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Doing Better Than Good: Reconsidering Donations

The Soul and Story tagline is "Doing Better Than Good". Which means that the goal is to surpass just doing "good" because sometimes doing good has adverse results. Charitable giving, while admirable, can do more harm than good. Many people have good intentions, but in seeking to do good actually do more harm. This is not intentional of course, it is because we never consider the social and economic impacts of the things we do over the long-term. As I wrote in a previous blog post, we are a meme society, we love quick fixes. Rarely do we do any root cause analysis or take time to really understand the impact of something we do before we do it. And frankly, sometimes, we just don't have the time to think it through.

I want to explain what "Doing Better Than Good" means in a series of posts about things we commonly do - as Americans - as Westerners that do more harm than good.

Up first, is a discussion on charitable giving, bringing (American) goods to foreign countries to give to the less fortunate.

Many well meaning people bring goods to other countries, be it toiletries, supplies, canned goods, etc... to donate to a cause or to help people in need. On the surface, this is wonderful. You're helping people in need by bringing to them what they lack. It's so common and people really do want to do the right thing, but please reconsider, here is why:

1. You're Hurting Local Business: When you bring items to other countries, most of the time those same items can be purchased locally. There is someone that makes/sells those items, and in the case of a small business, the constant influx of foreign goods for free into the market is harmful to local business, who many times, are a step away from poverty themselves. This can lead to a domino effect of putting local business out of business and create more of the problem that charity is trying to solve.

2. Enabling Negative Paradigms (Learned Helplessness): Unfortunately, the charity culture has created a paradigm where people in poorer parts of the world almost expect hand-outs from those from richer nations. This is a hard subject to tackle, because there are nuances, as I fully understand that many poor countries are so because of colonization, corruption and continued foreign aid policies that do more harm than good. There has been an expectation created of a hand-out in some cases before people look for a hand up. This idea that certain people need money from the West (or things) to make their lives better. This is perpetuated by the same charities and NGO's that propose to help people. It's a culture that makes people dependent on others instead of realizing that they do have the power to help themselves. I'm not advocating they can "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", that is a very privileged view. But I believe there are models that solve the root cause of the problems and others that create more problems. Foreign charities and NGO's should work so that they are no longer needed, and that is not happening. Some profit off of the dependency they create. There has been a learned dependency, perpetuated by those who claim to help. And those from the West have learned to view these people as unable to help themselves, and in many ways inferior. These paradigms need to be broken. I say this in full awareness of how many of these poorer countries have been continuously exploited by Western powers. This is not an easy subject; however, if we keep doing things that do not work simply because we've always done it, then we are part of the problem.

3. Local Charities Will Not Say No: Meaning, if you offer to bring something from the U.S., local charities often won't say no. There is a demand for anything from the U.S., no matter how minor. They are grateful for the help and frankly, they don't really understand how charity can have adverse affects. It is up to those who have learned to do better to offer alternatives.

4. Compatibility: Items are made for specific markets and don't do well outside of the markets they are made for. Take sanitary napkins or diapers for example. Some places do not have sewage and trash services like we do in the U.S., so these types of items do not get disposed of in the proper manner thus, harming the environment.


I don't have "the" answer, but I do know how we can do better.

Before you take items from the U.S. to give away to those who need it another country. I'd ask you to reconsider and to buy the items directly from those who sell it in the local economy. Is it the best solution? No. But it is better than bringing items from abroad. When you spend your money with locals, you're helping the local economy, to feed families, pay for school fees. Simply ask, "where can I buy these items locally?"

In sum, we need to take the time to think and look at the totality of our actions. We can't afford band-aid solutions, because band-aids always fall off and the wound remains and in many cases, gets worse. I want to challenge those who do want to help make this world better to do better than good. And yes, it may take a little extra work, but that is what is required. Because if you really think about it, if charitable giving in the way we are use to really worked, we still wouldn't be doing it now. The problems many face should have long been solved or at least drastically eliminated. It's time to do better, it's time we do better than good.

Further Reading:

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