Give Money, Not Stuff: How to Fight Poverty More Effectively

I have a confession to make: I used to think that donating money to charities was just a way for affluent people to feel good about “doing good.” I silently chided them: “If you really care about people who are less fortunate than you, you should get out there and help them.”

You know the saying: “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” To me, giving money was the same as giving fish—it would just create dependency, and the vicious circle of poverty would continue.

I actually practiced what I preached. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand (close to the Burmese border), teaching small farmers about agroforestry and women about microenterprise. As it turned out, the rural folks I worked with taught this fresh-faced anthropology major more than I taught them. Regardless, I felt that to Do the Most Good, you had to physically show up and doit.

As I grew older and amassed more obligations, it wasn’t as feasible to volunteer, especially when it involved a 24-hour international flight. So with less time and a bit more income, I conceded that donating stuffwould be acceptable. After an earthquake in Chile, for example, we gave tents to a Chilean neighbor who was collecting them for temporary shelters. By sending stuff instead of cash, I reasoned, those already suffering wouldn’t have to add “shopping” to their To Do list…plus, there was less risk of the donations going missing.

However, when I returned to Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to support the reconstruction efforts, I began to realize how good intentions could go wrong.

Six months after the tsunami hit, there were still huge piles of rubble in Khao Lak (the area worst hit) from collapsed buildings and debris washed ashore. It looked like a war zone—shocking, but not surprising. The surprising thing was the mountain of clothing.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, generous donations to the affected areas included thousands of pieces of secondhand clothing. Even after distributing to every temporary shelter, heaps of old clothes remained. The oversupply started to present a challenge: camp dwellers were concerned about mold growing and mosquitoes breeding in the damp piles of fabric. And mosquitoes here are not just a nuisance—they carry malaria and dengue fever, both of which can be fatal.

Thankfully, volunteers charged with the task of sorting and folding the surplus suggested turning it into marketable merchandise, an idea that greatly appealed to women living in the camps. Apart from a small group busy rebuilding homes, most of these women were idle. They not only needed something to take their mind off their situation; they also needed money. Many of their businesses had been swept away with their houses: hair salons, noodle shops, convenience stores, tailoring shops. Moreover, their husbands (those who had survived the tsunami) primarily fished or farmed shrimp, and thus were also out of work until those industries could be revived.

This is one of the things I love about the Thai women I have spent time with: they have an incredible ability to turn lemons into lemonade. They ended up making “tsunami dolls” out of the unwanted clothing and earned enough money to sustain their families during those painful times.

But I can’t help but wondering: wouldn’t it have been better to skip ahead to the money part of this story?

At least one humanitarian logistics expert would agree. Dan Hertzog, who managed UPS transportation logistics for 41 years and was deployed to countless catastrophic disaster sites, came to view the deluge of donations as a “disaster within the disaster.” He explains, “The influx of unsolicited, and mostly unwanted, donations clog shelters, airport tarmacs and warehouses and drain the time and energy of the willing but scarce volunteers.” In the midst of a disaster, when resources are already stretched thin, there simply are not enough workers, facilities, and equipment to deal with the unsolicited stuff. Hertzog continues, “What starts as an honest expression of goodwill almost always ends up causing complete chaos.”

So what if the tsunami survivors in Thailand had been given money instead? I doubt the women in the camps would have bought materials to make “tsunami dolls.” They would have invested it in what their families needed most—food, clothing, and other necessary items; materials to rebuild their homes and businesses; and then perhaps even the makings for an entirely new livelihood.

Some observers worry that direct cash transfers would be misspent. But in my experience helping Thai women to set up savings groups and microenterprises, this concern is unwarranted. Much research now confirms that if aid money is given to women, they use it to nurture their children and the whole community—everyone benefits, provided they are not pressured to give it to their husbands (men are more likely to spend money on themselves). Even the World Bank now stands behind the idea of investing in women.

Going back to my original concern that giving money is just an easy way out of our moral responsibility to help others, I’m reconsidering that as well.

I recently read a book by the prominent ethicist and Princeton professor Peter Singer, called The Most Good You Can Do, which describes a new concept-cum-movement, “effective altruism.” Singer sums up effective altruism as using evidence and reason to find the most effective ways to improve the world. He observes that the movement is mostly made up of millennials who do things like:

  • Living modestly and donating a large part of their income…
  • Researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective…
  • Choosing the career in which they can earn the most…

I’m not sold on the last point, since some high paying jobs lack social and environmental ethics and would thus cancel out any good you might do with your earnings. But Singer’s larger point is a good one: If we really want to make a difference in the world, we should direct our resources toward the world’s most pressing problems and the organizations that are most successful in solving them.

Singer argues that giving money to successful organizations is more effective than volunteering. When I think about the growing popularity of “voluntourism”—paid holidays to developing countries to work on community-based development projects for a week or two—I might agree with him. There are certainly better ways to raise local living standards.

Still, as a veteran volunteer, I also know that the physical act of caring for others produces a benefit that is difficult to measure in the usual impact assessment models. Above all, it connects us as humans in a way that donating to organizations cannot.

So by all means, give money, not stuff. But don’t rule out giving a hand as well.

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