Giving What We Can

I found this charity initiative that I believe will make a real difference. It is calledGiving What We Can.” In fact, it is not a charity website, but a portal with a few recommended organizations listedthose that are efficient and focus on the extremely poor. Sure, it tries to lay a guilt trip on you, but it really does give you hard-to-find information.

While going through it, I suddenly realized what was bothering me about thenormalcharity activities. Most of these activities operate locally, not globally, and therefore end up helping the slightly worse-off. In a world where the richest 20% command 80% of all the income, local charity only means the top 5% giving to the next 10% — the extremely wealthy helping out the very wealthy. This kind of charity never reaches the really poor, who desperately need help.

Living in this highly skewed world, it is hard to see how rich we really are, because we always benchmark ourselves against our friends and neighbors. For instance, as apoorgraduate student in the early nineties, I used to make about $12,000 a year. It turns out that I was still better off than 90% of the world’s population. It is not surprisingmy stipend was more than the official salary of the President of India (Rs.10,000 a month) at that time!

Coming from a rather poor place in India, I know what real poverty is. It has always been too close to home. I have seen a primary school classmate of mine drop out to become a child laborer carrying mud. And heard stories of starving cousins. To me, poverty is not a hypothetical condition allegedly taking place in some dim distant land, but a grim reality that I happened to escape thanks to a few lucky breaks.

So the local charity drives bother me a bit. When I see those school children with their tin cans and round stickers, I feel uncomfortable, not because I cannot spare a dollar or two, but because I know it doesn’t really help anythingexcept perhaps the teacher’s KPIs. And the twenty-year-olds with their laminated name badges and certificates of authenticity also make me uncomfortable because, certifiable bean-counter that I am, I wonder how much it costs to hire and outfit them. And who benefits?

Similar bean-counting questions haunted me the last time I sponsored a table at a local charity dinner at $200 a plate — $100 to the hotel, $50 to the entertainers, and so on. Who is the real beneficiary? Some of us turn to local churches and spiritual organizations to share and help others. But I cannot but suspect that it only helps the middlemen, not the extremely poor we mean to direct our aid to.

These nagging doubts made me limit my charity activities to my own meager personal drivestwo dollars to the hawker center cleaning aunties and uncles, gas pump attendants, those old folks selling three tissue packs a dollar, and the Susannah singer. And handsome tips after the rare taxi rides. And generous donations to that old gentleman who prowls CBD and strikes up a conversation with, “Excuse me sir, but do you speak English?” You know, the next time he asks me that, I’m going to say, “No, I don’t. But here’s your five bucks anyway!”

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