Tomás Sheridan is an award-winning filmmaker who recently started Polifilm Media, a small and young production company that focuses on documentaries, in particular on stories of individual people, the way they fit into the bigger picture and how storytelling can raise awareness on important issues.
In 2009 my wife Jusztina was developing a physical theatre piece focused on women's rights so I wasn't surprised when she came home with a Plan form to sponsor a little girl in Uganda.
£12 a month was something I thought we could afford – even though, to be honest I wasn't sure how much of it would actually reach that little girl; after all big charities have their own overheads, like all those guys who stop you on the street. Jusztina felt optimistic about the change we were supporting. I felt at best, I could only hope this money was reaching Uganda and being spent effectively.
We started receiving letters from Josephine, a little girl just a few months older than our own daughter, Mango. Jusztina and Mango were always excited opening Josephine's letters but I couldn't help thinking of a scam I had heard about years before in Italy where the police raided a warehouse full of illegal immigrants writing letters for a sponsorship programme.
Jusztina seemed to think that our conversations could be made into an interesting short film, since everyone who gives to charity has raised these questions, but we soon reached the conclusion that the only way we'd ever find out what was happening with our money was to go and see for ourselves.
We sent our idea to STEPS International, a production company that was developing 'Why Poverty?', a series of documentaries long and short, with the aim of raising debate around poverty in the 21st century and they liked the project. 'Finding Josephine' was officially happening.
A year later Mango and I were on our way to Uganda to meet Josephine and find out what difference, if any, we were making to her family. As well as making a film on charity I saw this as an opportunity to show Mango, (aged 5) an entirely different culture, with a different standard of living.
What I didn't realise was how much I had to learn from this journey: the encounter with Josephine's family turned out to be much more emotional and eye-opening than I had expected.
Mango and Josephine were instant best friends even though they couldn't understand each other. I really connected with Joseph (Josephine's father). At the time of filming he was the proud father of six (now seven) beautiful children. He showed me the piece of land where they plant Matoke (a savoury plantain which is made into a sweet mash, an important staple in their diet) and they look after a few coffee plants (cash crops) they got from Plan.
What I really wanted was to spend some time alone with Joseph to have a serious chat about how he felt about charity. The occasion presented itself when I followed him to work. There I finally started to gain perspective on what poverty, real poverty, actually means. Of course we have all heard the numbers and stats, but sitting there with a man you've grown to like and hearing that he has to walk the three-hour round trip to work and skip lunch just not to make a loss on his 12-hour day's work, really brought home how important our small contributions were for his family and for his children's future.
I was pleased to find out that our money wasn't actually given to Joseph's family, which could cause jealousy in the community and potentially end up paying for food rather than education. Instead the money is used to implement infrastructure that will benefit the whole community long after Plan has left. The school, the clinic, the clean water bore-holes, the training of locals on money-management, sanitation and women's rights had all been funded over the years by Plan. I got the sense that the locals were included in the process and felt pride and ownership of the projects that Plan was facilitating.
I found myself re-considering Plan's policies: the ban on direct contact between families wasn't a cover-up, it was an attempt to protect us from calls asking for money, and them from westerners coming to take advantage of them. The Plan staff following us during filming were there to make sure Josephine was protected, and the rules against large gifts stemmed from an understanding and respect for the locals' culture and self-determination.
I said goodbye to my new-found friends with a heavy heart, bringing with me the answers to many of my original questions but also grappling with the new questions that had arisen: so our donations are saving and improving lives, but how many villages like Josephine's are there in the world? Can charity alone eliminate poverty or are we desperately trying to limit the damage while we hope for a better world with a fairer distribution of wealth?
I think the truth is that Joseph and people like him all over the world are poor because the first world is rich. We need to work on our own awareness and empowerment, to understand how our decisions and life style affect people across this globally-linked world. As individuals we can put pressure on the companies we buy from to insist on ethically-sourced materials with fair pay to those who produced them, we can lobby our politicians to endorse legislation to make fair-trade the norm not the (expensive) exception, we can consider how our waste of food and consumables affects the global price of these resources and makes them out of reach for the poorest people in the world...
This isn't about guilt or activism, it's about standing up for what we believe in and becoming the change we want to see. When I feel like all these problems are bigger than me and I can't do anything about them I remember a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Find out more about sponsoring a child with Plan.
Please share the film and join the discussion on poverty on whypoverty.net or on Twitter #whypoverty #findingjosephine. Find out more about the director and producer.
Both the film and this blog were produced independently and voluntarily without editorial control from Plan UK.
Photographs ©Polifilm Media Ltd/North Isle Productions/Why Poverty