[Written for the blog of El Porvenir (see previous post)]
Externalities & Internalities of Giving:
a critical reflection on foreign charity
Why do we give? What is our interest in working with and helping people in need? Why do we do what we do? I’m sure each of us can come up with a surface-level answer that is meaningful to us, generally something along the lines of wanting to make the world a better place, sacrificing for others. But these are questions that invite – nay, demand – a much deeper and more critical examination. What are the experiences in your life that have awoken this calling in you to do good for other people? And specifically, why these people & why these issues? What role does your own self-interest play in it? Is there a part of you that is doing it because of the way it makes you feel about yourself, or how it shapes others’ perceptions of you? I don’t mean to imply that self-interest should not be a motivator for charitable work. Quite to the contrary, I think that it is essential that we are self-interested in what we are doing. But it is critical that we understand the role of that self-interest: the degree to which it is a motivating factor, where it stems from, and how it affects the way in which you view your charity – whether you contribute your time, your money, or something else.
There are many problems that have arisen with foreign charity that I find very troublesome. The risks of self-interest and imperialism, the idea of coming into a place and “helping” people who have never asked for any help. Wealthy anglo saxons pressing Christianity, world-views, & foreign cultures onto poor people, both actively (mission trips & the like) and passively (they see us and associate our prosperity with these things). Non-profits existing more for the benefit of their directors & staff than their constituency, resulting in the misuse of valuable aid. NGOs doing work that should be done by the governments- I see a couple issues here: first, being that they do not have the long-term vision & follow-thru that governments theoretically must have for their people, NGOs can simply fade out or pack up and move out. They will have great numbers to show for it (Hello Millennium Development Goals), some pretty pictures, and self-satisfied donors, but they may leave behind communities that are worse off than had they been left alone completely. Second, because NGOs are often more effective and less corrupt than local governments, foreign aid money has the tendency to filter mostly into NGOs, arguably helping keep the government in a cycle of ineffectiveness, not dissimilar to the way in which the water crisis keeps hundreds of millions of people in the cycle of poverty. Even in the most well intentioned individual or organization I think that these are relevant issues. I do not have an answer to these questions, but I think they – like the ones I posed earlier – are very important ones to consider when engaging in this type of work.
I think that El Porvenir understands these issues as few other organizations do. It is why nearly its entire staff consists of native Nicaraguans. It is why “sustainable self-help” anchors the mission statement. It is why all El Porvenir projects are initiated at the request of communities, rather than originating in an El Porvenir office. It is why El Porvenir has made efforts to integrate into the Peer Water Exchange, which provides long-term accountability for donors, organizations, and communities. It is why ownership of each project is given to the community in question, as it provides the labor and a portion of the funds for each project. It is why El Porvenir empowers those that it helps through giving leadership, sustainability, and accountability training and responsibility to community members for each project. It is why work trips have no religious undertones – they are about people making authentic connections, learning from each other, and working side by side with each other. The list goes on and on. Certainly El Porvenir is not perfect – there is always room to improve. But by maintaining a critical eye that genuinely empathizes with the needs and values of those it serves, El Porvenir can continue to be a model for other organizations that seek to do good in the world. I would like to end by once again turning the reader’s attention inward: what culpability do we have in the dire lot of the millions who die each year from water & sanitation related causes? In a largely capitalist world, where our nation’s material wealth is so firmly rooted in the exploitation of these countries and these people who we profess to help, how do we reconcile our desire to care for others with our role as active accomplices in their suffering?