Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child
Stafford greeted me with a warm handshake and ushered me into a comfortable chair in front of his desk.
"Your program works," I said.
"I know," he smiled.
"But I am analyzing this data as a dispassionate scientist, not as an advocate of Compassion like yourself," I replied. "We're not just finding positive correlations, but substantial causal effects from the program—in every country—especially Africa. I'm wondering what is happening here. You're a former academic. I think there is something deeper going on in the program that would interest the greater development community. I need some leads."
"Try hope," he said.
I raised my eyebrows. "Hope?"
Hope is a fuzzy concept for economists. I squinted my eyes. He explained:
For my dissertation, I asked a bunch of kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some were Compassion kids, some were unsponsored. There was a little bit of a difference between the two groups. But then I asked them later what they realistically expected to be when they grew up. Here, there was a big difference between the sponsored kids and the other kids. You see, poverty causes children to have very low self-esteem, low aspirations. The big difference that sponsorship makes is that it expands children's views about their own possibilities. Many of these children don't think they are capable of much. We help them realize that they are each given special gifts from God to benefit their communities, and we try to help them develop aspirations for their future.
Portraits of Change
Stafford's story brought to mind another one I had heard in the field from Compassion workers in Kenya. A pilot from Kenya Airways had visited a number of Compassion projects to talk about his job. The children were fascinated to meet someone who flew the planes they saw zooming across the sky. They had never met such an amazing and interesting person, and after his visit, most of them wanted to be pilots.
Whatever it was, something that Compassion was doing was working, and we wanted to explore the mysterious black box of poverty and child psychology. To test the hope hypothesis, we carried out a follow-up study on currently sponsored children. Did sponsored children have higher aspirations than nonsponsored children who were just like them in other ways? If there were no statistical differences in aspirations between sponsored and nonsponsored children, we could rule out the hope hypothesis and explore something else.
We carried out three studies—in Bolivia, Kenya, and Indonesia—with 1,320 children. The sample included sponsored children, their unsponsored siblings, and other unsponsored children from the same communities. In each of the studies, we found that sponsored children consistently had significantly higher expectations for their own schooling than unsponsored children, even when controlling for family and other factors. They also generally had higher expectations for adult employment. (Years later, a disproportionate number of Kenyan kids still wanted to be pilots.) Many of these findings came close to mirroring the adult differences we measured between formerly sponsored children and nonsponsored children.