In 2003, I took my first-ever foreign mission trip, to Nicaragua. Our team of short-term missionaries was being led by Amanda Van Deman, a long-term missionary based in Managua and working for a group called Christ For The City International (CFCI). Amanda was warning us about the difficulties that can result from our enthusiasm and desire to help.
She told the story of a previous short-term team that had met a disabled woman in a small rural town. The woman was badly in need of a wheelchair. The team, after returning home to the U.S., wanted to purchase a wheelchair and ship it from the U.S. to Nicaragua.
Heartwarming? Wait until you hear the rest of the story. The nearest post office was several hours' drive from the woman, and neither she nor any of her relatives had a way to get there. If they had gotten to the post office, the various tariffs and taxes and fees they'd have had to pay to take possession of the wheelchair would have wound up being more than it would have cost to simply buy the wheelchair in Nicaragua. I don't recall whether the church actually bought the wheelchair or whether cooler heads prevailed, but in any case the smarter thing would have been to send money to CFCI, let them purchase the wheelchair in Managua and deliver it to the small town.
A few years later, while preparing for one of my Kenya trips, I read an essay about the prevalence of American-style clothing among the poor in Kenya. When American charities and thrift stores have extra clothing, and can't get rid of it, they bundle it up and ship it to developing countries. A great idea, right? Not necessarily. In Kenya, as in some other countries, the textile industry had been one of the few sustainable and successful opportunities for small business. But an influx of cheap, donated Western clothing killed it.
The outstanding charity Heifer International gives livestock to people in need in various locations around the world. When it was first founded, the idea was that animals would be raised at a big ranch in Arkansas and then shipped around the world to where they were needed. But the charity soon found out it could have much more impact by buying the live animals in or near the area where they were to be used. Transportation costs were drastically reduced, the local economy would benefit, and the animals were much more likely to be healthy and suited to their new surroundings. (Heifer Ranch in Arkansas now serves as a demonstration farm, research facility and visitors' center for Heifer International, and it's well worth a visit if you're ever in the area.)
America's generosity is one of its best qualities. But generosity always needs to be paired with wisdom. Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, you can end up doing harm instead of good.
That was the theme of a story last week about typhoon relief by Associated Press writer Sharon Cohen. She quoted representatives of various charities as saying that the best way to help out in a natural disaster is to send money to a responsible, knowledgeable and well-managed charity. An influx of donated goods may not be exactly what's needed and in a worst-case scenario can do more harm than good. A charity with feet on the ground in the disaster area can take that money and buy what's needed, helping to support whatever local businesses are still functioning and rebuild the local economy.
"It absolutely should be money," Kathleen Tierney told AP. Tierney is director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a clearinghouse and research group on the social aspects and impacts of disasters around the world.
"Whether it's the U.S. or abroad," she said, "one thing that typically happens after a major disaster is people want to donate stuff. This creates enormous logistical problems ... and people receiving donations they could never conceivably use, like winter coats sent to people in the Caribbean."
But while Americans are naturally generous, we're also naturally skeptical. If I donate a can of food, I can feel reasonably certain it's going to be eaten. If I donate money, how do I know it won't go towards administrative costs?
There are watchdog websites such as Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) that you can use to look up almost any charity and get specific details on how they're managed and what percentage of their budget goes to programs as opposed to administrative costs. Charities are ranked from zero to four stars. The site has a special section right now calling attention to the best-rated charities providing typhoon relief.
According to the AP story, smaller, inexperienced charities performing relief work after the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004 may have done more harm than good. One group put up nicer homes than another group nearby, causing jealousy and infighting among the recipients, and there were property line and codes disputes that resulted in some of the newly-constructed homes having to be torn down.
My purpose is not to dissuade anyone from giving or to criticize or promote any particular effort. It's just to say that generosity works best when it's combined with knowledge and experience, and sometimes sending a check for $10 will have more impact than sending $10 or even $20 worth of goods.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.