Left Behind: Security, Salvation, and the Subject of Prevention

Peer Reviewed

by Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela


In North Carolina, a faith-based 501(c)(3) facilitates a child sponsorship program that connects North American evangelical Christians with at-risk children in one of postwar Guatemala City's most structurally violent neighborhoods. Pitched in the name of gang prevention, child sponsors help create a context in which these Guatemalan kids might choose God over gangs. Based on fieldwork in North Carolina and in Guatemala, with both sponsors and the sponsored, this article explores how child sponsorship makes the work of gang prevention dependent upon the work of self-cultivation. It is an ethnographic approach attuned to what this article understands as the subject of prevention, that is, the individual imagined and acted upon by the imperative to prevent. This includes the at-risk youth, in all his racialized otherness, but also (and increasingly so) North American evangelicals who self-consciously craft their subjectivities through their participation in gang prevention. The subject of prevention's observable outcome is an extractive spatial logic that says something about the surgically selective nature of Central American security today.

by Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published articles on subject formation in the context of humanitarian intervention (see, for example, Ramah McKay's "Afterlives: Humanitarian Histories and Critical Subjects in Mozambique" [2012]) and faith-based activism (see, for example, Omri Elisha's "Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism" [2008]). See also Peter Redfield's "The Unbearable Lightness of Expats: Double Binds of Humanitarian Mobility" (2012) and "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" (2005). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on neoliberal governmentality. See, for example, Tomas Matza's "Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show" (2009), Aradhana Sharma's "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India" (2006), and Erica Caple James' "Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of US(AID) in Haiti" (2012) on the intersections of compassion economies, humanitarian aid, and spiritual beliefs and practices. 

Author Biography 

Kevin Lewis O'Neill is an Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. With over a decade of research in and on postwar Guatemala City, Professor O'Neill's ethnographic work addresses the politics of Christianity. His first book, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (University of California Press 2010), details Neo-Pentecostalism's entanglement with democratization at the level of citizenship. His current book project, Securing the Soul, is under contract with the University of California Press. The project tracks Christianity's participation in an ever expanding security apparatus. With transnational criminal organizations on the rise, amid unprecedented rates of street crime, pastors intervene in the lives of at-risk youth for the sake of both security and salvation. How does this intervention recalibrate the moral contours of security? What kind of people does it produce? 

by Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela 

Professor O'Neill's work appears in the journals Public Culture (22:1), Social Text (30:2), Comparative Studies in Society and History (52:1), American Quarterly (63:2), the Journal for the Royal Anthropological Institute (19:2), Ethnography (13:4), History of Religions (51:4), and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (forthcoming). He is also co-editor of Securing the City (Duke University Press 2011) and Genocide (Duke University Press 2009) as well as guest editor of a History of Religions special issue

Interview with the Author

Why are you so critical of something so good?  Kevin Lewis O'Neill (KLO): I'm not critical. I think there is a difference between being critical and thinking critically about something. And many of the perceived critiques that I raise in the article are nothing new to child sponsorship. They are debates that have circled internally for decades. My interest is in a moment when child sponsorship, as well as a whole range of faith-based programs, gets folded into a rather amorphous effort at regional security.  

But the article reads like critique…  KLO: I did not write it from a place of critique. I actually wrote it from a place of total ambivalence. For one, I really like the people who run this organization. I think they do great work that advances at least one longstanding political commitment of my own: redistribution. They move money from the north to the south. They also let their ideals guide their lives. I find them to be totally inspiring. But, I'm an anthropologist thinking about security strategies across the Americas, and I'm interested in their effects, both those intended and those unintended. So, for me, it was difficult to strike a completely critical tone.  

Then you seem really ambivalent about short term mission trips…  KLO: Yes, I am really ambivalent about short term mission trips. But those who run sponsorship programs tend to be more critical than I am. They say that they are tremendously expensive and a questionable use of resources. I agree. But my first experience in Latin America, in Mexico, in fact, was a two week trip in college—to build houses and to study up on liberation theology. I ended up getting interested in the Zapatista movement and spent the summer in the conflict zones. Now I'm an anthropologist. So one really can't tell where these trips will take people. But, again, for me it's that these trips now get put to work, or are at least framed by, those concerned with regional security. They were once irrelevant to security in Central America. Now they are a resource.    

by Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

So you went native? Or you were already native?  KLO: Neither. I'm not Christian. I'm a recovering Catholic, as they say. So that's not the source of my ambivalence. One source is just how anthropological child sponsorship can seem. The short term travel, with its interest in alterity, and how it all prompts people to announce really broad statements about the human condition—it can seem really uncanny at times, the return of the repressed. I write in the article, "a half-dozen child sponsors sat on the bed of a recent gunshot victim." But so too did an anthropologist. And, believe me, no one could tell us apart.  

So you're no different than the sponsors?  KLO: Well, one of the major arguments of my article is that child sponsorship is a technique of self-cultivation. So child sponsors race to the poorest, most dangerous parts of the world because this helps them cultivate a certain sense of self. Again, that's not too far off from what anthropologists tend to do. And everyone around that bed, including me, all seemed pretty intrigued by the realities of gang violence. It did something for each of us.  

But if we take the work of Michel Foucault and others seriously, and agree that we are all cultivating the self in one way or another, then the observation can actually seem rather banal. We all cultivate ourselves. This Cultural Anthropology Supplemental Page, for example, is a really tedious effort at curating my own self. Black and white photo? Stern gaze? Rolling hills punctuated by simple structures. That's hot! But my question is, and continues to be, what happens when this impetus to craft ourselves becomes a constitutive dimension of hemispheric security? What happens when security becomes a matter of the soul rather than that of the state? What kind of people does this produce? What kind of security does this make possible? These questions are as ontological as they are ethnographic.  

Does it work?  KLO: The anthropological answer is 'yes.' Of course it works. Everything works, the anthropologist tends to argue, because most everything we study does something; it produces something. For me, in the study, my evidence pushed me towards the observation that sponsorship puts some kids on the grid while leaving others off. Again, this perceived critique is very familiar to the industry itself. But this division between those sponsored and those not, I argue, highlights what I call the surgically selective nature of Central American security. It's all so singular. And this is fascinating because it pushes the security debate, especially in Latin America, beyond the built form, beyond the material realties of walls and razor wire. Those are important but only one part of the process. 

Why North Carolina? North Carolina is super important for my work in Guatemala. The sponsorship program is one reason. But the money from Plan Mexico, the cash set aside for soft security programs, is handled by USAID and then subcontracted to the Research Triangle Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Another part of my research involves Alejandro Umana. He's a Salvadoran national, a member of MS-13, now on Federal death row. He’s the first Central American gang member to receive the federal death penalty. He's being held in Terre Haute, Indiana, but he’s on death row for murders he committed in Greensboro, North Carolina. His lawyers are in North Carolina. Finally, North Carolina is on the very forefront of deportation policy. It's a model (at times laboratory) for the coordination of local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security. Their 287(g) Program has been central to my research.  

by Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

Teaching Resources Annotated by Kevin Lewis O'Neill 

Security and Guatemala City 


KLO: A film full of shocking and disturbing imagery, this short piece provides a clear example of what might be termed 'hard security.' Organized around the extrajudicial execution of gang members, a powerful interview begins at 15:50 that brings the viewer into conversation with vigilante groups.


KLO: This video highlights another anti-gang program in Guatemala, one that foregrounds the power of prevention. This is a clear example of how Chritianity organizes the practice of soft security.

Left Behind


KLO: The production quality is poor, but this trailer helps glimpse the extractive geography referenced in my article. Note the extractive images that appear at 00:42 and 00:43 as well as 00:55 and 1:03. 


KLO: This is the full movie. The first moment when people are "left behind" begins at 23:06 and ends at 29:43. At 27:23 there is an interesting reference to children. They have disappeared from the airplane. Their parents have been left behind. Implied here is the presumed purity of children. The stewardess's hysteria at 28:28 is worth juxtaposing with the material from my article.

Child Sponsorship


KLO: This is a classic video. Note that the tone is charitable. It is not driven by a developmentist logic. At 00:19 notice that $0.70 a day provides Wilma with the clothes she needs to attend school. Yet, none of the money goes towards actually building schools. This spirit of development, as Erica Bornstein calls it, is still many years away. One should also appreciate the middle-class-ness of it all. Money for amusement parks, soda, and chewing gum can be redirected to help poor children. This is not big money, but it is expendable income. At 00:55 Sally Struthers, in a rather folksy plea, asks for the viewer's "pocket change."


KLO: This is a striking commercial for a number of reasons. The protagonist is no longer folksy, as Sally Struthers proved to be. She's upset. At 00:22, she asks: "Just look at this water! Would you drink this?! Would you let your child?!" The commercial is also very developmentalist. At 00:49 blueprints appear for fresh water wells and a health center. And although one child is spotlighted, an emphasis is made on helping the entire community (see 01:01). Also interesting is how these commercials present the westerner in non-western contexts. Notice that the World Vision worker seems very out of place in her bright blue shirt and sensible slacks. She seems to have beem plopped down into northern Zambia.


KLO: Again, this is a very middle class audience. The video begins with the idea that this family has "$43 a month to spend on something special." This is not a tremendous amount of disposable income. Much of the commercial, in a surprisingly cartoonish way, juxtaposes the pitfalls of conspicuous consumption with the virtue gained by sponsoring a child. Jane's family, starting at 00:29, comes off looking really great.


KLO: I like this commercial because it puts two children into conversation with each other by way of letter writing. It helps juxtapose very different material conditions but also two very different visions of childhood. The young girl in Ireland is engaging in a virtuous extracurricular while the sponsored girl is working. There is also something audacious about the young girl from Ireland writing her letter amid a rain storm when her sponsored pen pal does not have enough water to drink (see 00:07). Final note: invocations of water, especially in the form of rain, are common in sponsorship commercials, which I have always read as a nod to the baptismal.


KLO: This video is intense. The pictures help individualize otherwise generic vicitim, with each photo falling with every death. The pictures on the floor form a kind of mass grave, which is chilling. The narrator is also a child who cleverly switches the indexicality of her script. She speaks in the third person about "children" but then, at 00:08, she announces "we die because we don’t have enough food and our water is dirty." Her accent is presumably western but her youth makes her universal.


KLO: This is a really great video. The sponsored child is unbearably cute and Tyler Ward's black t-shirt is cut in a way that highlights his upper arms. It is also unclear why he carries his guitar throughout rural Guatemala (see 00:36). By 00:55, Tyler begins what I would call, and what my article understands as, a poor visit, which helps to animate this longstanding tension between comparative poverties and spiritual wealth. "I can't cook as well as they can," Tyler admits (01:10). Tyler's iPhone also makes for an awkward juxtaposition at 01:28, especially when compared to the shampoo and toilette paper he gives as gifts (at 01:58). The commercial peaks, by my account, when Tyler confesses, "I think sponsoring a child is more of a responsibility that allows you as an individual to grow" (see 02:49). He continues, "It creates this overwhelming sense of joy. Like I am actually truly changing a life and helping somebody other than myself" (see 2:58).


KLO: This is an unedited video that accurately reflects the process, with all of its excitement and ambivalence. The instructions on letter writing, beginning at 00:23, are indicative of the industry.

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