Should I donate to World Vision?

World Vision is a multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization.

In our post-screening conversations, we often get asked which organizations we support and which we discourage. We always respond by clarifying that we are not a vetting organization; we do not have the capacity to do the work required to make such recommendations. However, it is of course necessary to use real world examples, inseparable from the organizations they involve, to illuminate a side of the poverty and development story that many people are unaware of (hence the high global interest in the film).

Other than TOMS Shoes, which is addressed in the film, one of the organizations we get asked the most about is World Vision (mentioned in the film but not addressed in-depth).

Poverty imagery and child sponsorship

This World Vision commercial represents precisely the type of poverty imagery identified by voices in the film as problematic. We showed that commercial to a number of people from developing countries and across the board, people felt frustrated, offended, and even "objectified" by it. There is significant opposition to these "flies on child" images still so prevalent in Western fundraising and awareness raising. This, coupled with the fact that World Vision is indeed one of the "icons of charity," particularly among Christians, is why we chose to show a clip from the commercial.

To go deeper, I watched a number of World Vision commercials for child sponsorship, and I never once saw a parent. This speaks to the problem addressed in the film's chapter titled, "Power to the Parents" -- namely, that the circumventing and exclusion of parents undermines family structure and culture. Indeed, the pitch these commercials put forth to prospective donors is, "You can be this child's parent" (example). 

A few years ago, I spoke at length with an African professor here in the states who worked for several years in World Vision's child sponsorship program. He also comes from a poor village and his sister was a sponsored child. I asked him what he thought of child sponsorship in general. He said flatly, "It's terrible." I was shocked by his bluntness; prior to that, I did not have strong views on the matter and I expected a more nuanced and conflicted response. He went on to describe his first-hand experience in how, despite well-marketed individual success stories, the model can undermine family unity, displace parents, and distort culture. I personally do not have enough information to make such a concrete statement about child sponsorship, but I take this gentleman's perspective very seriously. We have stayed in touch. He is but one person I have met with this view and my own research has edified by concerns: child sponsorship is not a program model I personally feel comfortable supporting.

Since then, especially traveling all over the country with this film, I have spoken to a number of people who live in areas where there are World Vision projects of various kinds. I am sorry to say, but it is not all good news. One person, a Christian operating a small hydroponics farm in an African country, offered her opinion that World Vision had "completely destroyed" a nearby village. She mentioned a dysfunctional school, defunct projects, and a cultural of deep seeded dependence. Her spirit was sad, not mean or resentful. I have no way of knowing the veracity of her view and I hope you do not feel attacked by my sharing it with you. I only wish to convey that there are dissenting points of view to consider with regard to some of World Vision's work.

World Vision's government funding

The fact that World Vision received $175 million dollars from the government is news to many people. Christians concerned about the influence of government on faith-based organizations find this relevant. This is an informative section of the documentary intended to help viewers get a feel for the money flows in the system and the extent to which non-governmental organizations are in fact financed by the government. The film does not expound on World Vision specifically here, but it very well could have.

World Vision's commitment to Food aid monetization

KPMG's 2012 audit of World Vision showed $198 million of its $1.058 billion total revenue coming from "public cash and food commodity grants," making World Vision among the largest recipients of surplus agricultural resulting from massive agribusiness subsidies. This goes to the heart of the problem discussed in the chapter of the film on rice in Haiti.

Monetization is the revenue generating practice by which NGO's then sell those food commodities for cash in foreign markets.

However, the Government Accountability Office and others have decried the practice of monetization as inefficient at best, harmful at worst. "It is widely recognized that the monetization of food aid results in the most serious food aid-related trade distortions," writes Cornell agricultural economist Christopher Barrett and others in a 2008 call for reform. In 2009, CARE ended its monetization practice out, effectively forgoing about $40-46 million of annual revenue.

In 2012, USAID prioritized procurement reform as a hallmark of its "USAID Forward" campaign. The goal was to allow more goods and services earmarked as aid to be purchased locally and regionally instead of purchasing them in the U.S. and shipping them on U.S. flagged ships. The reform effort was aggressively opposed by what is known as the “Iron Triangle” of special interests in Washington: big agriculture, big shipping, and some big NGOs, most notably, World Vision.

I understand World Vision's rationale to be as follows: selling food at below-market prices combats hunger by helping people who can't afford market prices. This rationale does not take into account purchasing power. If, in the macroeconomic picture, the market is undermined by the net influx of subsidized goods sold at below the cost of production (and numerous studies and testimonies including former president Clinton's demonstrate this to be the case), then the resulting rise in unemployment means a decrease in purchasing power. Thus, on paper the cost of food may be lower, but in reality the cost relative to purchasing power has actually gone up. This is the vicious cycle countries like Haiti are struggling to get out of: people are hungry and need of help, but the way we choose to help them often exacerbates the root cause of their hunger (unemployment) by undermining local economic opportunity. This known harm is the reason such activity in the for-profit world is decried in economics as a predatory pricing practice called "dumping."

When helping hurts: 100,000 Super Bowl loser t-shirts

World Vision is one of the largest shippers of free and subsidized goods in the world. It therefore falls squarely within the film's argument that flooding developing countries with donated stuff is harmful. 

We have seen students at social justice conferences stuffing World Vision backpacks with supplies to ship down to Haiti. We know of at least one Haitian backpack entrepreneur put out of business by such activity, not to mention countless like examples. For fifteen years we saw World Vision champion its partnership with the NFL to send 100,000 Super Bowl loser t-shirts to Africa (something many find culturally offensive as well as economically flawed). In the film, Eva Muraya of Kenya speaks to the textile layoffs in the 80's and 90's associated with second-hand clothing influxes (no doubt such macroeconomic trends in manufacturing have multiple, complex causes, but formal studies have indeed implicated charitable donations in the decline).

Concerns about World Vision's practices are legitimate

In summary, there is legitimate cause for concern with regard to World Vision's work and approach. It is not a mistake to raise thoughtful concerns. The real disservice to World Vision's employees and donors would be to shelter them.

There is an institutional temptation for all organizations - regardless of sector - to resist what may be perceived as "bad press," but sincere-minded organizations cannot believe themselves to be immune to error or exempt from critique. 

Whereas examples of good work have already been well documented and marketed by the organization and its supporters, there are also cases and policies that merit questioning. I encourage World Vision apologists responding to this post to address these areas of concern head on, rather than listing all the other good things World Vision does.

The critical examination of the film and of this reflection here, however, should not be mistaken as disparaging. There is no ulterior motive; the film's intention is to engage the complexity of poverty and development in order to foster growth in understanding of how we can be more effective in our shared interest in human flourishing. As much as we all want to watch the film and reassure ourselves that we're already doing everything right, that may not always be the case. I know I personally have been on the wrong side of the paternalism fence before and I even caught myself there at various stages of the production of this film. It is a continual process of learning and reflection that is required. Sometimes that means confronting difficult truths and acknowledging mistakes. Sometimes that means making minor changes to our way of doing things; sometimes it means making bold, radical ones.

Iron sharpens iron. If we are not challenging one another and being challenged, we are not growing. 

As the co-producer of Poverty, Inc., my hope is that the film can, in a charitable and constructive spirit, challenge organizations like World Vision, which are full of earnest, passionate people who desperately want to make the world a better place.