Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Being Generous vs Being Smart

The terrifying disaster of January's massive earthquake in Haiti unleashed the usual outpouring of aid and generosity from around the world. As after the Asian tsunami of 2004, people everywhere rushed to donate money, goods, and physical assistance to help the victims of the disaster.

When disaster strikes, people tend to be generous in their assistance to the victims. But is that assistance, delivered in response to specific events, the best way to help people over the long term?

Peter Singer wrote an interesting article titled Haiti and the Limits of Generosity which addresses this question. He writes,

"The earthquake killed up to 200,000 people. Terrible as that is, it is fewer than the number of children who, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, die every 10 days from avoidable, poverty-related causes."

The question Singer and others asks is this: what is being done to address the long-term problems that cause vast numbers of deaths, but don't attract 24-hour media coverage, benefit concerts, and earnest entreaties for help from celebrities?

Mr Singer goes on to write,

Suppose that a million children all in one place seemed likely to be swept away and drowned by approaching floodwaters. The media coverage would be enormous. Now imagine the jubilation if they were saved! And imagine the acclaim for the heroes who had saved so many children ... Yet when UNICEF announced, in September of last year, that the number of children dying each year from poverty-related causes had dropped by one million, as compared to two years earlier, the story got very little media attention. The people who contributed to this drop by delivering effective basic health care, building a supply of safe water, or immunizing children against measles remain largely unknown."

It's natural to want to help the innocent victims of a disaster. But is it better to spend some portion of that money to correct the problems that contributed to the scale of that disaster? Haitians today need medical care, housing, and clean water ... but if the cleanup is over and the same corrupt and inefficient government remains and fails to correct the problems of poor infrastructure and public services that helped make the earthquake so terrible, what happens next time?

Take a few minutes to read Mr Singer's article and think about how we can be generous, but smarter.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Debbie said...

For me the issue is giving money to the UN...no doubt they have been given enough to save the world's children, but have squandered it. At least we know what the Red Cross is doing with the money. Smarter choice in my book.

SusieQ said...

For years Bill Clinton has been actively involved in helping Haiti overcome its many problems. The Haitians have suffered from several natural disasters in the past resulting in food shortages and other disruptions to their economy and society.

When the earthquake took place, I donated money to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross in order to help the Haitians.

Mike said...

This goes right along with the fact that 100,000 die each year in the US from medical mistakes. But not all in one place and not all at one time. So it's not newsworthy.