Forbes’ Kerry Dolan has a write up about GiveDirectly, a new highly-backed start-up working to change the rules on how aid is administered, by giving the money to the poor directly. At face value, I have to applaud GiveDirectly’s efforts to cut out the middle man (or should I say the traditional middle man. Because in essence, if you are giving money to the poor through an organization, then said organization still plays the role of intermediary between you and the poor.) On second thought, maybe this is just a twist of the same idea.
Dolan’s piece, like many she writes, is about how the rich make and spend their money. In this case, how and why Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and others are supporting GiveDirectly.
While I have no qualms with American philanthropy, I am left a bit uneasy with the below quote from one of GiveDirectly’s board members, Paul Niehaus, about why people in Africa are poor (emphasis mine).
GiveDirectly’s giving has had “big impacts on nutrition, education, land and livestock” and “hasn’t been shown to increase how much people drink,” Niehaus emphasized. “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa.”
First I am not quite sure what drinking habits of the poor have to do with GiveDiretly’s strategy. Secondly, when did being born in Africa become synonymous with being poor? When persons of privilege write off an entire continent like Africa with sweeping generalities to justify their personal entitlement, I can’t help but feel a little disrespected. As an African (Diaspora as I may be), even if I didn’t have a lot of money (and I don’t), I would take offense to this broad characterization that I am poor (because I was born African) and therefore deserving of charity.
The continued insistence that the solution to Africa’s development challenges is charitable donations is a bit lazy and misguided. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for charity in all societies, but a heavy insistence on it will never be the platform upon which Africa builds wealth and modernizes. Instead, what it will do is continue to enslave our minds into believing that we are not the key to our own salvation. To continue to believe that we must not hold our governments to account for lack of basic civil services, but instead learn to write a fundable project proposal for Western development agencies.
While many parts of Africa are not swimming in Silicon Valley excess and rightly qualify as ‘poor,’ there are equally as many parts that are doing quite well or improving. That Niehaus chose to use a 1980’s Sir Bob Geldorf definition of Africa is disappointing. That GiveDirectly chose a charity model rather than an investment model is perplexing but not all that surprising.
It is interesting that the divide between rich and poor in the United States is at it’s widest point, yet GiveDirectly chose to work in Kenya, instead of helping the poor directly in their backyard. Isn’t it fascinating, the power of perception?