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.