Research Position Paper- Kirsten Smith

Some Clarity about Charity

In a New York Times article entitled “What is Charity?”, Professor John D. Colombo a tax-law professor at the University of Illinois makes this statement, “We simply don’t have a coherent rationale for what it is we call charity. So we have these vastly different sorts of organizations doing vastly different things and calling it charity.” Charity can mean so many things to so many different people. Charity can mean helping the poor, the uneducated, the diseased, or the disabled. Common knowledge tells us that charity, in the form of donating goods and food, is always a good thing and always helpful because it gives people the tools they need to succeed and/or live a happy life because they did not have the means to do so otherwise. This logic, however, is not always right because is some cases, charity can be debilitating in more than one way. It can be harmful to a person’s health and or livelihood, and charity can also take away the opportunity for the people in need to figure out how to help themselves.

As the old and semi-over used Chinese proverb says: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. If charities would help make people/nations self-sufficient in regard to the problem/problems those people or nations are facing, then philanthropy will be much more helpful to the people who need it. In an online article entitled, “Solidarity, Not Charity: Helping Haitians Help Themselves by Randall Amster, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Joining with someone who needs help and helping that person help themself is the greatest act of philanthropy a person can undertake. When helping people by pushing them in the right direction, those people will have the tools to know how to help themselves through any similar situation. It’s like when a parent teaches a young child how to make a sandwich. Through teaching their child how to make a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the parent is also teaching the child the skills they will need to know how to make any kind of sandwich. That child will be able to take the skills they learn from that sandwich making experience, and use them when making any kind of sandwich in the future. This is the same idea behind helping someone help themself. If that parent would never teach their child how to make a simple sandwich that parent would have to continue making sandwiches for that child for the rest of their life or else that child will never eat a sandwich from home.

Handouts make people lazy and reliant on others. Just as doing too much for a child will create a spoiled and dependent child, doing too much for a person in need will make that person dependent on aid.  No one is going to buy something when they know it will be given to them for free, so making a needy person work for what they need, will make them more self-sufficient. TOMS, a shoe company that gives shoes out to children so that they can attend school, says right on their website that the company gives shoes to the same children on a regular basis. That means that the same few people are continuously being given shoes and will probably never have to buy a new pair for themselves. In this case, it would be more beneficial and probably cost effective to help these people make their own shoes and then they would be able to make shoes for themselves, their families, and friends.

Handing out “quick fixes” to people is as easy as raising money or getting people to donate goods and sending them to the affected area, while doing something that will make a lasting effect on people takes a lot more thought and effort. These quick fixes are like using a band aid to put a wound back together that requires stitches. You can keep using as many band aids as you can afford to close up the wound, but eventually they’ll all fall off and nothing was fixed permanently.

In 2005 Niger experienced a food crisis and after the Western world caught sight of the problem, they flooded the country with late food deliveries. By the time that the food got there the problem had solved itself and there wasn’t a need for so much food. According to a 2006 BBC news article entitled, “Can aid do more harm than good?,” the head of a Kenyan NGO (Nongovernmental organization) admitted that drought aid to his country “killed production” and “increased dependency.” In the same article, Professor William Easterly of New York University states “It is axiomatic that flooding the market with food drives down the price for local farmers.” When food is donated from other countries, local farmers suffer because they just can’t compete with someone who is giving out free food and in a rural lifestyle, the economy depends heavily on farming and selling goods.

Besides being a metaphorical band aid for a stich worthy wound, handouts are very impersonal and they make the people receiving the aid feel like they are being told what is best for them. In areas where polio still exists, anti-polio advocates are trying to rid the world of polio, while confused natives who are suffering from other diseases are asking, “Why Polio?”, since most of them have never heard of or seen polio in their villages before. The hard push to eradicate polio is confusing to the natives because most of the time they have never heard of anyone with polio, but all too often, they see people die of other diseases. Resistant natives are looked at as uneducated and uninformed by the advocates, but they would know better than anyone else what is best for them, since they know the issues and problems that their villages are facing on a daily basis.

When thinking philanthropy, a person often thinks of a wealthy person or group of people who are donating a large amount or money or goods and as a result helping a group or people who are less fortunate. But why do these philanthropists decide to donate shoes to African children or donate money so that people can be vaccinated against certain diseases? These people who live in  large houses with cable television, a full fridge, a happy family, and a white picket fence surely can’t understand what someone in a far off country needs to help them live a better life; can they?

So often, philanthropists and organizations get the needs of the people they are helping wrong. Instead of helping people become self-sufficient, philanthropists often just try to throw money and products at people and hope the problem goes away. For example, in Africa, children cannot attend school unless they own a pair of shoes. TOMS, pledges to donate a pair of shoes to a child who needs them for every pair someone purchases for themselves. That’s all good and the idea seems very helpful, but the company passes the shoes out to children in schools who already have shoes. This is where the problem arises because if people who could already afford a pair of shoes are being given free shoes, they aren’t purchasing them anymore. If these people aren’t buying their own shoes, then shoe salesmen aren’t making money, and if the shoe salesmen aren’t making money, they can’t buy other things they need to live and support their family like food or clothing.

Besides being a threat to the economy, TOMS have also been known to fall apart very easily because they aren’t made with the African lifestyle in mind. Most African children walk on average five miles to school each way every day. With that in mind, wouldn’t you picture a thick soled, water proof type shoes to give to them? TOMS doesn’t. The shoes that they hand out to their recipients are thin canvas type shoes that rip and wear out after only a few wears.

In this case, above all else TOMS is a shoe company who is trying to sell shoes. Companies, like TOMS, want to sell products and to sell the products TOMS needs some reason why their shoes are better than other companies. This reason just happens to be that they help people. They claim that these shoes help children in Africa have a chance to go to school. As American’s we buy in to this claim because we feel compelled to buy a pair of shoes so that a child in Africa has the chance to go to school because as Americans we have an ethnocentric view of the world. We think that we have a superior mindset and that we can help everyone because we know how to solve their problems better than they can.

After the 1998 hurricane in Honduras, ports were being congested by unnecessary donations of unneeded supplies and outdated medications. The military personnel who were needed as police and medics were being used to sort through the useful donations and the not so useful donations. This same type situation also occurred after the 2006 tsunami in Indonesia. Many charities donated rice to feed the people who were devastated by the natural disaster, flooding the country with foreign rice. The problem arose when rice farmers only a quarter mile inland who had been unaffected by the disaster were unable to sell their flourishing crops because people were being fed for free by the foreign rice regardless of their circumstances. Nobody was going to pay for rice when they could get it for free. As a result, the devastation of the tsunami was more far reaching than just the people who lost their families and homes. The donations of rice from other countries took away the livelihood of the indigenous rice farmers further putting the economy of Indonesia in the hole.

Another example of misunderstanding of needs is polio vaccinations. There are different groups going around to different villages giving out free vaccinations to people who want them and tracking down the people who don’t but still “need” them. As a result of these misunderstandings, the people we were trying to help are left frustrated and even needier than before.  In some cases, people who are meaning to do good have even been killed because of misunderstandings and frustration.  Polio is not a major health issue for people living in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where the disease still exists. The fact that people come knocking to give you a free vaccination for a disease you’ve never seen or heard of has created suspicion among the people of these countries. In India, some residents protested against the polio campaign because most of them had never heard of polio, while malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea are very serious diseases being ignored. As a result of the distrust, anti-polio activists in Pakistan and Nigeria have even been killed because of the distrust from residents and radical groups.

The main reason people feel the need to donate things without taking into account the needs of the people they think they are helping is as humans we want to help people and the easiest way is by “fixing” what is wrong as quick as possible. People need food? Give them food! Children need shoes? Give them shoes! We can eradicate a disease if we vaccinate enough people? Let’s do it tomorrow! We want to help people as soon as possible and we don’t think ahead and realize that we could potentially damage an economy or create trust issues by chasing people down to help them.

A charity does not have to be a righteous group of people who betters the lives of everyone they try to help or say that they help. We can’t keep looking at charity as something that forever changes the lives of the people being affected by it. Buying a certain pair of shoes doesn’t always mean that an African child will get the opportunity to go to school who otherwise would not be able to; buying these shoes just means that someone somewhere in Africa will receive a free pair of shoes whether they need them or not. Yes charity can be helpful, but when it isn’t carefully thought out and done, the effects can be more detrimental than helpful.  Philanthropists cannot just throw charity at a group of needy people or else those people will become dependent on that charity. To be beneficial, a philanthropist must listen to the true needs of a group of people, get involved, and help people help themselves.

 Works Cited

Abraham, Thomas . “They Need Other Medicine Too.” The New York Times: The  Opinion Pages. The New York TImes, 19 Nov 2012. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/opinion/global/ridding-the-world-of-polio.html?_r=0.

Amster, Randall. “Solidarity, Not Charity: Helping Haitians Help Themselves.” Truthout. N.p., 21 Jan 2010. Web. 25 Apr 2013. http://archive.truthout.org/solidarity-not-charity-helping-haitians-help-themselves56268.

Astier , Henri . “Can aid do more harm than good?.” BBC News. BBC News, 01 Feb 2006. Web. 25 Apr 2013. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4185550.stm.

Strom, Stephanie. “What is Charity?.” The New York Times: Giving. The New York Times, 14 Nov 2005. Web. 2 Apr 2013.   http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/14/giving/14strom.html?pagewanted=all.

“TOMS Company Overview.” TOMS. N.p.. Web. 25 Apr 2013. http://www.toms.com/corporate-info/

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One Response to Research Position Paper- Kirsten Smith

  1. davidbdale says:

    You say: We can’t keep looking at charity as something that forever changes the lives of the people being affected by it.

    But: actually, that’s exactly how you DO want us to think about charity, isn’t it? What you mean is we need to stop thinking of the shoes as something that changes life forever. Knowing how to make shoes would improve life more, or forever.

    You’re improving quickly, Kirsten. It’s been a pleasure to watch you grow as a writer.

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