A quick warning to readers: This post is slightly off-topic. But since the Bloggers Without Borders/Jennifer Perillo dustup over the past week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how to make sure we are doing the right thing with our personal acts of charity. Today's post is an effort to organize some of my thoughts. As always, I'm grateful for your comments and feedback.
Have you ever participated in a clothing drive to send donated clothing to Africa? As far back as the late 70s and early 80s, churches in my community had clothing drives like this practically every year. And even today, armies of perfectly nice people in organizations all across the USA collect, organize and send over to poor countries in Africa what they believe are badly needed articles of clothing.
But there's a big problem here. While it's possible that some of these items find their way into the hands needy people, the vast majority of these clothes are toxic.
No, not literally toxic--economically toxic.
Why? Because there's substantial evidence that these free clothes simply killed off the textile industries of several countries in Africa. That's right, killed off.
Yes, some of these clothes may have helped people in the short term, but in the medium- and long-term those free clothes annihilated healthy, domestic African-owned businesses that could have provided jobs for local people. Think about it. No one can compete with free. No country that consistently receives large volumes of free clothing could possibly have its own domestic textile and clothing industry.
When you sincerely think through some of the unintended or counterintuitive consequences of a seemingly clear cut charitable act, the experience can be personally mortifying. In fact, many people experience powerful cognitive dissonance to ideas like the one I just described. They may react angrily, and even violently, to the idea that their "good" acts might be harmful. And then they go right back and keep on doing them.
One takeaway is this: We can feel intoxicatingly good about ourselves when we do things that feel generous or ethical. But if we really want to do good for others, we also have the obligation to think through the ramifications--and the economics--of what we do. We have to make sure what we think is good doesn't actually do harm. And I can't imagine a better time to think about this issue than right now, as the food blogosphere is reeling from the "A Fund For Jennie" controversy.
Look, harm is still harm, whether an army of perfectly nice church ladies or an army of perfectly nice food bloggers is behind it.
I'll share one more example of potentially misguided charity, an example that strikes closer to home here at Casual Kitchen. Many CK readers know that every so often I go on medical trips to Central America with my wife Laura and several of her eye doctor colleagues. Our team heads down to poor communities in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where we give entire villages free eye screenings and eye exams. In a typical one-week trip, we will examine literally thousands of people and give away thousands of pairs of free, donated glasses.
Sounds wonderful, right? Well, in truly poor communities with truly limited resources, it is. If you get the right pair of glasses into the hands of a seriously nearsighted or astigmatic poor person, you can change that person's life completely. They can work, they can function better, and thus they can become more productive for their family and for their society. That's the kind of help that pays enormous long-term dividends to a developing country.
Here's the thing though. Our last trip was to Nicaragua, and our clinics took place in western Nicaragua, in the area surrounding San Juan del Sur. And that area--believe it or not--is now at a development stage where free eye care does harm. No, it's not a wealthy place, but the communities there are now well-developed enough to have their own eye doctors providing services to their own people. They are ready to be self-sufficient. (A side note: this is in contrast to other regions of Nicaragua--such as the eastern region of the country--which aren't as developed.)
Now, going there to give away free exams and eyeglasses might still seem generous, and it might make us feel good about ourselves. But in reality, doing so would be cruel, because we'd be disrupting the proper development of that community's own domestic health care.
One more example: Chile, one of the most advanced countries in South America, started limiting these types of medical missions as far back as the early 90s. And I'll be honest: before I really thought through it, I assumed it was just another example of the evil legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. Now that I have a better understanding of these issues, I realize that the people running Chile's economy made exactly the right choice--at least on this issue.
Once again, no one can compete with free. When a country encourages regular doses of free medical care from outsiders, it actually destroys the practice of health care by trained local doctors. Chile just happened to recognize this at the right time in their country's development curve.
And that's why Laura and I won't go to either of these places to offer free health care.
A charitable act has to be about more than just about making ourselves feel generous. We also have an important obligation to think through any unintended consequences, economic or otherwise. Don't let your charity do more harm than good.
In next Tuesday's post, I'll tie some of these concepts into the food industry.
Readers! What do you think? Can you think of similar examples from your personal acts of charity?
Dead White People's Clothes (The Root)
Trade Theory vs. Used Clothes in Africa (The New York Times)
The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up (ABC News)
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