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The Complex World of 'Giving'

Shamiela Mir's picture

Have you ever been conflicted by the word charity or the idea of charity? I have. I cannot pinpoint exactly why, but I’ve always had a philosophical dilemma about what it is, and how it should be. I was recently prompted to think about it again when I read a few articles and listened to a segment on National Public Radio that talked about the different ways in which people and institutions ‘give’ and whether or not these are good ideas. 

A New York Times article, Is It Nuts to Give to the Poor Without Strings Attached talked about an organization called GiveDirectly which gives money directly to poor people without any preconditions. The idea is that people know best what they need, and providing money with strings attached is patronizing and less effective. GiveDirectly hired independent researchers to conduct a randomized controlled trial to see if this is an effective way of giving. Results are due later this year and they will be made public.

Giving money with conditions already exists (Conditional Cash Transfers) and there are many successful programs such as Bolsa Familia in Brazil and Oportunidades in Mexico. Although the results of the effectiveness of giving without preconditions are still pending, I think there are pros to this approach. For one, I believe that people know what is best for themselves, and many charitable initiatives, or development in general have been top down and prescriptive. But, as the article notes, is this sustainable in the long run? Can those who are given the money escape the cycle of poverty? Or is the ‘tangible relief of being a little less poor’ good enough?

A segment from This American Life: I Was Just Trying To Help also explored the modus operandi of GiveDirectly. In the segment, the VP of Africa Program for Heifer International, Elizabeth Bintliff was interviewed to react to this type of giving. She thinks this is a “terrible idea” and one should not be conducting experiments with people’s lives because “they are people, it’s too important”.  And, some of the most important impacts, such as the pride of becoming a self-sustaining individual, she noted, cannot be measured by data. Charity work, according to Ms. Bintliff “…is not that linear, it’s not an equation…it’s an ecosystem.”

I sympathize with this view too, that it is tricky to experiment with people’s lives, even though it is for the greater cause of finding the best solution. The NPR segment also talked about the tension and resentments between those who got the money and those who did not get the money from GiveDirect.  What are the implications of the tension and resentments for the community as a whole? Does this essentially create the haves and the have-nots within a village? How good can that be?

I do, however, understand GiveDirectly’s point about the lack of sufficient data backing these charities’ programs.  There are also issues with charities mismanaging funds: One of the most shocking cases for mismanagement was by the Central Asia Institute, created by Greg Mortenson, the author of NYT bestseller, Three Cups of Tea. According to Charity Watch, organization’s financial statements showed mixing of personal and business funds, and the organization used more money for domestic outreach (i.e., speaking engagements for Greg Mortenson and selling his books) than actually building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the end of investigations, Mr. Mortenson had to repay $1 Million back to his charity.

And, what about the responsibilities of those who give to charities? Is it OK for people to give to get ‘karma points’? Is it offensive that privileged people use their fellow human beings’ misery and misfortune to feel better about themselves? What about celebrities’ involvement in charity work, which at times appear to be publicity stunts? What about extremely wealthy people organizing gala parties with fancy dresses and cocktails in the name of charity? Is it what Peter Buffet calls in his op-ed, The Charity-Industrial Complex, conscience laundering – feeling better about accumulating more than any one person would possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity? Or, do intensions matter as long as the money is doing some ‘good’?  

There are a few things that I am sure about: organizations do need to be more accountable to their results; people, whether they are giving to charities or managing charities, do need to be mindful of that fact that this is about people’s lives. In terms of the responsibilities of the givers, two things come to my mind: knowing where you’re giving; and humility.  Charities exist only because the world’s system has created a situation where some have a lot, and many have very little. So giving to charities, although it’s a ‘good’ thing to do, is only an attempt to level the playing field, if that is even possible. It is by no means a sustainable solution for poverty reduction. As Peter Buffet said in his op-ed article, “…as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine”.
Photo Credit: By Winnond from Free Digital Photos
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