Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can Charity Make It Worse?

I have been trying to take a critical look at the relative effectiveness of charity. Inspired, as we all are, by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s appeal to billionaires to give half their fortunes to charity-- the better to ensure that it not find its way into government coffers-- I have been asking whether or not charity is the best we can do for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the underprivileged.

Previous posts are here and here.

Of course, there’s charity and there’s charity. Giving alms to the poor feels like the right thing to do. Rushing aid to victims of a natural disaster also seems like a good thing to do. Funding medical research feels unimpeachable, though one does suspect that in most cases private enterprise, if permitted, would have a very good motive to pursue such research.

Whatever you think of God, groups working in the name of religion are always front and center when it comes to helping the poor.

Yet, giving food to the poor is not necessarily the royal road to economic development, to say nothing of human dignity.

Worse yet, enormous charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation risk becoming advocacy groups for leftist political policies. If good intentions and humanitarian feelings justify and rationalize all charitable giving, why not have charities promote carbon taxes, legalized marijuana, higher state income taxes, and the like.

Once you think that you are doing God’s work, or better, that you know what God’s work is, nothing is going to stop you.

And yet, when we look at what really happens when do-gooders rush into war zones to save the victims of carnage, the charitable impulse seems to be a double edged sword.

Does humanitarian aid become more a problem than a solution? Does it aggravate the conditions that produce the crisis in the first place?

In her new book, The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman reaches exactly that conclusion.

In the New Yorker Philip Gourevitch asks her question: “Is this true? Do doped-up maniacs really go a-maiming in order to increase their country’s appeal in the eyes of international aid donors? Does the modern humanitarian-aid industry help create the kind of misery it is supposed to redress?” Link here.

He then summarizes her argument succinctly: "Sowing horror to reap aid, and reaping aid to sow horror, she argues, is 'the logic of the humanitarian era.' Consider how Christian aid groups that set up 'redemption' programs to buy the freedom of slaves in Sudan drove up the market incentives for slavers to take more captives. Consider how, in Ethiopia and Somalia during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, politically instigated, localized famines attracted the food aid that allowed governments to feed their own armies while they further destroyed and displaced targeted population groups. Consider how, in the early eighties, aid fortified fugitive Khmer Rouge killers in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, enabling them to visit another ten years of war, terror, and misery upon Cambodians; and how, in the mid-nineties, fugitive Rwandan génocidaires were succored in the same way by international humanitarians in border camps in eastern Congo, so that they have been able to continue their campaigns of extermination and rape to this day."

The more brutal your predations, the more you attract the attention of the humanitarian aid world. The more you attract its attention, the more aid flows to your part of the world. The more aid there is, the better you can feed your armies. The better fed they are the more they will prey on the population.

Surely, Polman's is well worth considering. Gourevitch, who wrote a seminal work about the Rwanda massacre, takes it very seriously indeed. See his: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

But, should people who commit acts of humanitarian aid should be judged by the real consequences of their actions? If nothing but the milk of kindness flows through your veins, should you thereby be absolved of all responsibility for the unintended consequences of your actions? Are good intentions a law unto themselves?

Gourevitch offers this example: “In the obscene circus of self-regarding charity that Polman sketches, vacationing American doctors turned up, sponsored by their churches, and performed life-threatening (sometimes life-taking) operations without proper aftercare, while other Americans persuaded amputee parents to give up amputee children for adoption in a manner that seemed to combine aspects of bribery and kidnapping.”

As I said, there are charities and there are charities. They do not all engage in such activities. No one is trying to indict every charity that has ever existed, or every piece of humanitarian aid. After all, providing relief for the victims of a natural disaster is not rendered less virtuous by what happens to the aid given in a war zone.

Yet, after weighing Polman’s evidence, Gourevitch concludes: “In case after case, a persuasive argument can be made that, over-all, humanitarian aid did as much or even more harm than good.”

He continues: “In the worst case, good intentions can not only blind people to the unintended consequences of their work, but it can make them complicit in horrors.... At its worst—as the Red Cross demonstrated during the Second World War, when the organization offered its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.”

Again, the moral dimension, or lack of same stands out here. In the mind of aid workers real world consequences pale when placed next to the best of intentions. It is almost as though good intentions provide you an exemption from responsibility.

About Polman, Gourevitch says: “But she is no less biting, and what she finds most galling about the humanitarian order is that it is accountable to no one. Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.”

He continues: “Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed. When a mission ends in catastrophe, they write their own evaluations. And if there are investigations of the crimes that follow on their aid, the humanitarians get airbrushed out of the story.”

It’s impossible to read these stories without being reminded of the old proverb: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Apparently, we owe the phrase to a twelfth century Cistercian abbot by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux.

The original form of the proverb seems to have been Bernard’s statement:  “hell is full of good wishes and desires.’

As you may know St. Bernard was not just any old abbot. A confirmed mystic, purveyor of the cult of the Virgin, sworn enemy of Peter Abelard, St. Bernard was one of the most important church figures of his time.

When Pope Eugene III decided to launch the Second Crusade in 1145 he called on the great inspirational orator, Bernard of Clairvaux to help him recruit the armies that would take the Holy Land back from the Turks.

As you may know, it was not Christendom’s finest hour. The Pope’s armies lost to the Turks and Bernard had to live with his own remorse.

When St. Bernard said that “hell is full of good wishes and desires,” he knew whereof he spoke.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Sorry for the oversight... but I'm glad that you did.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: THIS.... rise to a variation on an old adage....

Charity begins in the home and should stay there.


[Philanthropies and charities have a certain air of quackery. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Malcolm said...

An article you may find interesting