“The problems of our country seem so complicated that intelligent people wonder if it can be right to take a stance. It seems a thing only professional politicians can do–as we pay them, they can bear the burden of being simpleminded. But when we think of other countries, we imagine their problems are easy to solve–they are clear cut and we are so sure of the right moral line. Why do they make such a muddle of it? It is so obvious what ought to be done.” – Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate
This excerpt comes from a letter that the protagonist, Ralph — a missionary in South Africa in the 1950s-receives from his uncle, also an Anglican missionary, and a priest. Of course, the point is that South Africa in the 1950s is about as far from easy as you can get. I underlined this passage as soon as I read it, because it is a perspective that’s missing from so much of the high-profile, hip philanthropy that the average American encounters.
I thought immediately of the sprawling piece the New York Times Magazine recently published about charity:water, the slickly marketed, Silicon Valley-funded non-profit dedicated to digging wells in developing countries. Yes, bringing clean drinking water to the world is a noble goal. But these nations have problems that are just as complicated as ours. They are radically different than ours, but they’re just as complicated. The surface of the problem is that people need to walk miles to get water. The root of the problem is that these are societies with governments so corrupt and ineffectual that they lack the ability or will to deliver the most basic human needs to their people. It’s only dogged American can-doism that makes us think addressing the surface will get at the root. Because if it was that simple, it’d be fixed by now.
It’s easy to throw up our hands at our big, ugly American problems. Almost every day, Cam tells me the latest grim fact out of Detroit. Today it was an escaped big cat — an ocelot or a leopard, who knows — roaming abandoned houses. Last week it was the fact that 911 response time is half an hour. Something like 60 percent of the population has packed up and abandoned the city, leaving foreclosed homes and shuttered schools and defunct strip malls to crumble back into dirt. That’s a mess. We don’t know how to fix that, we think. But, when casting around for a problem to solve and landing on drinking water in Africa, we think hey, now that we could handle. But Detroit’s problems and Malawi’s problems are in many ways two sides of the same coin. Just as tough, just as complicated.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to perform charity in the traditional sense. People have immediate needs: food, water, shelter, and medical care, and the organizations that deliver these needs are doing vital work. What disturbs me is the recent viral trendiness of “easy fixes” like charity:water or TOMS. A source in that NYT piece calls this type of organization–socially-driven, transparent, graphic designed within an inch of its life, and heavily into instant gratification–“the new philanthropy.” But it’s not new. It’s as old as almsgiving in early history. Instead of actually giving the poor the tools to escape the cycle of poverty, or petitioning governments to use their clout for good, these types of charities just kick the can down the road, helping on a superficial level but never reducing the need for charity. It’s a Victorian notion of charity, now dressed up in a startup hoodie and flipflops. I’m not convinced that’s the “new philanthropy” we need.
Here’s the reality: as a developed country, we are complicit in poverty. In some developing counties, the corruption and violence that separates people from things like clean water stems from struggles for control over natural resources in general and fossil fuels specifically. Drugs–opium in Asia, coca in South America–play a similar role. The gas we put in our cars and the coke that goes up our noses fund the corrupt governments, the very reason that there are people without adequate drinking water in 2014. This is an oversimplification, but the point stands: some of this mess is our fault.
So no wonder we want to dig wells. That’s easy, comparatively. But trying to change the fact that developed nations are so dependent on oil that we fund the dictators and warlords who often create these conditions in which people lack drinking water? That’s messy. That’s fucking hard. And it sure doesn’t look pretty on Instagram.
It’s the difference between digging some wells and leaving versus educating new engineers, leaders and organizers, empowered to enact change for themselves. It’s the difference between buying a pair of made-in-China TOMS and sending a pair of shoes to a poor child versus buying a pair of shoes made by that poor child’s mother who, because she is making a living wage, is able to send her child to school*. It’s the difference between hand-ups and hand-outs, to use the cliche. It’s the difference between wanting to be heroes who sweep in to save the day with a temporary fix, and wanting to be true, vested partners in ending poverty. It’s the difference between using our status as an economic superpower for good instead of evil.
Developing countries don’t lack clean water because they just haven’t figured it out, or because have been waiting around for Americans to come in and solve all their problems. They lack clean water (and shoes) because massive systemic forces–war, oil, genocide, postcolonial politics, among others–are at work to keep them from getting the resources and education they need to help themselves. They’re not waiting around for us to save them, and in fact would like nothing more than to save themselves. Which of course doesn’t keep Americans from performing the role of savior; in photos and videos and NYT Magazine profiles, retweeted and shared and emailed across the Internet and the globe ad infinitum.
I don’t have any answers. This post is just a call to be more thoughtful, more skeptical. It’s simply an encouragement to dig deeper than the easy fix, and to realize that just because the problems of developing countries look simple on the surface, doesn’t mean they’re going to be any easier to fix. Quite the opposite.