A Rant Against Traditional Charities

Charities are ineffective.
You heard right, folks.
They usually solely encourage donating money to buy things for poor people. Many of us have seen a pitiful group of African children, cradled in the arms of a man or women asking for us for help, dutifully promising us that our 40 cents goes a long way?
Does it?
Not really. It creates dependency on Westerners.

What we need is a better option for these kids, their parents, and their communities.
This option is called sustainable development and it is catching on quite rapidly around the world.  In Austin, an organization (one I play a very large part in) called Nourish International takes all of the values of sustainability and uses them to empower communities abroad.
This is what Nourish does not do:
1. We do not pity developing countries and communities
2. We do not throw money at a problem
3. We do not shove our Western values into other’s throats
4. We do not allow overwhelming dependency
Let me explain why all of these things discourage poverty alleviation. You, the reader, might want to make yourself comfortable.

The problem with plastering African or Indian children’s pathetic looking faces all over the television and the Internet is that it encourages pity. It takes the dignity away from the community, the country, and most importantly the people.
That’s cruel, folks.
If the motive behind the action is pity, we forget the humanity of each and every individual. The only difference between them and us is our opportunity.  Let that sink in. We’ve won the lottery of life. Let that sink in. I think we forget these things everyday while we sit in our air-conditioned homes, with full fridges, playing games on our iPhones. We’ve got it made. The least we can do is use the opportunity we have to push others less fortunate forward.

Instead, we place them in the “poor people of the world” group, and generalize their situation in a weak attempt to help them.  There are numerous Westerners I have come in contact with that have this, as I like to call it, “do good complex.” They do good to feel good. That, my friends, is called selfishness. It may be a strange variation of selfishness that most of us are not used to, but it is selfishness nonetheless.  Isn’t that exactly what charity is against? It should be.

Most charities lead westerners to believe that throwing money at a problem is enough to solve it.  This, again, is simplifying the problem. It does not teach the communities how to gain a living. That old Chinese Proverb most of us are accustomed to rings true here: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Throwing money at a problem provides a surplus of fish, but what happens when the fish run out? The problem remains. In fact, it is likely even more extreme after the community realizes what they could have, but cannot.  When there is enough fish for the community because the members of that community caught the fish, then we begin to see a real solution. A solution may mean lending money to an idea a community is developing and encouraging self-reliance creates long-term results.

If charities are not practicing throwing funds at a problem, they usually are giving products to communities that don’t really need them. There are piles of TOMs  shoes strewn throughout developing countries. There are a few reasons why TOMs and other organizations dedicated to donation are creating more problems than solving anything real. Watch this for more information http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8EaSlKqs6Fo#!

Most of the time, they do not ask the communities if they need the shoes. They do not attempt to understand the larger problems of these kids don’t have shoes. Material things cannot solve poverty. That is what we in the non-profit world call a “band aid solution.”  They are not solving a problem; they are merely covering up the larger issues without healing the wound of poverty.

Unbeknownst to many, charities based on donations of material things take away from the labor of that country. Countries expect America to donate shoes and we usually donate in large amounts. Over-donations shut down factories in those countries that produce materials for shoes and they are left with less jobs and more material goods. A sustainable organization would utilize the factories in that community, use as much material from the community as possible and thereby give jobs to the people instead of taking them away.

The beginning of the solution is to invest in options to help to community. Developing businesses, teaching computer skills, cultivating land to grow produce for profit, and other sustainable options are the solution to poverty; not the sport we know so well called money throwing. The key is helping the communities help themselves, not assist them in growing their dependency on Americans.  Organizations such as Acumun Fund,  a microfinance organization that invests in developing businesses with people in impoverished communities with concrete ideas should be future of poverty alleviation.

This by no means encourages going into communities and enforcing our values into their beliefs.  To me, this means taking what we as a culture have been taught and expecting that to be the only way to solve a problem. From personal experience with Nourish’s project in Odisha, India this past summer, the residents of that community know far more about what they need than we ever will. The community itself informed us about their dire need for girl’s education. We would have concentrated on something else if not for them voicing their opinions. Maybe something that wouldn’t have worked quite as well. When we do not take into account the values and principles of the community, we are forcing our western ideals into a vibrant culture. This is terrifyingly similar to colonization. That is clearly not a route that is acceptable.

Poverty is complex. It is grueling, it is messy, and it cannot be fixed by quick solutions. So the next time you see an ad to “save the children” on your television, do the world a favor and turn that television off.

Instead, invest in something that can make a lasting impact; where 40 cents a day can make and difference.
Invest in education
Invest in microfinance
Invest in organizations with long term benefits, not just short term solutions.

Look at these organizations if you’re interested in nonprofits that make a sustainable impact.

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1 comment

  1. amartya says:

    Mar 14, 2013


    a great post !

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