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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Extreme Charity - Is There Such A Thing As Doing Too Much Good?

Americans are among the world’s most charitable people.   Churches, private foundations, voluntary organizations, the United States Government, and the Corporate Responsibility departments of multinational corporations are all involved in the multi-billion dollar business of doing good.   Managing such American largesse requires infrastructure, logistics, accounting, personnel management, legal counsel, advertising, promotion, and marketing.  Helping the world’s poor and disadvantaged is a major industry.

The organizations involved in the industry never want for personnel.  Every year thousands of young men and women apply for low-paying jobs that will give them the opportunity to make a difference.  Sending a check is not an option.  Only work in the trenches of poverty – in overcrowded health clinics, nutrition rehabilitation centers, isolated villages, and urban slums – can fulfill their dream of doing good.


Unfortunately, their effort rarely makes a difference.  The international aid business is among the most inefficient and politically-driven of any enterprise of the US government.  Billions of dollars are spent annually on ‘development’ programs in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean with little return.

It is hard to name any African country on a solid democratic or economic path.  Most are a mess – Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Angola, Mali just to name a few.  If you count countries above the Sahara, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya are going through cataclysms from which liberal democracy is unlikely to emerge.  Even the darlings of the West like Uganda is corrupt, homophobic, and fighting a long and brutal civil war. 

Idriss Déby, the dictator of Chad played the US and the World Bank for fools, duplicitously agreeing to a gas-for-reform agenda and then reneging completely and continuing his despotic rule over one of the poorest countries in Africa..  The lionized Kagame presides with a repressive regime which muzzles opposition.  He has lied or distorted reports about his support of anti-government clandestine military operations in the Congo.  There are many more examples.


Helen Epstein recently described in these pages the support that aid donors give to Ethiopia’s tyrant Meles Zenawi, who has roughly matched Biya [President of Cameroon]  in aid receipts in a shorter period of time.Peter Gill in his excellent recent book Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid (2010) documents Meles’s misdeeds further, which rise to the level of war crimes in his counterinsurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
Other long-serving aid-receiving dictators include Idriss Déby in Chad ($6 billion in aid between 1990 and the present), Lansana Conté in Guinea ($11 billion between 1984 and his death in 2008), Paul Kagame in Rwanda ($10 billion between 1994 and the present), and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda ($31 billion between 1986 and the present) William Easterly, NY Review of Books, 11.2010
Those observers looking for success stories in Africa point to Angola’s  GDP which is indeed growing by leaps and bounds but only because of the value of the oil pulled out of the ground.  What these critics do not mention is that this vast wealth benefits only one percent of the top one percent whose foreign bank accounts swell while the majority of citizens remain impoverished in as bad conditions as any in Africa.

Yet none of this deters the young, idealistic men and women who feel that despite the corrupt context in which development programs are implemented, their passionate, committed, personal investment must make a difference.  In fact they believe that the collective effort of like-minded, spirited, and engaged workers can help to change the culture of government officials from venal, self-interested overseers to more enlightened administrators.  Love, concern, and spiritual intent can influence even the hardest and most corrupt politicians.

After years on the front lines of development, even the most idealistic aid workers become disillusioned by a system which turns a blind eye to corruption in the interest of geopolitical friendships and which funds programs that satisfy the interests and requirements of American interest groups rather than country beneficiaries.   They become fed up with management systems so out of synch with the levels of administrative ability of local bureaucrats and the expertise of field workers that they are doomed from the start.

Inertia is what holds this disillusioned and cynical cadre.

Yet as they retire or leave the industry, there are thousands of young and still motivated young people lining up to take their places.  There seems to be no end to their good will, optimism, and native idealism.


Doing good is not restricted to charity, social work, or foreign development assistance.  Climate change, environmental protection, peace, and the rightful place of women, gays, blacks, and ethnic minorities are causes that attract tens of thousands of workers and volunteers.  Engagement in these causes not only promises actual, observable change – i.e. the slowing of world temperature rises, more women in executive positions, the decline of homophobia, sexism, and racism – but an increased valuation of self-worth.  Doing good is an end in itself.  It provides the salve for old wounds of guilt.  It offers meaning and purpose in an increasingly complex and befuddling world; it adds value to self-worth; and offers a community of like-minded, equally committed colleagues. 

Larissa MacFarqhuar, author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help was interviewed recently on NPR’s Interfaith Voices described the conundrums of extreme idealists.  One family who had given away all their disposable income except that for the barest necessities was still dissatisfied.  How could they continue to live in relative comfort when so many in the world were living lives of misery, penury, and want?

The crisis came when they were considering having another child.  Although they very much wanted a baby, they were concerned that the thousands of dollars they would have to spend on his upbringing were resources that could be better spent on the needs of the poor.  The husband became obsessed with the mathematical calculations of cost benefit.  Yes, he argued to himself,  a child represented lost revenues for the poor, but the balance sheet would not be complete without a calculation of the good that child would eventually do in the world.  As MacFarquhar recounted, the man drove himself mad with endless calculations which provided no sure, clear, and absolute answers.

MacFarquhar also recounts an interview between Stephen Colbert (comedian, host of a spoof talk show on American television) and a well-known philanthropist who in his lifetime had given millions to the poor.  “Why do you keep giving  to the poor?” asked Colbert to audience laughter.  What a question! Giving to the poor is at the heart of Christianity and a core value of Jesus’ teaching.  Giving alms is required by Hinduism and Islam.  Charity towards those less fortunate is a necessary obligation in unequal societies, a spiritual imperative, and a moral necessity.

Yet Colbert had hit on on an important issue – when is enough? Does a moral imperative demand drawing down on every last cent of surplus income?  What is so important about the plight of the poor that the philanthropist restricted his giving to them? Why had he not given to the arts, an ennobling investment?  Surely the value of assuring the well-being of an artistic dance company who would spread beauty and grace to the world was incalculable. 

Many private schools have obligatory community service programs, and students choose from a list of possible options.  Most are soup kitchens, services for the homeless, hospitals, or inner-city programs for disadvantaged children.  Volunteering at art centers and libraries, while theoretically possible, are discouraged.  Teaching privileged children how to paint is not really doing good.
Why keep on giving to the poor?  The subject of charitable giving is now a field of academic research:
Chicago-based philanthropic adviser Lisa Dietlin noted that such studies might accelerate giving, but they won’t create it. “I think it’s still about people having relationships with people and sharing their stories about why their cause is so important.”
Another academic inquiry into the topic comes from the Harvard Business School’s 2009 working paper “Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior.” The study showed a fortuitous circuit: “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop” (The Mensa Foundation, 2010).
The research is clear.  We give as much if not more for ourselves that for those we intend to help.

If such calculus is correct, that the phenomenon of extreme giving is understandable.  Giving to validate self-worth, leaving personal isolation for community companionship, expiating the sins of slave-owning ancestors, searching for meaning in a chaotic world all have psychological disturbances built in.  If giving were simply a matter of making the lives of others better through investment, there would be no extreme charity.  Giving would range from one-and-done to frequent donations and efforts.  A normal distribution. Since it is not, the bell curve is very different – from the hard,
embittered, and resentful who give nothing, to those who draw down to their last time to help others.

Who knew?  Yet focusing on extreme giving sheds light on the nature of charity, giving, and helping the poor; and corroborates what psychologists and philosophers have known for decades. 

We give for ourselves, not others.

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