I just wanted to do something useful, says Evelyne De Crescenzo, explaining her decision to sponsor eight-year-old Fiorella in Peru. Fiorella lives with her parents and four brothers and sisters but her family cannot afford to send her to school. De Crescenzo pays 24 a month to an intermediary organisation to cover this cost.

She is one of a growing number of people in Italy who sponsor a foreign child or a project benefiting a group of children. In 1999 some 600,000 Italians were engaged in such sponsorship schemes, while it is estimated that there are now over a million.

There are no official statistics concerning the number of associations that run sponsorship programmes. This is because in Italy the sector is highly fragmented, explains Laura Marini of La Gabbianella, an umbrella organisation for associations working in the sector and the only national co-ordinator of its kind. Operators can be private individuals, for example parish priests, as well as large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious institutions, she says. La Gabbianella groups 37 associations which between them operate in 75 countries, with 80,000 sponsors and up to 100,000 young beneficiaries.

Child sponsorship was thought up in 1958 by a group of American missionaries from the Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere, a Rome-based international institution that sends clergy and laymen to missionary areas. The idea, which came to Italy in 1973, is simple. Having chosen a suitable operator, sponsors make a pledge of between 5 and 70 a month (the average is about 25), payable in monthly, quarterly or annual instalments. This money is sent by the operator to the beneficiary, who will usually have been identified locally by a partner. A small part of the money (usually no more than 15 per cent) may be withheld by the organisation to cover its overheads. According to La Gabbianella, the aim of sponsorship is to allow the individual beneficiary and his or her community to gain autonomy. For this to happen, continuity of giving is important. Few organisations require sponsors to sign a contract, says Vincenzo Curatola, director of La Gabbianella. The relationship is based on mutual trust. By the same token organisations are meant to guarantee support even when the sponsor withdraws, by finding an alternative source of money.

Organisations vary hugely in style and philosophy. Some operators, such as Intervita Onlus, the organisation through which De Crescenzo supports Fiorella in Peru, offer the possibility of assisting individual children, and sponsors usually receive a photograph of the child as well as letters and sometimes school reports. Others, such as Volontariato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo (VIS), encourage sponsors to support projects benefiting groups of children, the family unit or the wider community. The child is at the centre of the sponsorship project, but his or her privacy must be respected, says Lorella Basile, co-ordinator of child sponsorship at VIS. In her opinion, children should not even know they are being sponsored. Most of the projects on her books benefit street children; sponsors money goes towards the construction and maintenance of school rooms and accommodation facilities, literacy courses and professional training.

In Italy child sponsorship often goes by the name adozione a distanza, which is misleading as it bears no relation to adoption in the legal or emotional sense of the term. Couples interested in legal adoption, whether in Italy or internationally, have to go through a lengthy process involving the local authorities and the juvenile court in the region in which they are resident (as well as the authorities in the country from which they want to adopt a child in the case of international adoption) before a child can be assigned to them. And legal adoption is a commitment for life. In child sponsorship the main commitment is financial; and though emphasis is placed on continuity of giving, in reality sponsors can usually withdraw their pledge at any stage, or change the amount they donate. Moreover, sponsors have no legal obbligations and no rights over the child. For these reasons, many organisations prefer to use the name sostegno a distanza.

Marini at La Gabbianella says that many new sponsors are young parents who want their kids to grow up alongside a boy or girl in a developing country as a way of learning about another culture. For some, it is a way of making them feel good about themselves. For others it may just be the latest craze as in the case of a parliamentarian who, following the publicity surrounding the first national day dedicated to child sponsorship on 6 January this year, contacted one organisation to ask if it would be possible to adopt one child for every member of her party. Some, according to Marini, are afraid of being cheated. This is borne out by Basile at VIS, who says that many of the people who contact her are disappointed by earlier experiences, having discovered the letters they had received to be false, for example, or having experienced a breakdown in communication.

Child sponsorship in Italy is regulated by a charter of principles which was drawn up in consultation with 100 operators and presented at the second forum for distance adoption in November 2000. It currently has 90 signatories and, in the absence of legislation on child sponsorship, is the only means of safeguarding the interests of all the parties involved. Recently the government announced that it intends to draw up legislation to limit the possible abuse of sponsorship and to ensure transparency; however, it has not yet consulted organisations and a law will be a long time coming. Curatola of La Gabbianella welcomes the idea of a law, provided that it does not simply address the issue of abuse but takes a more positive approach to sponsorship, encouraging donation under the necessary controls. Too much bureaucracy would spell the end for many of the smaller organisations working in the sector, he implies. In the meantime, operators are in the process of writing a new quality control charter of practical guidelines for best practice, which should be ready in a few months.

In Rome those interested in child sponsorship can obtain information directly from La Gabbianella (for contact details see below). Alternatively you can try Centro Pollicino, which was set up by the city councils social services department at the start of 2002 to assist children in need. It provides information on child sponsorship as well as fostering and national and international adoption. It also supports adoptive and foster parents and organises socio-cultural events to promote the integration of foreign children in Italy.

The child comes first

Yes we need help, but we wont take it at any cost, said Father Eugene Lynch, an Irish priest working with children in care in Argentina. Asked about child sponsorship he was cautious, listing the dangers before passing on to possible advantages. The biggest danger, he said, is that sometimes a direct contact is established, and at first its good, but after the honeymoon period the donor/helper gets bored or tired and cuts the contact with the child. In this way they end up doing more damage than good. Imagine that you take on a kid and for a year or two all goes well. Then you get tired, lose your job or find something that interests you more, then once again the child is abandoned.

When asked if such a relationship could ever do any good he replied: It could work, if the people know what is being done, and why. They would be entitled to know what is being done with their money and about the progress of the child, but the contact should be through the childrens home or organisation. People expect the children to be grateful, which is not very often the case. These children are damaged by life and they may be angry and very often their reactions are those of a trapped animal. Even people on the spot who want to get involved find that caring for the children in the long term is not very romantic. They start off with great energy and then drop off after a while and we are left to pick up the pieces. We buffer things here all the time. That is why it is better to have the contact via the group that works with the children and not directly with the kids. That way those who drop out after a while do no damage, and some good. If help is to be offered it has to be with all the cards on the table.

La Gabbianella, Via Cesare Balbo 4, tel. 06483381, www.lagabbianella.it.

Centro Pollicino, Piazza Cagliero 20, tel. 067840013, Mon-Thurs 09.00-14.00, Mon and Thurs also 15.00-18.00.

Father Lynch can be contacted by e-mail: delpalot@confar.org.ar.