Ten pin, bwana?

You can’t spend long living in Lusaka without being made aware of the depths of poverty in the world—but you could get the same from reading a decent newspaper. What living here impresses upon you that you might not otherwise realise is the scale of the problem. There are 2-3 million people living in Lusaka alone (estimates vary since so many people are outside the formal economy) and the majority are living in what from my perspective seems to be extreme poverty. Though at times it makes me feel extremely wealthy (a single trip to the cashpoint for me might be three month’s wages for many people here), I can’t ignore the fact that even if I were to give away every last kwacha, it wouldn’t make a dent in the problem.

To me, the sensible response to this is to reinforce sympathy with a degree of pragmatism. If I can’t make much impact, I can at least reassure myself that any money I might give is targetted so as to produce maximum effect. And therein lies a problem.

It’s not politically correct to talk about this, but I don’t exactly blend in here, and while race doesn’t correlate perfectly with poverty, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you see a white person they will have money to spare. The upshot is that there is no shortage of people approaching me asking for money. The problem that gets to me is whether the people who don’t or can’t ask me for money need it more.

The areas I tend to frequent are naturally the wealthy parts of town. The people who come into contact with me, therefore, are typically people with jobs that give them access to such areas (and there are usually security guards around to ensure that undesirables don’t get through). Though they may well be in crushing poverty, they are unlikely to be at the bottom of the heap.

I believe the process of donating money can work in two ways: you can be motivated by the desire to see greater justice in the world and the recognition that such justice is a greater personal reward than whatever else you might spend the money on (I’ll call this feel-good charity). Or you can be motivated by guilt, shame or embarrassment, and donate in order to assuage that feeling (I’ll call this feel-bad charity). I would contend that, quite apart from the pleasure it gives, feel-good charity should be embraced (and feel-bad charity avoided) since it tends to lead to better decisions on giving in the most efficient way.

Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t just about emotions versus rationality. Though it’s true that rationality is the main advantage of feel-good charity, it needn’t be an emotionally sterile experience. Personally, my reaction to the injustice of someone working harder than I do to bring home a few dollars a day is just as emotive as the pitying of someone living in squalor.

So how can we recognise and avoid feel-bad charity? One clue, I think, is the presence of cues designed to make you feel good about giving. Over here, someone asking for money often addresses you as “bwana” (roughly, “sir” or “boss”) in an effort to curry favour. If you give them anything at all, you are usually thanked effusively and often wished God’s blessing. Tellingly, the amount of money requested is usually minimised, as if to reassure you that both parties understand you want to get out of this uncomfortable situation with as little impact on your life as possible.

I’m going to make the bold assertion that all these things are wrong. Not just irrelevant, but actively harmful to the cause of bringing about a more just world. I don’t mean to say that the respect and gratitude people show isn’t sincere, though they wouldn’t be human if the feeling wasn’t mixed with a measure of unspoken resentment and envy.

If I recognise that someone has been unjustly treated in life, then I should be helping them (and taking satisfaction from helping them) regardless of how grateful or otherwise they are, and regardless of whether they thank me for it. I should also be offering whatever help they need, not paying just enough to make it someone else’s problem. To make fighting injustice contingent on the recipient’s thanks is degrading to them and, in some sense, to me.

Now comes the tricky part of the argument: I would encourage people to actively avoid feel-bad charity—and that means ignoring pleas for help when you might otherwise have yielded to them. Worse, since feel-good charity is often less frequent and less visible than giving loose change to beggars, it might appear that I’m encouraging people not to give at all. Saying that giving money to beggars only encourages further degrading behaviour is, sadly, an argument that’s been used to justify giving nothing at all, and that would definitely be worse than the status quo.

Feel-bad charity may be easy to identify and avoid, but feel-good charity has to be actively sought, and I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers here. For a time I was very encouraged by microfinance and the likes of kiva.org as a way of bringing out the best in the charitable process, but I worry that this alone can’t solve some of the bigger-picture issues of infrastructure that are clearly important. In any case, you have to be a great believer in trickle-down economics to convince yourself that microfinance can substantially benefit the most needy. In my view charities ought to fill the gap here by using expert knowledge to ensure that money is allocated efficiently, but it seems to me that in practice capital allocation is driven as much by PR and internal politics as it is by objective need.

Does anyone else have any good ideas? Suggestions welcome.

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