When I was a fresh faced 23 year old I got a nice dose of reality on how some charities are not what they appear to be. I had just gotten back from doing a period of service in Ecuador where I created content for an indigenous radio on issues of virtues, health and adolescents. I was powered up and ready to use the media to create significant change around me… or so I thought.
I was hired in El Salvador to work as a script writer for the local Teleton which supposedly helps handicapped children. The basic premise of the show is the following : Famous mexican and latin american stars come for an elaborate, weekend long telethon to help the handicapped children all over the country.
In theory, this all seemed like a worthy cause. It unites a nation to donate more than a million dollars a year. Young teens walk around the streets, malls and arenas to try to get cash for the children. However, when I started to help produce promos for the kids I began to see plot holes in this.
First off, there was a lack of a systematic approach of what they did even a couple of years back. There was discrepancy on what, exactly, was being funded and there was very little amount of handicapped children we could find for interviews or focus groups. They would make up numbers like “Well if you count the cousins and the uncles and parents then probably we have helped around 300,000 people.” Because we couldn’t find enough kids to be in the commercial who were actually severely handicapped we got some kids to be in wheelchairs and sit in the sun for hours. Without being paid. While they filmed a commercial for them.
I was, to say the least, horrified and quit almost immediately. But it was a harsh lesson to learn. Even if this is no longer the case, this kind of event-driven solution is what characterizes charities today. We cater to events that serve a generalized purpose. We go to a concert to “save hunger” and give money and just stop thinking what happens afterwards. There are a couple of things that seem weird with this reasoning :
1) That we believe a single event is enough to change a mindset, lifestyle, and idea
2) We spend a huge amount of time, energy and money as well as publicity on this event and very very little time thinking about What Happens Next.
3) We seem to think that MONEY is somehow the end of the problem, and only just the means to something else.
4) Those broad generalized solutions are ill-equipped for the small fragmented problems that arise.
5) We somehow allow the religion of celebrity dictate what people should or shouldn’t believe in. They become a spokesperson , an expert, and once they lose interest so does the general public because there is a lack of ownership in the whole process. It is always someone else’s responsibility.
There is a book I really enjoyed which breaches this subject called the white burden. I really enjoyed it, because it shows how we are taught to rid our guilt by showering money on a problem.
A lot of well-meaning efforts can cause more harm than good. There was an earthquake in El Salvador ten years ago. Hundreds of people died. Some charities came forth and came to people’s aid. But they lacked a real understanding of how things work and if this would significantly help those in need. For those most part, those relief efforts were a gargantuan failure. The homeless , for the most part, stayed homeless. The money did not flow towards a lot of coherent action. There are still buildings who are waiting to be repaired over this. Here are some examples of this :. One well meaning effort was from a famous shoe company. They donated hundreds of high heel shoes to women in rural areas. Now most of them were high heels, and to the richer women in the country, they reasoned would not be appreciated in this rural area nor would they be practical for them. So they decided to have a shoe sale for those rich women. Supposedly it went to medicine. But we can only assume it did because no one knew the outcome after that. Another well meaning effort came from a Japanese company or governmental agency donated a lot of money to make a park as a memorial to those who were buried alive in the earthquake…an effort which, to this day, has yet to be created. So where did the money go? What happened and how was this productive? Too many hands passed in between, and too little thought was given to what it would do.
In the earthquake in Haiti, it affected a lot of people who were already affected by poverty, among other factors. Money was showered unto them, but it created more harm than good. If anything it made a tangible mess of things, because there was a lack of responsibility and a lack of a plan to what and how this money can be fostered into something.
So when my junior youth do service projects I stop them and make them think when they tell me “I want to donate money to x charity” or ” I want to do x event” > Charity , or rather service , should not be thought in terms of an event, and we shouldnt think that money, without a responsibility will do much.
Furthermore, when we do things in terms of events, it can also fall prey to those who might do things for publicity or recognition. I also worked for a PR firm, who donated computers to a school for a photo-op in the paper. While it might be a nice gesture, this lack of sincerity ultimately affects how serious and responsible we are towards these causes. When that school got the computers stolen, the client the PR firm represented refused to donate more computers. They also hid this fact when they presented these things to the papers. Once the photographers and journalists were gone, so were the clients and the PR firm. They brushed those poor kids off like they were paper bags. They basically used those kids as objects for their own benefit. Ultimately, were these kids better off without the computers? Probably. What mattered more was the attitudes, the lack of training on how to use those computers, the lack of planning and the fragmented notion that ignored the violent circumstances surrounding the school.
I would much rather teach junior youth to work within their own communities which by all accounts are riddled with a lot of problems and explain that this process takes time, it’s painful, it is slow and at times we won’t see the results. But the results are grassroot oriented, and are palpable and real. They empower themselves to be true agents of change and not rely on outside forces to “Save”them. This spares them the feeling of helplessness that is derived from a thinking that an Other can somehow save a problem that usually they themselves have more palpable and realistic solutions to. It is only when all those involved become part of the solution, with a hands on philosophy can any significant change be achieved…
I am thinking again of my friend Tim Farrand who passed away a month ago. He dedicated his whole life to serve others, and gave in so many small and significant ways that so many Ngo’s are still dedicating efforts to him. He was a humble man, who did not talk of what grandiose things he did. He just acted with kindness and tried for things to change. And they did, in small and almost imperceptible ways.
Yes, charity is good. And maybe we can find temporary solutions. However, in no ways does this give a permanent solution to a very complicated problem . We need to see the bigger picture, we need to stop constructing barriers between the Haves and the Have Nots. We need to see that it is not out of guilt, out of compassion, or even empathy that we give to others but rather that if we don’t it will greatly affect all of us if we don’t.