My mind has been spinning all weekend, thanks to your requests for recommendations on charitable giving – global inequities are so huge, the legacies of wrong so deep, disparities seem so insurmountable. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of blog posts in my head, then consigning them to the mental trash bin because it’s all just too big.
So rather than take on the problems of the world, I thought I’d try to unpack some of the vague recommendations I gave in the last post, and also provide some links.
There are two principles in addressing socioeconomic inequalities that I think are pretty sound: 1) support local initiatives (aka “charity begins at home”), and 2) work together.
1) Charity Begins At Home. When I worked in Bolivia, I often had crises of legitimacy – who was I, as an outsider, to waltz in and tell these women – I worked with rural women’s groups – what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do differently? My very presence – supported by Mennonite churches in the US and Canada – seemed artificial and unsustainable. I came to terms eventually with the positive role an outsider can have, both to bring in fresh ideas and to provide a somewhat neutral sounding-board for people working out interpersonal conflicts – but I never had this legitimacy crisis working in the US, with federally-funded and United Way-funded programs. I felt like it made sense that society had decided to collectivize some of its surplus (through taxes and through charitable giving) in order to redistribute it to people who found themselves in times of crisis or need. There was local ownership and local accountability for how funds were spent.
I wholeheartedly advocate supporting your local United Way, public radio, public library, women’s shelters, food banks, animal shelters, scholarship funds. One of the coolest projects I got involved in during my field research in the US was a scholarship fund for local Latino students, where the emphasis was very strongly on recruiting funds from Latino businesses and families. All they asked for was $20 a month, so that even Latino families working on the slime line at the poultry plant would be able to contribute to sending one of their own to college.
(…there’s a caveat here, that I haven’t quite finished formulating yet, about global responsibilities, because like it or not our economies and societies are linked in intricate ways, and that needs some parsing out yet. Future post.)
2) Working Together. I think a lot of times, as Jjiraffe pointed out, we feel overwhelmed by all the badness in the world, and it seems impossible to think that I could make a difference. Which is why I think a lot of the save-a-starfish kind of programs are appealing – at least I made a difference to this one person that I sponsored, or mentored, or tutored, or sent a Christmas package to. And that’s cool. Yet I worked for a mentoring organization that had as their slogan something along the lines of “one child at a time,” and was glad when they changed it, because it made me want to scream, “that’s not fast enough!”
Even organizations that do take that approach – building one house at a time, loaning one goat at a time – are realizing that the needs are growing at a rate that far outpaces the one-at-a-time giving and building. Most organizations are taking broader, systems-wide approaches, seeking to work with governments or at the very least with coalitions of organizations that can partner together on a larger scale.
This is what I used to tell my husband’s students, when he taught international development to undergraduates and they’d get all depressed and hopeless and he’d ask me to come in and cheer them up: Join something. Find a network, an organization, a movement, and join up. Your individual efforts won’t do much, honestly, but multiplied by 1,000 you can collectively move mountains. So really the “social media for social good” approach is absolutely spot-on, it’s taking a platform you have and using it to increase the love, the compassion, the humanism, and the goodness in this world.
I started wigging out yesterday afternoon while mentally spinning my wheels over all of these issues – and I don’t feel like I’ve finished saying everything that I have to say on this topic, but I don’t want this post to get too long – I started seeing all the things I do and aspects of my life that are NOT in line with the principles I believe in. The environmental piece is part of this, for example, and how we drink bottled water and all our kitchen waste goes into a dumpster. I’ve cut back drastically on our consumption of meat, thanks to a vegan FB friend, and we don’t currently own any kind of motorized vehicle – we can be almost completely pedestrian here – but I’m still not at ease in my mind over how we live.
And now some links:
Coincidentally, just this week Jezebel had a nifty little guide on charitable giving. Skip to the comments for a great discussion on giving cash vs. material gifts.
The Global Journal also put out a list of their top 100 non-government organizations here; some that I have first-hand experience with and can vouch for personally include Habitat for Humanity, Heifer Project International, CARE International, and Save the Children. Habitat and Heifer are both forms of microcredit (affordable mortgages, and animal loans, respectively). Microcredit programs directed specifically towards women are very popular, I don’t know a whole lot about them, they’ve been quite successful in India, less so in some other parts of the world. Any kind of credit represents a risk, so there is that.
What are your thoughts? What organizations or initiatives do you support, and why?