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"As compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served."
—Robert D. Lupton, in "Toxic Charity"

Colonialism with a veneer of karma

We refer to the aid industry as karma colonialism. Please read Colonialism gets a facelift for an explanation of the second part of that name. Here's why we've added the term karma.

The aid industry thrives by making donors feel good. And it's easy to make donors feel good, as long as that's your #1 goal.

The aid industry thrives by making donors feel good. Happy donors don't look too hard to see the real impact of their money. And it's easy to make donors feel good, as long as that's your #1 goal. The industry provides good feelings and good publicity for other people and institutions as well.

☺ Consumers can feel good about themselves just by consuming — if you buy a pair of Toms shoes, the company will donate a pair to "a child in need." (Or to someone easy to reach, but perhaps not in great need; see Toms Shoes.)

☺ Those who benefit from being born in a wealthier country can write a check, say "I've done something to help the poor," and then not think about it for another month, or another year.

☺ Billionaires, including those whose made their money by creating goods and services that are harmful, or through dubious or outright illegal methods, can wrap themselves in the aura of philanthropy, deflecting criticism today and creating a more appealing legacy for tomorrow.

☺ It provides photo ops for celebrities, and billionaires. Nobody printed a photo of you attending the Oscars? Get your picture taken with Bono! (There is a line ahead of you, however.)

When you feel good about what you've just done, you don't look too hard to understand what you've just done.

☺ Charities hold fundraisers for newsworthy causes, often for victims of natural disaster. You go, pay money or get people sponsor you in a fun event, and it's all "for a good cause." Few participants look closely at what happened to the money; they wanted to have a good time and feel good about it, and they got what they wanted. Rarely is it even possible to know what happened to the money. By claiming that the fun event has educational value and so the associated costs are not part of overhead, the charity can claim low overhead expenses, even while sending little to the supposed beneficiaries.

☺ Governments give — or at least promise to give — a certain amount in foreign aid. That establishes the nation as a good world citizen. If most of the "aid" benefits businesses, campaign donors, and voters in the donor country, that's merely a footnote, if it's reported at all.

☺ It provides meaningful vacations for teenagers. After the Washington Post reported that a church in Mexico was painted and repainted six times in a summer by visiting waves of volunteers, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested that this wasn't so bad, because "whatever the impact on others, volunteering may at least help the volunteer" to develop empathy.(1)

Do rich American kids really have a right to free empathy training from church pastors in Mexico?

We should be asking more questions. We should be asking: "why is 'foreign aid' money used to overpay U.S. shippers? What's the real impact of giving away shoes? Do rich American kids really have a right to free empathy training from church pastors in Mexico?"

One thing inhibits these questions: All these actions take place under the guise of "We're doing good. We're helping the needy." Maybe all that free stuff is hurting the local economy, but what if a pair of shoes really is the only thing standing between a needy child and an opportunity to attend school? Shouldn't we try to do something, even if we're not sure about the details of how it all works?

We can look away from a lot of things that we ought to see, as long as we've got good karma on our side. We can even look away from colonialism. It's time to look more closely.

[We use "karma" in a broad sense; we briefly discuss this in Terminology.]

Notes and Sources

1. Kristof was referring to the Washington Post story "Churches Retool Mission Trips," by Jacqueline L. Salmon, which gave several examples of — well, of what we'd call karma colonialism: "a wall built on the children's soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left" and, in Ecuador, "a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed." The story reported that some churches are rethinking their "vacationary" approach. Many people, including the author Steven Pinker, Times columnist Frank Bruni, and Kristof himself, have suggested that another way to increase empathy is through reading, as the reader learns to see the world through other eyes. There are growing suggestions that more face-to-face interaction, and less of face-to-Facebook, would also help. (back)