship programs from ordinary people wanting to help. But we were having trouble finding a sponsorship organization willing to work with us. What if the research discovered that sponsorship didn't work? This was the risk that some organization out there had to take.

A couple years later, another graduate student, Joanna Chu, became interested in the topic, in part because she was sponsoring a child with Compassion International. ...

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