The other day a good friend who works for an international health charity here in London mentioned that she’d just submitted a 28 million pound proposal to a donor for a new project in Malawi. “Twenty eight million pounds?, I said, “For what, to buy the country?” She giggled and then went on to explain how they planned to expand their community based clinics and introduce more HIV/AIDS related services. Which sounded very rational and very necessary, but…. “But twenty eight million pounds?,” I repeated, “for that you should be able to build a whole new health system.” She thought for a moment before responding. “Well it is meant to last for five years.” And that was supposed to make it seem all right.
That night I turned on American Idol (I still need my trashy US TV fix) to find the superslick host Ryan Seacrest providing an update on “Idol gives Back”, the program’s annual fundraising initiative. Seacrest repeated the amount of money raised — 64 million dollars!, that’s 64 million dollars! — and then cut to a clip of a US TV celebrity walking around a village in Angola handing out bed nets to combat malaria. It was a familiar celebrity-in-a-foreign-land segment: the locals lined up to shake the smiley white person’s hand, while the celebrity goofed around with the village children. It all looked and felt really good – and on one level it was obviously good. I know what a largescale, insidious problem malaria is and how effective bed nets are in preventing it. But I couldn’t help thinking: how many bed nets could you buy for a 150 million? Or even 1 million? 40 million. 64 million. Think about those figures for a moment. Don’t just let the numbers skid by. That’s world changing money, isn’t it, more than most of us can comprehend? Yet it’s just a tiny portion of the funding pouring into the developing world. Funding that increases every year, because it’s become an accepted truth that international charity donations, particularly to Africa, must increase or else we’re not living up to our global responsibilities.
But is all this silly money fundamentally changing the world? That’s the idea, right, the more money we give the more change we see? Well that’s the theory, but I’m not convinced it’s playing out in reality.
Which leads me to this question: how much is it going to cost us to save our world? To get a grip on poverty, disease, inequality and ignorance so that we can truly say our charity funding has been wisely invested? Quintillions? Nonillions? The highest number listed is a milli-million, so should we aim for milli-millions and see if that finally does the trick?
Will it ever be enough? And will we ever reach a point when somebody says enough: enough fundraising, let’s examine the impact of the trillions of charity dollars already in circulation and go from there?
I suspect not. I suspect nobody will ever suggest we take stock of our spending in order decide how to direct our future largesse. Because development work isn’t driven by a rational assessment of impact – no matter what the charities try to tell you! — but rather by an emotional act of assisting. We, the viewers of American Idol, the staff at my friend’s organization, enjoy helping the needy and believe doing so is essential. So we’re not terribly bothered about what happens with our funds. Of course we won’t stomach corruption and outright misuse, but as long as a little bit of good seems to be done, then we don’t demand real value for money. Our intuitive desire for rational use of resources gets lost in the feel-good frenzy of “giving back”.
From my perspective there are three problems with this: first we’re not making the most of our money in the service of people who need it the most. Sure there are more health clinics, more nets, more condoms, but there’s little evidence to suggest that this more and more and more approach is actually tipping the scales towards sustainable solutions. And don’t the people we’re trying to help deserve the best value we can offer them? Second, those crazy numbers obscure all the life changing that can be done for free. We’ve gotten so caught up in the notion that monstrous sums of money are needed that we no longer even think about all the “cheap” change: And finally, it makes us smiley whiteys and our fat checkbooks absolutely essential to change, propping up the myth of the white man’s burden. If we truly believe that the fate of the developing world lay in raising milli millions, then Africans have no hope of helping themselves.
I’m not suggesting we stop giving to good international causes. But maybe in order to really make a difference we need to become savvy consumers of those causes: ask questions, dig deep for information, compare service providers. Our ability to be smart customers keeps other industries in check: promoting healthy competition, maintaining fair prices, ensuring a high quality of goods and services. So is it so wrong to have the same high expectations of charities and demand they be met?
Yes, we need to keep giving, but rather than abandoning common business sense in the process, we need to insist on it. Because an honest business transaction is the only thing that’s going to ensure our investment actually results in a commensurate level of change across the developing world.
Until then, those eight and nine figure sums will remain a pat on the back for us and ultimately a slap in the face for them.