Edited to Add: this had been incorrectly tagged as “Photography”. It has been corrected. My apologies.
Because I’m just reprinting stuff, I decided on two posts for today . . . this one came from a September 2009 note I wrote on my FaceBook account (so maybe 2 people read it), but I think it was also published on the blog I used to have at Skepticality (before the site crashed and everything was lost).
This is written primarily for those who mistake me, and sometime themselves, for good people. It has not been modified from the original.
The End of Poverty
I recently listened to Point of Inquiry’s interview with Peter Singer. As is the case with most guests appearing anywhere, Mr. Singer was promoting his newest book . . . and telling we, the individuals of affluent nations, should act now to end world poverty. Arguably, it is an admirable goal.
And there is merit to the argument he gives regarding most of us spending inordinate amount of money to buy transient and generally worthless possessions we classify as deserving luxuries.
The example he gives is that of a drowning child in a fountain or pond, and the fact most people would not hesitate to save the child even if wearing brand new and expensive shoes. He then draws the parallel one should give the equivalent of those expensive shoes toward helping to save the 26,000 children who die every day (10 million a year) as a direct result of the squalor of poverty. Of course, he does not stop there. For how can someone justify buying a wide-screen TV for multiple thousands of dollars while poor people in other countries die because they cannot get medicine, food, water, or any of the things we take for granted. And so on . . .
Hard to argue against that line of thinking, but I’m not one to shy from unpopular opinions. First let me say unequivocally we should help; we should contribute to alleviate the plight of the less fortunate. I give to food banks and a few other charities, and I like Mr. Singers suggestion regarding Micro-Loans aimed at giving a leg up to people trying to make a go of it in countries where $100 go a long way. Now comes the hard part. How do you get your money to a place where it will do the most good?
GiveWell (http://www.givewell.net/node/430#Listofcharitiesweexaminedwithratings) rates a large number of charities based on their effectiveness, transparency,and proven track records. The only one which directly addresses poverty is BRAC (http://www.brac.net/), and it rates poorly. One which I tried to research before is Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org/). That organization is supposed to get animals to the poor. An animal can make a huge difference by helping people cultivate land, by providing sustenance, and by providing people with low-tech means to better their situations. Unfortunately, this charity is not rated, which means it was not deemed to meet goals of transparency, effectiveness, and proven track record.
All of the top rated charity, and the vast majority of the remainder, deal with providing health benefits. Some have multiple missions which may also include education or economic aid.
So, where does that leave me? No closer to where I was before in terms of finding international organizations I want to fund. You see, it’s not exactly like coming across a drowning child in a fountain. It more like coming across a drowning child in a fountain every day, sometimes thrice a day. And new fountains are being built every day, and more children being placed next to, and sometimes into, said fountains every day. It’s a lousy argument for not getting involved, but there it is; after a while you just start avoiding fountains and ponds.
Because the problem is not unwillingness to help; the problem is we are not addressing the root causes. Tell me there is a charity set up to kill despotic leaders, opportunistic profiteers, corrupt officials, religious leaders inciting genocide, priests preaching the evils of contraception and safe sex . . . do any or all of that, and I’m there in spades. Heck, I’ll personally come and help. Want to get rid of poverty in poor countries? Get rid of people who are profiting from it. Also get rid of companies who profit from it.
Ah, you say . . . how do we know who the good guys are? Would we not be just like the bad guys if we did all that? Please! Point to any action by a human being toward another and any one of us can make a decision as to whether the act is one of kindness or cruelty . . . except when we muddle it with arcane beliefs about rewards waiting for us in a mythical afterlife, or justify them for flag and country. Then it’s seems OK to offer people holy books instead of condom; it seems OK to back governments who essentially rape the land and its people as long as they also further”acceptable” doctrines.
Of course, it’s not just doctrine, religious or political it may be. It’s also our own self interests. We don’t questions how companies function, how governments function, how what we use finds its way to us. Mind you, I’m all for capitalism, but I would prefer responsible capitalism. I prefer companies who show some inkling of having a conscience, of acting more like an individual might as opposed to a faceless entity, and who accept and hence are concerned about the consequences of their dealings. But you know what? Companies are doing nothing more than what their shareholders want; they are making money, edging out competitors by any means necessary to win the approval of more shareholders. And we are the shareholders.
. . . as hopeless as it all seems, and I believe it is hopeless, in the end there is still a child who is hungry, or sick, or otherwise in need. And there are not only children, but also adults; men and women whose short lives are spent knowing nothing beyond hunger and fear; no joy, no hope, no understanding of having massive debts from living beyond their means. I can preach all I want about how useless it is to throw money toward a problem which not only has no solution we can see, but which grows every minute at a rate outpacing our capacity to give. But that child is still hungry, sick, or otherwise in need. And so I give to organization I think might help alleviate some of those awful conditions. But how much should I give? How much do I give?
. . . not as much as I truly could; I give only enough to satisfy a nebulous and ill-defined limit which then allows me to buy some gadget, toy, mildly expensive meal, or fancy car without my conscience keeping me awake at night. I could tell myself I deserve to treat myself, to make sure I can provide for myself in my old age,and to make sure I can provide for those who depend on me. All good arguments.
I could tell myself the likes of Soros, Gates, Walton, and Buffett could give 90% of what they have and still have a thousand times more than I can ever dream of having, and what is left is still much more than they actually need to live an incredibly privileged life. I could tell myself any one of the famous movie stars, entertainers, and athletes could forego a fancy watch, expensive car, extravagant purse, or expensive meal and donate multiple time what I could ever give and not even notice. I could tell myself company CEOs, top management, board of director members of every major corporation could part with only a fraction of what they make and still give hundreds of times than what I can give. Again, all good arguments.
But none of those people do that, and if I point at them as excuses for not giving more . . . then I am like them. So I’ll be honest . . . I don’t give more than I do because I am belligerently selfish. I recognize stratification to the human condition as being the way of the world from the beginning of history to well in the foreseeable future. I believe there is no eradicating what is predominantly the result of man’s inhumanity toward other men. At best I can call them on it when I see it or learn of it. But seeing as humanity in general would frown on me picking up a gun and dealing justice, and seeing as humanity in general is not rushing to do what should be done, I donate a little to help a few have a marginally less shitty life than they otherwise might have had.
Meanwhile I am thankful for opportunities an accident of birth afforded me, and for the chance to work for what I have. And in my gratitude I help only as long as it does not hurt me . . . because I’m not optimistic as Mr. Singer. I don’t think we can wipe out world poverty, world hunger, pestilence, or hideous conditions responsible for the death of millions each year . . . and that is enough to tip the scales away from me showing unrestrained altruism, and more toward me selfishly enjoying what I am fortunate to have.
As I write that I could easily see myself as an awful human being, but I don’t. No excuses, no apologies, no insincere remorse. Just a realization of how lucky I am to have the luxury of sitting here in my air conditioned house, sipping a coffee, munching on a cookie while I contemplate such matters . . . and to have the honesty not to wallow in false moral superiority just for considering such weighty matters.
I am tired, I am old, and I am disillusioned with humanity and the kind of world they are carving out. I don’t know if the way I think things should be would result in any better world than what it is, but even if it would, I have no incentive to fight for the betterment of future generations. Mainly because I truly believe someone will always screw it up for someone else. Consequently, all I really want to do is retreat even further, and insulate myself from what I see and read about. Selfish, I know.
Genocide Clock (http://www.attacreport.com/ar_diagrams/genocide.php)