When British musician Bob Geldorf formed the super group Band Aid and produced the moving song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, his intentions were pure and right. He earnestly wanted to ease the suffering of Ethiopians during their 1983-85 famine and by some accounts, he did. The song raised awareness across the Western World and raised $100 million. What “Saint Bob” as some call him rejected later, were the accounts that Ethiopian rebels diverted 95% of the funds intended to help feed people into military purposes. And Band Aid isn’t an anomaly. Many major international aid organizations acknowledge that funds intended for people suffering in developing nations are routinely diverted for nefarious purposes.
Like Mr. Geldorf, I strongly desire to make a difference in the world—to help people and improve their standard of living. But I don’t want my efforts to be squandered or worse, go to factions that make it worse for those I intend to help. There is corruption in all enterprises that involve large amounts of money and charities are no exception.
So, what is a giving person to do?
First, I don’t want to dissuade giving altogether. That would be an unacceptable consequence. Instead, I focus on three ways to direct charitable efforts:
Just because some organization has a charitable name and a nice logo doesn’t mean they are effective in their intended goal. Sites like Charity Navigator give users details on a vast number of international charities with regard to their financial responsibility and their transparency and accountability. It may make you feel all warm and fuzzy to donate to he Child Welfare League of America, but that may not be the case when you see their atrocious balance statement.
2. Scrutinize Purpose
Bono, the famous rock star and philanthropist recently acknowledged something shocking: the free market has helped more people out of poverty than foreign aid. “Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce—entrepreneurial capitalism—takes more people out of poverty than aid,” he said.
This has been proven time and time again in theory but, more importantly, in practice: economic freedom helps everyone from the richest rich to the most destitute.
Your goal of giving to charity isn’t to feel warm and fuzzy, it’s to help people. So, instead of pouring money into fruitless efforts to give people a fish, consider giving them the ability to fish for themselves. Charities that educate about economic liberty like the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Cato Institute, and America’s Future Foundation may do more to help the poor of the world in the long term than UNICEF can ever hope to.
3. Help Your Neighbor
The Church has an organizing principle called subsidiarity in which matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
Unfortunately, we have been indoctrinated to believe that if there is a problem nearby that some far-off government entity is going to fix it (eventually). This has the tragic consequence of perpetuating problems or perhaps even making them worse. I see a case almost every day in which someone around me is in need of help and no one is helping him or her. I recently made my way through unexpectedly heavy traffic in downtown Austin to find a stalled car in the middle of the street. Instead of shaking my fist and driving on, I parked my car, asked the driver what was happening, and she told me that he car died and she was waiting for a tow truck. There was a young man standing next to her, ostensibly keeping her company during the ordeal, but he wasn’t really doing any good. I employed him to help me move the car to the side of the road where she wouldn’t be blocking traffic and voilà! traffic problem solved.
I’ve been able to help out a couple bewildered drivers in situations like that, a few people with car troubles, and someone on a runaway wheelchair. There are endless ways to be helpful to someone in this micro-aid style and improve the standard of living in small ways for dozens of people, but you have to first acknowledge that you can help, and second, be observant of the need. Don’t rely on some distant bureaucracy to possibly help those in need (eventually)—don’t be the modern good Samaritan—do it yourself now.
Of course, you should be wise about your micro-aid. I’m often moved when I see a haggard beggar on the side of the road asking for money. It seems like such an injustice that I have it so well and he doesn’t. But the most obvious and easiest way to help (give the beggar money) can also be the most detrimental thing you can do—an analogy to the Band Aid example above. Of course, he may get something to eat with your loose change, but more likely, unfortunately, he will use the money for alcohol or drugs, which will further perpetuate his strife. Instead, if you have the time, take him to a store and get him some food of his choice. That way, you have an opportunity to get to know someone knew and perhaps gain perspective you wouldn’t normally have and you won’t have the guilt of perhaps worsening his situation.
No one wants to end up squandering resources intended to help people, but the solution isn’t to stop giving. Scrutinizing the efficacy and intent of charities and, most importantly, helping those around you will make the most of your charitable efforts and quite possibly save the world one little bit at a time.