Wednesday, December 2, 2009

consumer charity II

Yesterday I wrote about some of the ethical complications I see in the conspicuous efforts of companies to tie buying certain products to charity donations. It’s probably not surprising that this isn’t the only US “giving” practice that makes me cringe.

On my way to and from visiting the Angkor Wat temples while I was in Cambodia, one particular village caught my eye. All the houses were made of the same green corrugated iron (which strikes me as impractical in a hot, sunny climate), but this didn’t make it stand out – groups like Habitat for Humanity and Tabitha make houses that look similar. What was special about that village was that in front of every house, placed close to the road for maximum visibility, was a sign with little American flags announcing the name of the donor whose funds had built the house. I wonder what kind of people really needed to know that their names would be displayed in a language none of the locals would be able to read in order to give money to construct a home.

I see this as an extreme example of common need in the West to make our giving personal. A more typical scenario is child sponsorship. For $30-35 a month I can provide a child with school books, basic medical care, and a nutritious lunch every day (or something along those lines). In turn, I get the child’s picture for my refrigerator and receive occasional letters from him or her.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad arrangement. Rather than just throwing money at big problems like poverty, underdevelopment, malnutrition or child labor, I get to know (or at least think I know) that my money is making life better for little Joseph in Tanzania.

Except it’s rarely that simple. The reality is that organizations like World Vision and Save the Children with child sponsorship programs often pool the money for sponsorship within a certain community – so I’m supporting Joseph’s village, not just Joseph. That seems fair. After all, it’s a bit offensive to think that Joseph is receiving more care than his playmates because I picked him out of a catalog of children. But even though the funds may be combined for community projects, child sponsorship organizations still use a significant amount of their resources facilitating and administering the connection between the donor and the sponsored child. If those resources could be going instead to providing more books or mosquito nets, at what point does sponsorship become more about me than about the kids?

Perhaps it’s natural for us to want a human connection in our attempts to do something to address the suffering in the world. And perhaps its better to use money connecting sponsors with kids than for that money to not be given in the first place (though I’m not convinced – perhaps a future post on that). But at least we can start by being honest about the importance of feeling good in our attempts to do good.


  1. Perhaps, your thoughts have been influenced by your most recent readings - Road to Hell?

    Maybe, you saw that I read that a few months back? It's a very intriguing and disturbing book; in a good way. I'm still processesing everything that was written by Maren, as I slowly make my way through Sachs and Moyo. Definitely a more narrative approach to the topic, but he backs it up with facts, which makes for a very compelling argument. Also, there's a beautiful description of how the current farm subsidies came into being. But maybe you already know everything I just said.

    It's definitely been a struggle, as I try to make up my mind (not that it will likely ever be fully made up) on the issues of int'laid, int'l development, int'l charity, etc, but getting back to your post a bit, it seems that alot of our charity is really just a salve to sooth our privileged souls in light of the benefits we reap from the impoverishment of the marginalized.

    In some ways, the notion of 'charity' is a key aspect of us being okay with the egregrious inequalities that our present in our world today. Charity makes it okay when we don't give or act and a saint when we do, whereas as the notion of justice makes it a moral imperative to act and a sin of omission when we don't.

    As I reread what I have thus far written, I'm tempted to not post this comment, knowing fully well the hypocrisy in my own life. But I think it's an important thing for us to think about as we recognize the interconnectedness of our humanity on some many different levels.

    Hopefully, I'll actually make it to Nairobi, and we can talk about this and many other topics in person.

    Not sure if I really want to post this...


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  3. ps - somehow missed part one before I even made my essay-sized comment. and yes, definitely important issues to raise with our notions of 'charity.' your observation of how our charity is now mixed in with our consumerism with the examples of Starbucks and (Red) demonstrate how some 'charity' plays into system of oppressive global economics.

    and to clarify this comment, as well as the one before, it's not that all charity is bad, for it is an important part of our humanness, but like you said, we must more closely examine that which we consider charity.

  4. Gotta disagree with you here, babe. Compassion International does pretty freaking AWESOME work- some of Mosoj Yan's girls' babies are directly sponsored by it in a way that is very tangibly and visibly helpful to them.

    And one of my good friends here, a MY worker actually, was herself sponsored by a similar organization and when we were talking about it recently she went on for about 20 straight minutes about how meaningful it was to her to feel like she was sponsored by specific PEOPLE and had a relationship with them. I think the relational aspect often benefits the "recipients" as well... I've heard from many people here that it is more meaningful to feel like the money is coming from specific people than just anonymous birds in the sky. At least in such a relational culture as Bolivia.

  5. I appreciate Kyle's comments here: "In some ways, the notion of 'charity' is a key aspect of us being okay with the egregrious inequalities that are present in our world today. Charity makes it okay when we don't give or act and a saint when we do, whereas the notion of justice makes it a moral imperative to act and a sin of omission when we don't." I agree, mostly with that.

    I am conflicted when I see ads about starving/suffering children in 3rd world countries. In fact, I often change the channel. It's not because I don't care, but because I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the need and the insufficiency of the support. And I feel like my money will not go directly to the ones on the screen. The worst thing, however, is the danger of becoming smug, judgmental of others or complacent after giving.

    On the other hand, I worked in a Korean orphanage (Holt Adoption Agency) where I saw the dollars at work with individual children and the organization as a whole--doing a magnificent job for over 50 years. And when I see the photo of sponsored children on my children's refrigerator, I realize it is one small step of demonstrating care and concern for others to my grandchildren.
    This is certainly not an easy question, but with most things, one's intention counts.