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.