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How To Make Sure Your Charity Doesn’t Keep People Poor


While natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew cause destruction all over the world, not all countries suffer equally. In the aftermath of the October 4 hurricane, rivers overflowed their banks in North Carolina—but in Haiti, the death toll rose past 1,000. And while North Carolinians worry about property destruction and basic services, Haitians suffer from deadly diseases like cholera that are nearly eliminated in the United States.

When natural disasters strike, Americans give generously to help in recovery. We pack up extra clothes, ship off nonperishable foods, and donate our cash to help. We are a genuinely compassionate people. And we don’t just donate when disaster strikes—we give all the time. Americans donated $358 billion to charity in 2014, the most in history. Volunteers travel from churches and community groups all over the country to help families rebuild their lives.

But despite our best efforts, our giving often does more damage than good.

What Disaster Recovery Usually Looks Like

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, authors of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, describe three phases of poverty alleviation following a disaster: relief, rehabilitation, and development.

Relief is the immediate delivery of emergency supplies to reduce suffering after a disaster. Rehabilitation starts once the crisis is over, trying to get everything back to normal. Development is the final stage: it’s the ongoing process of making the entire community a better place. Investors provide low-cost loans to entrepreneurs to start or improve their businesses. Experts train people who have lost their jobs.

But most importantly, development is an equal partnership between the materially poor and the materially rich. Development is not charity. It’s partnership to improve the community.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, when FEMA rolls in with food, water, and temporary shelter, it’s relief. The victims need help just to survive. They can’t get to their refrigerators or drive to the grocery store. They need help to make it to the next day. Rehabilitation starts once the floodwaters recede. Neighbors help shovel mud out of each other’s houses. Construction crews repair roads, power lines, and destroyed houses. And development starts when banks return to lending and local business development organizations support entrepreneurs to create businesses and jobs. Housing groups work together with neighbors to help improve property values for everyone. Instead of charity, it’s partnerships.

Why Our Helping Hurts

But Americans have a problem—we get stuck on relief and rehabilitation, and never move on to development. Relief and rehabilitation are necessary parts of a recovery. But they can hurt communities when they go on for too long. Our charity can keep people in poverty rather than help them out of it.

In Cambodia and Haiti, for instance, orphanages only create orphans. In Cambodia, following the bloody reign of the Kmer Rouge and years of civil war, orphanages were an important way to care for the children left behind. Now they are a plague. Since the 1990s, the number of orphanages has risen dramatically—and so have the number of “orphans.” Estimates suggest that between 70 and 80 percent of the “orphans” living in institutional care have at least one living parent.

Why would a parent give up their child to live in an orphanage? If you’re desperate and struggle to care for your kids, an orphanage might seem like a good deal. The administration promises to feed, clothe, and educate them. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, orphanages popped up to take care of children. But most of the children still had families.

These orphanages need to produce orphans to continue their business model. “Orphans” draw donations and volunteers from rich western countries: the worse the children look, the more money they can make. Orphanages dress them in rags and coach the children to look sad. Then well-meaning westerners fly from all over the world to adopt these children out of poverty, paying exorbitant adoption fees—only to find out that their new child already has a family. The orphan supply is so important that orphanages will sometimes pay parents cash, in addition to promising to feed, cloth, and educate the children, to turn over their children to an institution that will only harm them.

Orphanages in the developing world only hurt the poor. Parents respond to perverse incentives by abandoning their children, hoping to give them a better life. But children do not thrive in orphanages. Children need their biological family to have the best chance at life. Without them, they fall behind.

Appropriate aid would support families and work toward developing their own capacity. The best way to care for children in places like Cambodia and Haiti is by creating jobs and starting businesses. It costs a great deal for an orphanage to raise a child: all the money has to come from donors, and children end up worse off. But if a business hires a mother or a father, that person generates income for the business and for the family.

Communities Need Development, Not Donations

Relief undermines developing nations’ economies. Clothing donations given to charities like Oxfam and the Salvation Army are often shipped overseas, where they destroy local textile markets. Why buy a locally made shirt, when you can get a better quality, cheaper shirt donated from America? For every secondhand shirt we ship to Africa, a local clothing manufacturer or retailer loses a sale. Soon, the textile mill goes out of business.

When we donate bags of rice to famine-stricken areas of the world, we help people who desperately need it. But when the famine is over, every bag of rice sent from America is a bag that a local farmer can’t sell to support his family. For every donated product, whether it’s food or solar panels, the local economy is destabilized and poverty grows.

In May, the USDA and USAID planned to ship 500 metric tons of peanuts to Haiti. Sixty-one NGOs protested, writing in a letter, “While the gesture may be well intentioned, this program stands to become the latest in a long history of U.S sponsored programs that have destabilized Haiti’s agricultural sector, driving the nation further into poverty while increasing its dependence on foreign aid.”

Robert D. Lupton writes in his book Toxic Charity that despite $1 trillion in aid, the African continent is worse off. Per-capita income is down below 1970s levels, literacy is below 1980s levels, and life expectancy has stagnated. “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people,” he writes.

How Charity Feeds Our God Complex

When we give the poor something they should be able to provide for themselves, we hurt ourselves, too. You’ve seen the commercials for NGOs that use African children to drum up funds. They lie in the streets next to an open sewer with emaciated bodies, bulging bellies, and flies crawling across their eyes. The voice-over tells us that for the cost of a cup of coffee per day, you can save this poor child.

What the commercial is really telling you is that these poor African communities just need you to ride in on your white horse to save them. They don’t have the skills or ability to provide for themselves. We rich westerners have to do it for them. If they would just take our money and do what we tell them to, they’d end up just fine. We, the giver, start to think of the poor as helpless, hopeless, and incapable of providing for their own families. The poor, in turn, start to feel the same way.

Corbett and Fikkert call this a God complex. Successful people think they know what’s best for those they’re trying to help. We see this at work in America’s poverty alleviation system. We’re afraid of poor people making decisions with the money we spend—so we budget for them. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program makes sure that a family spends X dollars on food, even if that’s not what they need. Housing vouchers decide how much each family gets to spend on shelter. Childcare subsidies, medical subsidies, and all the other programs make blanket budgeting decisions for the poor without regard to individual needs and regional differences. We are the smart people. We know best how to help you, because you just can’t do it yourself.

A God complex sees a person as a project: “That poor person has a need, and I am the only one who can fill it.” Development recognizes that every person has strengths and skills that he or she can use to support him or herself. Real partnerships, like loans or investments, help people build on their strengths without turning them into charity cases.

How to Turn Relief Into Development?

We haven’t learned these lessons in the developing world or in America. Eleven years later, volunteer organizations are still using Hurricane Katrina to sell spots in mission trips. Google a random nonprofit, and you’ll find photos of suburban kids from Minnesota fixing up houses. One video by the Voluntourist introduces her trip to New Orleans with a recap of Hurricane Katrina, saying how badly the wards of New Orleans still need help. (Notice the subtle guilt trip: 11 years and we haven’t done enough. You should be ashamed.)

What are these dire conditions, that would require volunteers to fly in from all over the country? Cleaning up litter and planting flowers beside the road. Are they going to ship in volunteers to water the flowers every week and keep the side of the road clean? If any of this work is going to stick, the neighbors need to be in charge. Even rehabbing houses is problematic. It’s nice when outsiders parachute in and restore a house, but who’s going to maintain it?

Imagine if the same money was used to help the homeowner gather neighbors to do the work while creating a grant, or low-cost loan, for the building materials. The homeowners initiate the project and build relationships that they could rely on in the future. Neighbors learn skills and get to care for one of their own. You could even have volunteers work under the direction of the neighbors. This is development: a partnership between benefactors and the benefitted. The whole community learns to serve—but they also learn to solve their own problems.

Relief Is Just So Easy

If charity hurts the poor and increases poverty, why do we do it?

Because it’s easy to spend an hour at the grocery store buying food, or scrounging through the cupboards to find an old can of spinach to donate. There’s no planning. You don’t have to meet new people, or try to understand the complex web of relationships in a new place. You can even think you have all the answers to someone else’s problems.

It’s easy to push our duty to care for our neighbors onto the government, too. But bureaucrats can’t do development. They don’t have the flexibility to make decisions or the time to get to know the people they are helping. They can only plug someone into a program that distributes according a formula written in a legislative chamber or governor’s office far away. Relief is just easy.

Now that Hurricane Matthew has withdrawn and the floodwaters are starting to recede, we are going to do what we do best: help. We will rush into the Carolinas and to Haiti, helping to restore their communities.

But we don’t know when to stop giving. The temptation is to look for easy solutions: donate more money, send more clothes, give more stuff. But that is not what a community needs long-term. Recovering communities need investment and jobs, to employ their own ingenuity—in partnership with others—to solve their own problems. Hopefully we can learn the lessons of charity in the developing world to keep from hurting ourselves and the people we try to help.