Tackling the great challenges to human well-being – poverty, disease, starvation, etc. around the world – has occupied our minds for centuries. How do we save the world? Well, I’ve written a thesis on economic development in former conflict zones and spent two summers working for nonprofits in the developing world, and I have discovered the answer. Ready?
I don’t know how to save the world.
And no one ever will. Sorry. But, I have learned a great deal about how not to, and that I can share. When it comes to philanthropy and development work, pitfalls to avoid include:
Generosity and worldliness are attractive qualities that people try to show off, so charities often come up with marketing techniques to seem hip and fashionable in the hopes of gaining widespread support. However, problems arise when image takes precedence over efficacy, and people support organizations on the aesthetic merits of their t-shirts and wristbands. This is the trap of charity chic: one genuinely wants to make a difference and take responsibility for their privilege – “be the change” and all that – but, well, one has to get the approval of the cute yoga instructor in the checkout line at Whole Foods, or show off hip, socially-conscious bona fides while traipsing around campus. We support causes based on looking good first, and doing good second. This leads to money and attention going to unhelpful organizations, like TOMS Shoes.
Some of you reading this must be wearing TOMS. That’s how successful they have been. The premise is simple: you buy one pair of shoes, they send one pair to Third-World children. In the heyday of their popularity, wearing TOMS made you caring and worldly, someone who wanted to make a difference, someone that yoga instructor could totally talk human rights with over Kombucha and overpriced turkey burgers before heading to poetry slam night at the dive bar. You get socially-conscious street cred, kids get shoes, everyone wins.
Unfortunately, TOMS’ cavalier attitude toward the giving end of this model has rendered it a cautionary tale, a horrendously ineffective miscarriage of an organization. Most people, even among the world’s poor, can and do get shoes from local producers. There are some who cannot, but the extent to which TOMS saturates communities with free footwear is an overcorrection that can put those local producers out of business. TOMS’ popularity, a product of its hip marketing, has come at the expense of local economies around the world and hurt the communities it intends to help.
Awareness-raising can be helpful when it involves a problem that previously flew under the radar, and results in something meaningful being done to address it. Too often, however, it is a substitute for actual benevolence, a waste of time at best. It makes us feel we have participated in something without requiring us to do anything. A great example of this is “Kony 2012.”
For those blessed ones among you who forgot about it, Kony 2012 was a campaign by the charity Invisible Children, centered on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army – a force undoubtedly guilty of unspeakable crimes in Uganda – consisting of a viral video calling for action against him. Millions saw and shared this video, demanded action from the government to root out Kony, and rallied financial support for Invisible Children. In reality, the LRA was already scattered, with Kony on the run, and Invisible Children was, shall we say, a questionable organization, what with all the financial misconduct, poorlychosenallies, and public sexual deviancy. When I worked in Uganda last summer, my supervisors recalled shock at Kony’s sudden infamy, telling me many Ugandans believed at least some crimes attributed to him were actually committed by government forces. Little good was done by Kony 2012, but it captured time and attention because it was easy, and gave people an unearned sense of self-righteousness.
Gifts of Convenience
The earlier TOMS criticism extends to clothing donation abroad in general. Clothes are not hard to find in the developing world, and textiles for domestic use were once a promising industry in many places until they were buried under a pile of outgrown kids’ jeans, ratty college sweatshirts, and XXXXXL t-shirts made for offensive linemen on losing Super Bowl teams. No matter how good a deal a local producer offers, they can’t beat free clothes. Lest you think I overestimate how damaging this is, a recent study estimated that donations caused a 40% decline in production, 50% in employment, in the apparel industry across Africa. Comforting as it is to know someone, somewhere believes we won the national championship my freshman year, clothing donations are mostly counterproductive, shallow benevolence rooted more in convenience – it’s a good way to ditch old clothes – than generosity.
“A Great Experience”
“The city needs Bruce Wayne – your resources, your knowledge. It doesn’t need your body, or your life.” – Alfred, The Dark Knight Rises.
“Voluntourism” is a form of travel in which Westerners try to get outside their cushy bubbles and travel overseas to spend a week or so volunteering. It is also the subject of the best Onion article ever written. Understandably, people who go on these trips do not accomplish much of substance, but most explain themselves with “it was a great experience,” or “I learned to appreciate my blessings.” I was once guilty of this, so I understand the appeal. The problem is that real service isn’t about you. It’s about others, and you can’t do much for others in a week.
There is a place for cross-cultural outreach in development work, and Westerners with skills and advantages can do real good. But using unqualified tourists on real projects can have seriously bad consequences, and can be a drain on an NGO’s resources. If you want to travel the world, meet people from different backgrounds, and educate yourself on poverty and human suffering, do that on your own dime. If you have talents and skills to offer in a way that empowers communities to prosper after you leave, put them to work. Otherwise, if you want to make a difference, you can use your resources and knowledge in other ways – usually this means writing a check. The most impactful development projects are those that empower local populations to better their own conditions, and your support can make that happen, but anything putting you and your experience front and center will fall short.
Voluntourism is symptomatic of a larger delusion, which is that “real” problems only exist halfway around the world. We are attracted to volunteering and donating overseas because we believe it makes us worldly and serious. It means we care. This is the reason the term “First World problems” exists, and while I appreciate its intention – we do live more comfortable lives than most and complain about trivialities – the truth is that poverty, hunger, and disease are still First-World problems, and you can do more about them here than in Africa. Chances are the place that could really use you as a volunteer is the nearest homeless shelter or Boys and Girls’ Club or Habitat for Humanity build. The person who needs your old coat probably isn’t in Nepal or Peru, he’s probably the homeless guy living under the bridge, or the kid across town who only has one hole-ridden jacket to make it through the winter. A unique challenge of being poor in a rich country is cost of living. Donations in areas like clothing and food can be immensely helpful in overcoming this, and could never threaten American producers since most of us will choose new clothes over donations. If you want to give, you don’t have to look around the world.
The miracle of prosperity in the West is no benefactor’s brainchild, but a product of market forces, the sum of centuries of actions of free people, most of whom acted in self-interest. It was organic, unplanned, chaotic. No philanthropist’s master plan can replicate that, no matter what Jeff Sachs says. The best we can do is empower communities to pursue development for themselves so they can have the same experience. At its best, philanthropy can play a supplemental role, unlocking potential for individual and community growth. The first step then, toward saving the world is admitting that we won’t save the world.