International Economics

Charity Experts Beg to Differ


Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has an enormous article in the latest New York Times Magazine, suggesting that rich Americans should ship a lot of cash to the Third World–something along the lines of Jeffrey Sachs's suggested $189 billion by 2015. Today's Wall Street Journal gives a few column inches to charity experts who beg to differ:

There are centuries of literature on the moral way to practice philanthropy, but too many modern moralists ignore it. [Arthur C. Brooks] says their belief is that "charity is merely evidence of a failure of government." And to the extent that charity interests them in itself, they want it to be an admission of guilt, as if Westerners are obliged to assuage their consciences by helping orphans in Africa. But charity need not be so narcissistic. The basic human impulse to do good may properly lead many to help those in need, especially those nearby.

Timothy Ogden, an officer at Geneva Global, a consulting firm that advises wealthy donors about how to spend their charitable dollars most effectively, says that the best giving "doesn't come from guilt, but from honest desire." Mr. Ogden observes that many clients come to him suffering "not from donor fatigue, but from donor futility. It's not that they are tired of giving. They're tired of giving and not accomplishing anything."

In 2005, Americans gave $62 billion in private assistance to developing countries. That's not enough for Mr. Singer, but it is more than any other country in the world. Mr. Ogden feels certain that if Americans saw their money being put to better use, they would give even more. The spirits of Christmas and of American pragmatism aren't so far apart.

I reviewed Arthur Brooks's book on charity and the partisan "giving gap" here.

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  1. I’m really tired of charity being discussed in raw dollars. It’s been obvious for quite some time that raw dollars solve very little when it comes to charity. If you’re going to give, don’t just send a bunch of dollars to some charity that claims they are going to help. Find a charity that is going to use the money for a specific purpose, like the Treadle Pumps discussed in the link under my name.

    If you’re going to give domestically, check out – a charity that is dedicated to helping out those in need not with a handout, but by helping them to pay off some bill or small debt that is preventing that person from advancement.

  2. I would be delighted to ship money to the Third World in exchange for goods and services. In this manner my ability to give would only be limited by my disposable income…they would get it all! I’ll bet I could create a half-dozen jobs in Africa all by myself.

    Regrettably, the things that the Third World can produce (sugar, cotton, textiles, light consumer items) are generally under duty and quota restrictions, or undermined by US subsidies, which greatly interferes with my giving. This doesn’t even take into account the political restrictions, as in being sent to JAIL if I give money to a Cuban street urchin selling cigars.

    As long as we believe we can only help the Third World by giving money for nothing, then the money will be poorly invested. We are rewarding Third World governments for keeping their people poor with bad economic policy. If, on the other hand, we made it clear we would exchange money for goods, then the Third World governments would have an incentive to remove barriers to production. Unfortunately, in addition to rewarding failure, we punish success.

  3. [Arthur C. Brooks] says their belief is that “charity is merely evidence of a failure of government.”

    I think they have it backwards.

  4. When we libertarians embrace pragmatism, we can preach to others about its benefits. Until then, we should probably stick to lobbying for legalized marijuana.

  5. I would be delighted to ship money to the Third World in exchange for goods and services.

    Africa’s leaders would prefer we continue to fill their pockets instead.

  6. Katherine, I clicked thru to your review of Brooks book (rhymes). I realize that my tax practice only offers an anecdotal microcosm of the real world and does not represent a scientifically random sampling BUT, the tax returns I prepare exactly mirror the information you wrote about.

    I was going to make a snide remark, but hey, it’s Christmas.

  7. There’s a Charity consulting firm? I hope they work for free.

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