Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Charity Dilemma 

Today's mass featured one of those visiting priests who ask for funds for their particular mission. Usually it's some third-world hellhole and there are pictures of starving mud-covered children living in huts made of cardboard and corrugated steel. The guest homilies always strike the right notes to address any concerns you have about making a donation. They stress the efficiency of your donation: "X" dollars can buy so much that you'll be feeding many children for little money. They stress the efficiency of the organization: Our overhead is so low that almost all of your donation will go to provide food and services. Their stories are personal: most of these priests spend most of their time actually working in these places; they know the names of those mud-encrusted kids and they know their stories.

All well and good. Good people doing the Lord's good work. As Christians we are called to help the poor and feed the hungry. I'm happy to put some money in these collections knowing it'll probably be the most productive money I'll spend that week. But...

I find myself dwelling on the geopolitical aspects of their situations. Where are the men who fathered these children? What are they doing? Presumably they don't have jobs (or if they do, the jobs are insufficient to provide for the families they've created) because of a lack of economic opportunity. But why? What causes that lack of opportunity? These countries are almost always beautiful lands with adequate natural resources. Foreign aid that consisted of tools for living in their environment and the education to use those tools (and maybe a copy of our Declaration on Independence and our Constitution) would seem to be the most effective, cost-efficient way to lift people out of poverty. This is a side of the story that the homilies never attempt to address.

My son traveled to Mexico for a week to help build houses. He came back feeling wonderful about the service he had done and I was proud of him but I was left with the same questions. The materials for the houses were donated but why did the labor need to be donated as well? Wouldn't these people want to build their own houses? Wouldn't they want to learn? Even a donation of a few shovels would enable them to build a decent outhouse.

In tension with my desire to do good is my increasing fear that not only may we not really be helping these people at all, we may actually be harming them. They are increasingly dependent on our generosity and increasingly have neither the means nor the will to better their situation. I fear that the blind transfer of funds from our society to theirs, with no consideration for the deep differences in those societies (and the corrupt tyrants responsible for those societies), has real, tangible negative results that we ignore at our peril.

If we means test every act of charity, we'll be be crippled into performing no charity at all. If we means test no act of charity except by our intentions, we become blind to the unintended consequences.

Update: Yet again, it seems like the best stuff turns up after I've already posted.

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