What good is charity? A proposal.

Bill Gates, Bono (of U2 fame) and Melinda Gates have been named as the 2005 TIME magazine persons of the year. The Gateses were chosen partly for the $3+ billion their foundation spends on third world public health each year, but just as importantly, as a tribute to the Gateses' and Bono's ability to sway entities with even larger pockets into contributing.

Certainly, the donated money will improve, and rescue, the lives of large numbers of people. TIME writes that the Gateses' foundation alone has helped save at least 700.000 lives in poor countries, and I'm sure it has had a very positive impact on many more.

However, I am not certain how this manner of help is going to make things better in the long term. There are 6 billion people in the world, and the vast majority of these people are poor. Some argue relativity, that poor people are only poor materially. This article, among many others, shows how these people are also poor mentally. Their states of mind are medieval.

I can see no reasonable and good way how 1 billion of rich people, who among themselves have people who are disadvantaged, can prop up the other 5 billion through giving. In fact, nothing good has ever come from uncritical giving, and there are more than enough examples. People who, rather than using what gifts they receive as an opportunity to become self-reliant, instead rely ever more on the gift-giver; and worse. In the long term, therefore, giving don't work.

What does work, however, is teaching. And giving can improve the long term fortunes of another only insofar as it is in conjunction with teaching. Because the reason a person or a country is in misery is not that she was denied access to wealth by some whimsical, ill-tempered deity. Wealth is not received from up above, but instead is a product of people working together in a long term constructive endeavor. Knowledge and wisdom are the highest gift; yet, at the same time, most difficult to give.

It has taken the western society hundreds of years to break out of the mental prison of the middle ages. This is the same prison as third world people are in. Knowledge of how to create a constructive society will not emerge in their minds in a reasonable timeframe spontaneously. And their poverty is chronically incurable unless they themselves form a constructive society.

As per the phrase that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, we won't be successful in teaching most of third world's grown people. And we can't go there to teach their schoolchildren either. Their elders' values are largely dysfunctional, or they wouldn't be living in misery. Therefore, the children need to be taught things against their own elders' values. But if we teach them those things, we will at minimum be accused of cultural imperialism, or worse; our teachers will be vilified, expelled, or even lucky to escape the local idea of punishment.

Yet, there are things we can do.

I propose that, in overpopulated countries where most people's prospects are a lifetime of hunger and suffering, an economically promising and politically viable possibility is:

A self-funding scheme of large-scale adoption of children

The scheme I propose is based on the premise that every human being is an intrinsic potential creator of wealth, and all that is needed to realise this is to place the human being in a proper environment. I propose that, while the potential of most of the 6 billion people on earth goes to waste, we can salvage some of this potential by taking those people and putting them in an environment where they will thrive. We shall nurse them, feed them, raise them and educate them to our highest standards, and in 25 years we shall have individuals who will go and create wealth on their own. And I'm not talking a few thousand people; I'm talking hundreds of thousands, a million, or more. These individuals can either disperse to a country of their choice, return to their own or we can start with them a new country entirely. As part of our agreement with these individuals, they will pay for their raising and education from future income they make, as is the case with people who take a student loan and graduate e.g. from Harvard. In other respects, these people shall be free to move anywhere in the world and pursue careers of their choice.

Coincidentally, there is an enormous volume of money looking for a very similar investment as this. Retirement benefits. Pension funds invest safely and prefer not to risk most of their money on companies that may fold in five years; and they invest long term, managing funds whose life spans are measured in decades. And they expect a positive, even if modest, return.

What better and more promising long term investment is there, if not one that is guaranteed by a whole generation, one which we raise ourselves?


boris kolar said…
While your arguments are interesting, you've made a few untested assumptions, which should be debated:

1. Correlation between education and success

You appear to believe that education alone is related to success in life. If that were true, there would be very few poor people in areas where education is freely available to anyone. This is obviously not true.

I believe people form their state of mind based on their prior experiences. A girl that was repeatedly raped in her youth, would develop a drastically different attitude to sexuality than a girl that had a perfectly happy childhood. Likewise, an entrepreneur that has lost everything at the very beginning of his or her career, might develop unhealthy attitude towards business. It appears that a vast majority of people have similar capacity to succeed in life, but their actual success is predominantly dependent on motivation. Since motivation is also a prerequisite for education and competence, society should focus on motivation, not education. Making success more closely related to effort and motivation seems like the right answer to me. Therefore initial effort, filled with enthusiasm and motivation, should produce tangible movement towards success, keeping motivation up and running.

2. Charity doesn't work

This assumption should be relativized. For whom doesn't charity work? Obviously, it works for those giving charity. To many, charity is more like a public image stunt, or effort to achieve peace of mind.

Charity is an effort to demonstrate compassion and compassion is a sign of strength. Why? In modern days, muscle mass doesn't notably improve chances of survival. Charity is the most effective demonstration of wealth and power. It essentially says "look, I'm so competent I can not only provide for myself and my family, but also for some people I don't even know". So rest assured that charity works - at least for those giving it. It comes as no surprise that almost all successful people do a lot of charity donations.

Also, incresing amount of our spending becomes more and more like charity. We give tips at restaurants, spend lots of money for gifts, donate to causes we support - all these acts have more in common with charity than traditional trading. Many economic models move towards charity - free software, for example, is often dependent on donations. Not only that charity works, I predict it will become predominant component of our economy.

3. Giving is unconditional

While sometimes unconditional giving makes sense, since lack of "free gift" would cause death from starvation, giving is often not unconditional. The problem is that you can't expect "return of investment" from somebody who is about to die, unless you give him some food and water now.

Once you satisfy basic needs for survival, it's actually a very good idea to put some conditions on additional help. Additional help should, however, still involve giving, but only giving in a different form: by overpaying for their efforts, even if one could negotiate much lower price (I'm sure some poor people could be extorted to work 15h a day for a bowl of rice and water).

It's important to make sure everyone understands that, while initial help may come for free, additional help comes with a price, a price that anyone can pay with serious, honest effort. Currently, however, effort doesn't sufficiently improve chances for success, so many become trapped in despair and hopelessness.

It would help a lot if we could, somehow, make distribution of wealth in our society more dynamic and dependent on effort. One way to achieve this is to make sure all wealth looses value with time. I would welcome any ideas how to achieve this. Obviously, artifial inflation won't work, because people can exchange money for rare objects (like art, diamonds,...). Capitalism would then become a game in which anyone can score high at some point in life, which would keep people from despair. Someone who succeeds once will always know for sure that success is reachable and will therfore hopefully not submit to despair.
denis bider said…
Boris Kolar writes: "You appear to believe that education alone is related to success in life. If that were true, there would be very few poor people in areas where education is freely available to anyone."

Education is a necessary prerequisite for success. Other factors include mental stability, physical health, and a reasonably ordered environment which will bring people's individual behaviors together in a complementary way so that individual behaviors contribute to (as in US and Europe) rather than detract from (as in Moldovia) from the common good.

These factors, as well as education, are intrinsic to the scheme.

"Making success more closely related to effort and motivation seems like the right answer to me."

Success in constructive societies, such as our own, is quite closely related to effort and motivation, as well as other important character traits - such as the persistence to follow things through, and the good sense to spend your efforts and motivation on where they will pay off.

The proposed scheme moves children from a destructive environment where success is not correlated with positive contribution to an environment where it is.

"For whom doesn't charity work? Obviously, it works for those giving charity. To many, charity is more like a public image stunt, or effort to achieve peace of mind."

The kind of charity where you contribute $5,000 for new hospital equipment in exchange for publicity in a newspaper is cheap publicity indeed.

On the other hand, the kind of charity where you dedicate $30 billion and a significant portion of your time to a cause is not cheap publicity, it's a commitment.

The kind of charity where a government spends $10 billion of public money on a cause is also not cheap publicity, it's a commitment. These efforts are supposed to be effective. And they are, partially.

"It would help a lot if we could, somehow, make distribution of wealth in our society more dynamic and dependent on effort."

Distribution of wealth in our society already is dynamic and dependent on effort. The most striking aspect of our society where this is not true is inheritance. But that's for a future article.

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