Saturday, October 25, 2008

World Vision and Arguing With Wilkins

We happen to sponsor two third world children through the Christian aid agency World Vision. Historically, this is a hangover from our Christian days, and I occasionally wonder if we should divert our contributions elsewhere (eg. Plan Canada), but thus far have nothing about it. My inaction stems partly from inertia, but also partly because despite my atheism, I have no general or rigid objection to contributing to faith-based organizations, providing the help they provide is material rather than "spiritual" (ie: evangelism). The world's need is too great to start cavilling at the ideological motivations (within broad limits) of this or that aid group. Getting the job done, efficiently, would seem to be of higher importance.

So it is of some concern to me when someone I respect highly, namely John Wilkins, in the course of a rather scattershot post spouts some recommendations on charities to support, finishing with the following deprecation:
Whatever you do as an official reader of my blog, do not contribute to the evangelical and anti-family planning WorldVision, who, I was once told by a fieldworker who had been there, effectively kicked off the Ethiopian marxist dictatorship by their callous behavior during a famine. I also heard from a donor who travelled to the Philippines that their "child" was not seen more than once per year to get photographed and write the year's letters. Yet another worker at WorldVision themselves in Melbourne told me they engage in nasty accounting practices - sending money from one country to their sister organisations overseas so they can claim a set percentage is used overseas. All this anecdotal stuff is three decades old, but leopards rarely change their spots. Anyway, true or not, this is what my official readers should do.
I'd hate to lose my status as an official reader of Evolving Thoughts (if only because the decoder ring is way cool), but I'm not changing my charities without something more substantial than unverified anecdotes (and also allowing for the fact that Wilkins is almost always at least half-joking). I count four distinct criticisms in that paragraph (I don't regard "evangelical" as a criticism, at least not in the context of this discussion), which I will examine as best I can.

The Dry Holes:

A Google search (FWIW) turns up nothing indicating problems about WV's involvement in Ethiopia, so as serious an allegation as it is, I'll have to put that aside for now as neither confirmed nor refuted. Similarly, short of an auditor's report being published, I have no way of checking into allegations of creative accounting (and which may only apply to WV Australia anyway -- the national chapters seem to be semi-independent).

On Child Sponsorship:

With respect to the complaint about the handling of sponsored children: I'm actually inclined to believe that one, but it's not clear to me that I should object to the practice. My understanding is that support of specific individuals is simply not an efficient or effective way to give aid. In fact (and the WV literature does say this) the money from all sponsors is pooled and goes to the development project of which the child's family or community is a part. But it's easier to get Westerners to open their wallets if you can put an individual human face on their donation, so the kids get used as a sort of advertising proxy. (Note that World Vision is not the only organization using this approach -- the secular Plan Canada mentioned above also does sponsorships).

Now as it happens, I am getting a little tired of the whole "child sponsorship" gimmick. I find signing and sending back (along with a further donation!) some card or trinket every few months to be a minor annoyance on top of dealing with the usual mail deluge, a chore I detest. I'd really rather just send an annual check to the organization itself, for some amount sufficient to relieve my middle-class guilt, and be done with it. Maybe some donors get the warm fuzzies from writing personal letters to their sponsored child, but I'm not one of them. Between being a horribly lazy correspondent and a generally anti-social cuss, I'm never going to be Warren Schmidt, pen-pal to some waif in Timbuctoo. So I may very well (ie. if I ever get off my lazy ass and figure out how) opt out of the sponsorship racket in favour of straight donation, whether with WV or any other organization.

On Family Planning:

Googling '"world vision" "family planning"' turns up a fair bit on this, mostly contradicting Wilkins' assertion:
World Vision programs support modern contraceptive methods as part of an integrated approach to effective family planning....Given the high risk for sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), dual protection methods are encouraged. Examples of protection methods include abstinence, consistent and correct use of condoms, use of a contraception method, and mutual monogamy.
  • A World Vision USA case study published by USAID (abstract and full PDF), reports on the effectiveness of teaching family planning and contraception in rural India. Contraceptive methods explicitly mentioned include IUDs and the Pill (I mention this to forestall suspicions that "family planning" might here be only a euphemism for less effective "natural" methods of pregnancy prevention).
  • This briefing paper to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, in a chapter on ending early marriage in Ethiopia (pp.24&ff) discusses lack of access to contraception and family planning as negatives.
  • This 1999 web article from a notorious "pro-life" site criticizes WV for supporting "population control", and promoting IUDs, the Pill and condoms. (Yeah, LieSiteNews ain't my favorite source either -- but in this case, I'm inclined to believe them on the grounds that they would not be likely to criticize another conservative Christian group unless there was something to it. And it is consistent with the material above from WV itself). (See also this article by the Catholic group Vida Humana, complaining about WV El Salvador's participation in the production of a manual on teen sexuality).
A possible counterpoint to the above might be WV's position on abortion. Again from the WV Australia FAQ:
Does World Vision support women to have abortions?

World Vision defines family planning as the provision of information and services to assist individuals and couples to responsibly determine the number, timing and spacing of their children. From World Vision’s perspective, family planning does not include abortion services and World Vision does not provide, recommend or support abortion.

The question would be whether staying out of the abortion business makes someone "anti-family planning". Although the point could be argued, I would say not: if you're doing everything except that, then it seems perverse to apply the label. Now, if there was a group whose "family planning" advice consisted of advocating having lots of kids, and teaching only the rhythm method as a timing-and-spacing strategy, then I'd have little hesitation about calling them "anti-family planning". Another objection might be the refusal of WV US to provide emergency contraception (search for "World Vision"), or even referrals, to refugees. Problematic though this is (especially in cases of rape), it again does not seem to justify calling the entire organization "anti-family planning".

There could, of course, be issues I'm missing in my Web search, e.g. the situation on the ground might be different from what is implied in the official reports; some of the language used is open to intepretation; I might easily have missed less favorable items among the umpteen hundred hits Google turned up. But what I did find says that World Vision does indeed provide effective, modern family planning advocacy and services, contra Wilkins' assertion.

I welcome hard information that might change my mind.


John S. Wilkins said...

I cannot back up my claims with hard information as they all came to me sub rosa, back in the 70s. The opposition of WV to contraception was, I recall, public knowledge in the Phillipines, where they were uncovered giving the standard line as evangelicals (it was odd because at that time the linkage between evangelicals and anti-contraception was still fairly recent). The "dry hole" comment was told to me by a worker who had left WV after finding out they had spent several tens of thousands of US dollars on refitting the office, and who found out that similar Australian WV money had been sent to the US. The business in Ethiopia was not publicised, but they helped contribute to the expulsion of western aid agencies, if they were not directly the cause of it, and of course it is silly of me to state it in such a way that they caused the revolution itself. A field worker there at the time said that the WorldVision media plane was deeply offensive to the new government, and it helped cause the ban on foreign workers.

I have no documentation for all this, but I remain deeply suspicious of WV, globally and locally. I know they once had a religious agenda. I doubt that somehow evaporated. And I was careful to say this was all anecdotal. You make of it what you wish.

Eamon Knight said...

John: Thank you for your reply. A few comments, if I may:
The opposition of WV to contraception was, I recall, public knowledge in the Phillipines, where they were uncovered giving the standard line as evangelicals (it was odd because at that time the linkage between evangelicals and anti-contraception was still fairly recent)

Not only recent, but inconsistent, and thus doubly odd. That was bang in the middle of my fundy period AND I was engaged, so Christian family planning was therefore a live issue for us. I did hear a some voices (Larry Christiansen, the Trobisches) speaking against artificial contracpetion, but at that same time, Tim LaHaye was recommending the Pill to Christian newlyweds (though still advocating large families, ie. 4 or 5 kids), and being rather sarcastic about rhythm. Anyways, if the available reports are any indication, WV's position has softened since then. Certainly, the strict Catholic folks don't seem to like them.

I also have the impression (from receiving their literature over the years) that their understanding of mission has migrated in a Social Gospel direction -- certainly their current publications (including one that I linked to) talk enough about "Empowering Girls and Women" and "systemic injustices" to warm the heart of any feminist or liberation theologian. In cynical/suspicious mode, I might argue that that's all just talk for the consumption of liberals like me, but I have no evidence of that.

And my own anecdote to illustrate the above: sometime in the mid-80's I attended a meeting about organizing a local group to do WV publicity and promotion in Ottawa. Nothing came of it in the end, and the one thing I recall was some hard-liner getting up to inveigh against WV's neglect of their Christian duty to preach the Bible at people, instead of merely feeding them. OK, that's not very strong support for my argument, but I recall it with amusement ;-).

John S. Wilkins said...

I recall from that time (mid-70s) that an increasing number of evangelicals were treating condoms as an invitation to have premarital sex, and were trying to have them banned for children under the legal age and even later. It was so strong that Francis Schaeffer was making comment privately (according to his son's book).

Anonymous said...

Wow ... you've researched your thoughts well. This post and conversation is very informative for me.

I wonder why there is no atheist counterpart to all these religious organizations that seem so passionate about humanitarian aid and such. I imagine if there were such an agency, you would prefer to give your money to something equally effective in humanitarian aid without the risk of the workers having religious agendas.

Any ideas?

Eamon Knight said...

Theophilogue: Depends what you mean by an "atheist organization". Strictly speaking (and this is my preferred usage), "atheism" is nothing more than an answer to the question "Is there a God?", and in itself implies no further moral or philosophical commitment. It would seem perverse to organize a charity around such a non-concept. There are, of course, positive philosophies like Secular Humanism which attempt to build and teach ethical systems in the absence of divine revelation. While there are Humanist Associations promoting such views, I am not aware of any systematic "helping" humanist groups (though I know a certain amount of money and time does get funneled to worthy causes in an informal way).

There is, however, no shortage of secular charities (several of which have been mentioned by me or Wilkins) doing relief and development work (as well as the myriad of cure-this-disease, help-local-kids etc. charities). By "secular", I mean groups whose foundational statements do not appeal to religious principles or motivations, and who do not make faith an issue for their volunteers or employees (one of my Google hits says that WV only hires Christians as full-time employees). According to my tax return, I support a mix of secular and faith-based Good Works.

Metro said...

I can speak only to Foster Parents PLAN:

My parents sponsored one child for about twelve years. He was in Bolivia. His family fell apart when the father left to look for work in the city, and the agency lost track of the child (not incompetence, just that the family moved and the child was old enough to work, by Bolivian standards).

Whereupon, without notice, FPP switched kids. My parents were notified when the first letter arrived from the new child.

I'm sure they would have been happy to continue supporting FPP, but at that point they disconnected and directed their contributions elsewhere.

Me, I think most highly of Spread the Net. I feel Belinda Stronach is much more effective with them than in Parliament.

Anonymous said...

Read The Road to Hell by Michael Maren - this really tells the story on child sponsorship programs by NGO's such as Save the Children and organizations such as World Vision.