How do we know sponsorship works? Because we’re working ourselves out of a job. Literally.
After over 40 years, Plan International is ending our sponsorship program in Thailand — not because the program was a failure, but because it was a success.
Before we get into that, let’s rewind to the beginning. Plan first arrived in Thailand back in 1981. Since then, we’ve worked with adolescent girls, children, young people, community leaders, parents, local partners and government officials to advance children’s rights and gender equality, implementing projects in more than 1,000 communities.
Meanwhile, over the past several decades, Thailand has made enormous strides: Stable economic growth has helped to reduce poverty levels from over 65% in the 1980s to below 10% in 2018; 95% of children now complete primary school; over 98% of the population has access to safe drinking water; the health system has improved; and legal frameworks have been created and implemented for the protection of children and young people.
That’s not to say there isn’t more work to be done. In fact, we’ll still be working on other projects in Thailand, such as supporting girls and families migrating from Cambodia and Myanmar, and helping people access their rights through citizenship. But we made the decision to end our sponsorship program because we’re confident that the work in those communities can — and will — continue on without us.
You see, our plan was never to stay forever. Our ultimate goal — in all of the places where we work — is to leave communities with the knowledge, skills, organization and infrastructure they need to continue the work we started together, long after we’re gone. That’s why our sponsors support community-led, self-sustaining projects that help to improve the entire network surrounding their sponsored child, and sustain Plan’s work in fighting for equality.
So, how do we know when it’s time to say goodbye?
Phasing out of a community is not a decision we take lightly — or one that we make on our own. Just like with every other aspect of our programs, we carefully evaluate and determine that next step in agreement with the sponsorship communities where we work.
From the start, our work with communities is collaborative. Over 80 years of experience have taught us that sustainable solutions require local ownership, every step of the way. That means working together to determine the community’s needs and how to address those needs together.
When it’s clear a community can manage without us, we mutually agree on a time to gradually phase out our participation in that area. This is cause for celebration, because it means our partnership has been a success.
“The communities are now able to meet the challenges on their own,” explains Kamolnat, a Plan program manager in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province.
In the decade that Plan has worked in Chiang Rai, our sponsorship program has raised awareness of the rights of adolescent girls, children and young people, including the right to an identity and citizenship.
Registering a birth is the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence — and, without proof of identity, a child is invisible to the authorities. Loans, higher education and better-paying jobs remain unattainable without identification papers. But challenges like language barriers and remote locations have left thousands of people in Chiang Rai without citizenship.
Plan Thailand launched its Citizenship for All project in 2012, forming a group of volunteers to build awareness, establish a database and help their communities register for birth certificates and other necessary documentation. Over the past decade, the program has helped more than 16,000 people successfully obtain Thai citizenship.
Now, volunteers like former sponsored child Naree are continuing this important work.
“In the past, villagers didn’t have citizenship because they were illiterate, so I want to help,” Naree says. “Plan International Thailand trained us to collect information from villagers and send it back. After they are done with the process, I will coordinate with the district and accompany villagers to the district office and be a translator for them. I’m glad to help my community.”
Strengthening the rights of adolescent girls and children is a central component of Plan’s work, in Thailand and around the world. We know that protection mechanisms can only be sustained in the long run if communities take the lead in their design and action, establishing ownership over them from the start. By creating community-based child protection committees and mechanisms, we can gradually hand over activities to communities over time.
“I am a youth leader,” sponsored child Ploy says. “I teach in many villages on various topics such as children’s rights and safeguarding. One child came for counsel about parental abuse. I informed the leader of the community and he coordinated and informed the relevant agencies. I feel glad that I can protect others and protect myself.”
Another program we implemented in Chiang Rai was called “Under 18: No Marriage and Pregnancy.” Girls participated in training sessions where they discussed the links between early marriage, teenage pregnancies and gender discrimination. They learned that when a girl is forced to marry, it isn’t just jeopardizing her education and potential — it’s jeopardizing her health as well. In fact, the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide is complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Girls learned how to advocate for their rights, working with parents, community leaders and government officials to address the root causes of harmful practices, like child marriage and gender-based violence, and creating lasting change.
To improve access to safe and clean drinking water, Plan has helped to construct new filtration systems. And, in order to ensure local ownership, community-led water management committees were established to maintain and oversee the systems.
“We used to drink tap water, but the quality was even lower than the standard,” Noonyarit, a community leader, says. “Plan International helped us to construct a water filter tank and advocated for our health.”
In collaboration with communities, Plan constructed early childhood development centers, and 11 mobile libraries now provide hundreds of children with access to fun and engaging learning materials.
“Plan International Thailand helped us in the construction of the dining area and bathroom and supported the kitchenware for the early childhood center,” Somboon, a teacher at the center, says. “They also supported books, notebooks, fable storybooks and trollies for teachers to run the activities in the community or neighboring village. Therefore, the children are interested in and enjoy studying more.”
In the past decade, our sponsorship program reached more than 13,000 children and 89,000 people in 153 communities in the provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Here’s what two sponsored children and young leaders had to say about their sponsorship experiences.
As we reflect on over 40 years of sponsorship in Thailand, we can’t help but think of the thousands of letters exchanged, friendships formed and lives changed forever. We’re grateful for the dedication of our sponsors and inspired by the young leaders who are continuing to transform their communities for the better.
Saying goodbye is bittersweet. But we did what we set out to achieve — we worked ourselves out of a job. And that is a reason to celebrate.