I have to confess to reaching for the wallet (at least metaphorically) when I heard how bad the devastation caused by cyclone Pam has been in Vanuatu. And then I paused (mid click on the donate now button), as I’ve done any number of times with other disasters and the cries for help from charity organisations, and asked myself — Is this the way to go?
Any number of attendant questions popped into my head. Will my money (at least the majority of it) get there, how effective will the aid be, am I just being paternalistic, am I being diddled by charity and aid organisations that increasingly seem to operate like slick corporations?
Criticisms of aid and charity abound, even from among the charity/aid organisations themselves. World Vision’s Vanuatu representative Chloe Morrison says, in response to criticisms of aid and charity organisations’ lack of cohesion and effectiveness in Vanuatu, that ‘Organisations… don’t have a footprint, don’t have a relationship with communities, don’t have those government relationships and just arrive in a country… we’ve seen that in Vanuatu.’
The criticisms are also made in general terms. Charity, aid in general, targets symptoms, not causes… Charity may simply become a substitute for real justice… Charity may not provide the best solution to a problem. Charity simply appeases the well off — give money but do nothing real to change things. Charity replaces government actions to address corruption and systemic problems. Charities are inefficient. This last criticism is one we often hear; the urban mythmakers speak of vast sums soaked up by running costs, high salaries for management, and shoddy or inefficient practices. Personal friends who have worked as volunteers for X (a well-known charity) speak of monumental organisational lapses during the recent Victorian floods and the more recent cyclone disaster response in Rockhampton (hiring more cars than you have drivers for, visiting areas that have already been visited because no-one keeps records, flying in volunteers from far off ports when volunteers are available locally, for example)…
Is charity about finding real solutions? Take world poverty — is charitable giving merely a distraction from finding answers to income inequities or distribution problems? People donate a million T shirts to a country in Africa and impoverish the local tailors and home grown textile industries, or they give genetically altered plants to farmers in a small island community in Indonesia and watch local food crops perish.
There is a far more insidious damnation of charity; the idea that it, with its ostensibly humanitarian goals, has become a ‘big business’. In an article, Charity on the Rampage: The Business of Foreign Aid (1997), the writer speaks of ‘relief circuses’ in places like Rwanda: ‘The grotesque display of humanitarian agencies’ flags flapping alongside each other in eastern Zaire like so many corporate flags in some business park in Purchase, New York, or San Jose, California, realized there was more going on than the simple desire to help. The struggle to stamp out cholera, get the shelters built, and dig the pit latrines was simultaneously a struggle for market share.’ Did you know that you can now investigate the charitable qualities of any number of charities? Organisations such as Give Well (http://www.givewell.org/charities) and Charity Navigator (http://www.charitynavigator.org/) rate charities based on organisational efficiencies, transparency of financial reporting and fund raising and other characteristics. For example, here is Charity Navigator’s 2015 rating of the World Wildlife Fund [WWF]:
Financial Performance Metrics
- Program Expenses (Percent of the charity’s total expenses spent on the programs and services it delivers) 73.2%
- Administrative Expenses 6.7%
- Fundraising Expenses 20.0%
- Fundraising Efficiency $0.18 ($US)
- Primary Revenue Growth 9.3%
- Program Expenses Growth 5.1%
- Working Capital Ratio (years) 1.35
Concerns such as these indicate that I am not the only one who thinks about the efficacy of my donation dollar. So, when I pause at the donate now button, do I stop? Do I decide not to give?
Here’s a story that also exercises what passes for my mind when the question of charity and giving arises. A man on a beach observed a girl, who, as the tide ebbed, began to throw starfish and small, stranded fish back into the sea. The girl scampered across the sand and valiantly strove to rescue as many as she could. But the tide was falling fast and some were missed. Some died. ‘You’ll never save them all,’ the man said to the girl. ‘It’s just part of nature, some are meant to die… why save only a few’ The girl grimaced. She’d obviously heard such words before; she simply carried on. The man, irritated, shrugged and walked away. Just before he vanished into the dunes, though, he heard a faint voice calling out, as if to the wind, ‘A few is better than none at all.’