Giving Well

The ideas in this post were mostly bouncing around in my head at Christmastime, but with today being the one month anniversary of the quake in Haiti—and having just attended a panel on the international community’s response to said disaster—these things seemed suddenly relevant again.

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The first proper summer job I had was working for the Defense Department (yes, really) on an Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I emerged from seven weeks in a windowless basement office watching home-star runner cartoons with over $1,000 in my bank account.  At the time, this seemed like an inexhaustible quantity of money.  I spent it on such stupid things as Rayban Sunglasses.  Naturally, I emptied my account by November (and managed to step on and break my sunglasses).

A few summers later, I once again found myself with some extra dollars (the intervening summer didn’t count, since I worked for minimum wage and spent most of my money on driving to work).  This time, though, I decided to do something more useful with my (semi)hard-earned cash: give it away.  My parents are incredibly inspiring philanthropists, and have set a really powerful example for me with their generosity.  Alongside that, though, they taught me to be aware that giving is a privilege that we were lucky to have.  Although I didn’t have much, by student standards I knew I was hugely privileged, so I fired off a few checks, and all around felt good about myself.

Fast forward to this Christmas.  2009 was a lucky year for me, thanks to my scholarships, putting me in a more comfortable position than I will be at any time in the foreseeable future.  Some combination of moral obligation and the looming specter of the taxman turned my thoughts back to philanthropy.  The problem is, now I know things.  I know, for example, that that check I sent to PETA a few years ago probably funded a mildly sexist and hugely ineffective publicity stunt, or that a huge portion of the money I gave to Amnesty International was eaten up by administrative costs.  I resolve that, this time, I would make myself better informed.

Studying development, I figured I would donate to some group working in the Third World.  Figuring out to whom to give, though, is an absolute nightmare.  The range of advice and charity rating sites out there is practically infinite.  Should I follow the advice of Give Well, which promises charity-rating based on rigorous, objective criteria–or should I ignore them because their raters are economists with no development experience who seem to care more about ‘cost-effectiveness’ than the rights of poor people?  Or should I pay attention to the dozens of different features Good Intentions Are Not Enough insist I identify before I give?  Perhaps better I just listen to the blogs that suggest that – all in all – giving probably does more harm than good, so we probably shouldn’t do it.

I eventually settled on Partners in Health, a Boston-based charity that sets up free health clinics in developing countries and couples physical healing with social empowerment and political advocacy.  I could, of course, still think of a load of problems with it (thank you developing studies): health NGOs make national governments think they don’t need to provide health care (distinctly a bad outcome), and Partners in Health’s guiding philosophy is one that is in some cases utopian and, therefore, not maximally effective.  In the end, I gave–but I didn’t feel good about it.

The recent earthquake in Haiti, which (as I learned today) killed 2.5% of the country’s population (imagine 9 million Americans dead), has put giving back in the news.  A lot of the aid to Haiti has been kind of stupid, which seems to confirm the cynicism of the blogs I cited above (while Partners in Health had 5,000 staff on the ground in Haiti before the earthquake, Red Cross had three – but Red Cross has received $160 million more in donations.)  I went to today’s panel on the International response to the quake expecting to hear a lot of Western self-flagellation about uncoordinated, unproductive, and ultimately, harmful aid.  I was surprised when they said that, despite problems, international largess had helped make things a lot better than they would have been otherwise.  It was a huge relief – a confirmation that I didn’t just give because I felt I had to, but because it actually might make something better.

This has been a long and circuitous post, so I will just offer some closing thoughts.  The new buzzwords of philanthropy are accountability and obligation.  This is a good thing: people do have a moral obligation to do more for the underprivileged than they currently do, and also have a responsibility to do so in a manner that is well-informed.  This has to be balanced, though.  We have to be careful about ignoring basic human emotions: that is to say, people want to do good and feel good about doing it.  Otherwise they just buy sunglasses.

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Jukebox: Ani Difranco – In and Out

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