Waylaid Dialectic

August 16, 2011

A Confession

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:22 pm
Tags: , ,

I have a confession to make.

When I donated money in response to the Horn of Africa Famine I earmarked it. Rather than just donating it to an NGO which works in that part of the world (among other places) and which does good work, and then letting them allocate the money as they see best, I donated to a specific fund for the famine. I’ve done this before with other emergencies.

I understand this is bad practice: if you trust the NGO (and why would you give money to an NGO you didn’t trust) then you should also trust them to allocate the money to where they can best put it to use. If you don’t, there is a chance that the NGO will end up with more money than it can usefully use in the crisis in question, while being under-resourced in tackling other, quieter tragedies.

I know this and yet I still ear-marked my donation. Why?

Possibly it’s because I believe disaster relief aid is more likely to be effective than development aid (although I do believe development aid can work). That’s probably part of the story. But it’s not all of it. In part I think my decision was simply driven by emotion and, less charitably, a desire to assuage my own sorrow and guilt — the sorrow and guilt I’ve felt while listening to news about the famine.

This isn’t a good excuse. But it’s what happened nevertheless. No doubt the rest of the development blogosphere has been much more considered in their donations. But I’m also sure than my own motivations and type of donation are pretty typical of the donating public more generally.

Which is something to consider next time you’re about to start dissing Poverty Porn or NGO marketing arms. They respond to us in ways that reflect how we respond to them.

We respond to them, they respond to us.

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4 Comments

  1. I couldn’t have put it better, and a nice counterpoint to my recent post: http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/the-man-in-the-street-donor/

    Comment by MJ — August 17, 2011 @ 1:16 am

  2. “Which is something to consider next time you’re about to start dissing Poverty Porn or NGO marketing arms. They respond to us in ways that reflect how we respond to them.”

    I’m not sure who this ‘we’ is. But isn’t the usual critique of ‘poverty porn’ and NGO marketing arms based on the expectation that international development organisations should be educating the public rather than just trying to carve out a market share with any method that works, even when it reinforces values that are in opposition to its ultimate aims? You seem to be adopting the ludicrous free-market ideology that maintains that companies are helpless players, merely responding to what their customers want.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 17, 2011 @ 7:33 am

  3. “But isn’t the usual critique of ‘poverty porn’ and NGO marketing arms based on the expectation that international development organisations should be educating the public rather than just trying to carve out a market share with any method that works, even when it reinforces values that are in opposition to its ultimate aims?”

    That’s the critique yes. My problem with it is not that it’s wrong per se but rather that it ignores the tradeoffs involved. On one side of the ledger (and sorry for all spelling mistakes, I’m reduced to using IE and am bereft of my usual Firefox spelling assitance) is the potential importance of public education. On the other side is the fact that the money is needed and the public really does seem to respond more generously to PP.

    One’s final position (at least if you’re follwing a utilitarian calculus) after evaluation of the trade offs will be a function of: (a) how significant a role you think educating the public in developed countries plays in reducing global poverty (b) whether you think meaningfully educating the public is possible and (c) whether, if it is possible, you think that NGO advertisements play a significant role in the mis-education; and (i) how effective PP is as a fundraising tool and (ii) how much good you think the money raised through PP does.

    I’m all for debating and critiquing PP but doing so is only going to be useful if the actual complexity of the issue is acknowledged.

    “You seem to be adopting the ludicrous free-market ideology that maintains that companies are helpless players, merely responding to what their customers want.”

    Not true. Wanting to understand how markets function, and the associated externalities, is not the same as suggesting that markets always lead to socially optimal outcomes.

    Comment by terence — August 17, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  4. My last comment was based on your comment “They respond to us in ways that reflect how we respond to them.”. Not true, the relationship isn’t one of equal power – agencies using ‘poverty porn’ aren’t responding, but initiating a relationship and are laying down the ground rules for this.

    And I think you’re making a simple issue complex – it comes down to a choice between giving the most money or changing an unjust relationship.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 17, 2011 @ 3:27 pm


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