What’s the Best Way to “Sponsor” Baby Girls?

A reader named Gunjan Aggarwal writes:

I came to the U.S. 7 years ago, worked in U.K./Switzerland/Netherlands/India prior to that. I work in human resources and have been fortunate to have been successful thus far in my career. We are moving on to a new location and a new job this year but this year will also perhaps give me an opportunity to invest some time/leadership on a cause that I have been very keen to “do something about”: contribute towards improving the lot of the girl child in India.
I have always thought of crowd-sourcing an incentive scheme by which we will “adopt” a few girls in their womb and give the parents a small amount every month, $50, to give birth to their girl child, to educate her till the age of 21. I was even more determined to do this in the wake of all the news about crimes against women in India — but then I heard your podcast on the “Cobra Effect.”

I would love to connect and get your thoughts on “scheming” this incentive forward!

I applaud Gunjan’s initiative, admire his creative idea — but yes, am concerned that it might be easily gamed (and, perhaps even more easily and more importantly, simply wouldn’t work). So let’s help him out: please use the comments section to brainstorm the best way to set up the program he’s thinking about, replete with potential pitfalls. Bonus points for anyone who knows of a similar program that’s working well (neither Gunjan nor I could come up with anything).

Addendum: The NYU economist and development scholar William Easterly e-mails us some cold water:

Stephen and Steve, can I volunteer my services to save you from embarrassment on the blog post today on sponsoring infant girls? [Bill: it would seem too late for that, no? :-)] It’s been known in aid and development for decades that child sponsorship does not work (unless you by “work” you mean attract donations). The NGOs that originally did it (most notoriously Save the Children) have been forced by critics to abandon it, and no reputable NGO promotes child sponsorship today.  The reason it never worked (and in fact Save the Children was also forced to admit that they really never even actually did it) is simple: the administrative costs of tracking small donations from an individual donor to an individual recipient child are enormous, so that the administrative costs would eat up all of the donation and then some. So there’s no need to crowdsource this question: just ask any development economist or NGO veteran.

All the best,


Easterly’s note makes me wonder if indeed transactions costs are still too high in this digital heyday to accommodate Gunjan’s idea, or one like it.

Also: how about investing in a different kind of person — young high achievers who need capital to fulfill their dreams — in Upstart.com?

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  1. Valerie Ross says:

    I work for an organization that for the past 3 years has been sponsoring girls in rural villages in China where we find the highest rates of gendercide (and locals who are willing to help) by providing a monthly stipend to mothers who are pregnant with or have recently given birth to girls in an effort to encourage the family to keep the girl. So far our program only supports through the first year of the girls life and then re-evaluates on a case-by-case basis (we are a tiny organization). We have some data and testimonial evidence that suggests the program is working, and we also found some great work by Avraham Ebenstein in which he theorizes that a monetary incentive would actually help solve the gender imbalance. Check out his paper: http://www.allgirlsallowed.org/estimating-dynamic-model-sex-selection-china

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    • Mike B says:

      If left to their own devices wouldn’t the increasing scarcity of female children eventually increase their realitive value? This is a problem that basic supply and demand forces are wonderful at solving.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        That’s true; however, the currently “surplus” supply is composed of real, living human beings, so I don’t think a wait-it-out approach is very moral.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1
      • Heisenberg says:

        Often the bias is the product of government intervention. For instance in China women “hold up half the sky” but in practice are paid a fraction of what men make by state decree. Likewise in India, women cannot get police protection when they experience theft of violence and are excluded from having a voice in state run unions – to the point where they moved to burn their boss to death knowing that they themselves will die for the act.


        Saying that the market will take care of it in a market place that isn’t free is like saying defense spending will stop because destruction isn’t a rational act. There are other, state perpetrated forces at play.

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      • Jen says:

        If you were talking about widgets, that might make sense. When you’re talking about people, it really doesn’t.

        How do you create a cohort of appropriately aged females…who don’t exist? How do you solve the social unrest and upheaval that has been created slowly over the last 20-30 years resulting in the current unbalanced situations?

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      • Tung Bo says:

        While it is true that gender equality in China is not perfect, there are ample evidences that women in China had made much greater progress relative to their peers in India: Chinese woman holds important posts up and down the official and economic scale; rape are abhorred and not ignored both legally and culturally; etc. One must also weight the costs of the one-child policy against its benefits: to wit, the slowing population growth rate which still weight on the Indian subcontinent.

        Back to Child sponsorship: I have long realized that individual sponsorship is inefficient. But I have come to recognize its value beyond the purely physical benefits to the girl. With a monthly communication between a first world adult and a third world child (however staged and coached), there is built a long term emotional link between people across the ocean. This is much better than just sending money to a faceless organization which promises to do GOOD things (even if they can show hard and validated statistics). That this aids in promoting in the long run more humane policies of the first world people should not be in doubt.

        In fact, funding childhood and prenatal care is BETTER than sending money to individual baby because it takes away the incentive for parents to have MORE babies. However, the sponsorship charities should be more forthcoming about the actual practices lest they lose the confidence of the donor public.

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  2. Bart says:

    I applaud Mr. Aggarwal on both his desire to help girls as well as his seeking guidance on unintended consequences before moving forward.

    While the Cobra Effect is a definite concern especially in terms of creating a “growth industry”, my concern is the use of extrinsic motivation (money) for this endeavor. The research shows that the external motivator may actually cause a decrease in the care these children may receive, or, at the very least, will not keep them from receiving the best possible (for their given situation) care and education.

    I would urge Mr. Aggarwal to read both “Drive” and the mis-named yet perfectly named “To Sell Is Human” by Daniel H. Pink. Both would help him understand my stated concerns as well as perhaps offer him a different approach to the dilemma. Good luck, sir.

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  3. Mike B says:

    Why do you want to increase the reproductive capacity of countries that are already suffering from severe overpopulation? Male preference is actually a good way for these countries to reduce their long term birthrates. You can’t easily change culture and subsidizing female children will only create more people that will more than likely wind up abused, oppressed and possibly set on fire. If cultures can’t respect women by all means let them not have any.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 17
    • Seminymous Coward says:

      How exactly do you think these “excess” female children are exiting the population now?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 3
    • Molly says:

      You know you’re talking about infanticide, right? Still feel good about your first world solution?

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      • Mike B says:

        I am assuming that people exercising agency over their own reproductive systems and bodies account for most of the sexual selection, but if you force the point I think it is better to euthanize an infant than allow them to grow up a slave or worse get set on fire or beaten to death in young adulthood. Infants are blissfully unaware of almost everything around them compared with a fully developed human that can be forced to ensure years of torture and abuse. Your blind “think of the children rhetoric” is based on an emotional gut reaction instead of reason and will end up causing more harm in the end.

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      • Douglas says:

        “Your blind “think of the children rhetoric” is based on an emotional gut reaction instead of reason and will end up causing more harm in the end.” -Mike B.

        It is hardly obvious that murder is better than trauma and that allowing infanticide is more reasonable and less emotional than banning it. Humans are a resilient species, and justifying murder in case of possible future trauma that might possibly cause irreparable harm could easily be argued to be the more emotional and less rational decision.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  4. Timothy Ogden says:

    Mr. Easterly in this case is flat out wrong on views of child sponsorship in general.

    Child sponsorship is far from abandoned. In fact it is still accounts for a significant portion of American charitable dollars leaving the country.

    Save the Children continues to run a large child sponsorship program (https://sponsor.savethechildren.org/?msource=spxgpspn0712&gclid=CN3CyNrV4LQCFUOK4AodJlUAIw), as does World Vision (http://donate.worldvision.org/OA_HTML/xxwv2DoChildSearch_B.jsp?xxwvLocation=0000&xxwvSearchType=ALL), Feed the Children (http://www.feedthechildren.org/site/PageServer?pagename=org_child_sponsorship) and Compassion (http://www.compassion.com/), the four largest American NGOs focused internationally.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
  5. Enter your name... says:

    You might pick a village and pay for certain milestones, like part of the school fees for girls, or free school uniforms, or a bigger gift upon graduation. If having and educating girls is visibly rewarded in the community, then parents will have less incentive to kill them.

    On a side note, as a means of increasing graduation rates, I’ve wondered why we don’t make senior year free (or much, much cheaper). Scholarships seem skewed towards people just beginning school, but the people who reach the final year are the ones who have the best chance of finishing.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0
  6. kris hildebrand says:

    As a coach (but forward so you have an idea of preception of reality), 1) are you not trying to set up a system that people game, isn’t that the point (ie: do you really want more female babies or do you want better conditions for females; these are different things; seems that setting up a system to promote more female babies will get you that)
    2) what is the real reasons that females are treated poorly? Is it that women do not have enough money so they only spend it on boys, or is that having a boy is more finacially lucritive, so that is what they should spend their resouces on. If i was smart i, would figure out how to more resources from elsewhere to put into my son.…

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    • mlz says:

      I think there is a very important point made here.
      If families did not have to pay huge amounts of money to get their girls married off (often resulting in increased poverty for the family), then they would be having more baby girls. Work to eliminate ‘bride price’ and, more generally, to increase respect and consideration for women in society, and families will have baby girls again.

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      • TexCIS says:

        mlz, I totally agree with you, except the term is “dowry.” Families pay significant sums to the husband and his family, as well as planning and saving for the wedding from birth. They may feed literally a thousand people at a wedding. (I worked with an Indian girl and I heard her stories.)

        Actually a “bride price” is when a husband pays a sum TO the family of the girl. That is what SHOULD be happening because of the scarcity of girls. It takes a long time to change cultures, but it needs to happen.

        To all commenters: Birth rates are going down in every single developed country. There will be fewer children with or without gender imbalance. If you want to reduce birth rates anywhere, just make sure the country “develops.” Increase economic freedom to release constrictions on resources, that allows more education. Both will reduce poverty, and THAT is what reduces birth rates – not the other way around.

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  7. Enter your name... says:

    In terms of increasing school attendance, I’ve read that free food (school breakfast or lunch) is efficient.

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