As a kid, I always thought that 'activity-sponsorship' methods of charity (e.g. the 40 hour famine, or spelling contests where kids raise money from their relatives, etc., for each correct answer) were kind of irrational. Why bother with the sponsored activity - why not just get people to donate directly to charity instead? (After the tsunami we've seen similar sorts of activities on the internet, e.g. here.)
Of course, if these novel efforts encourage people to donate who otherwise might not have, then that's all to the good. But to make things more interesting, suppose that there would be no difference between the amount of money raised by a direct campaign or an indirect (activity-sponsorship) one. In such a case, would there be any reason to prefer the indirect approach?
One might appeal to the participatory nature of indirect charities. This might be especially valuable for children, to give them a greater sense of authorship for the donation. They haven't merely collected donations from others. They've performed a positive action of their own (e.g. doing well in the spelling contest) which they could view as responsible for the charitable donations. Experiencing this sense of authorship might help to cultivate the virtue of charitable character in the participants. That could have good future consequences even if the activities made no immediate difference in comparison to the alternative 'direct' charity.
But the main benefit probably is that mentioned earlier, i.e. such activities have a psychological effect which makes us more likely to donate. Competition might have an even bigger effect. Most people give however much they think most other people are giving, and don't like to be exposed as miserly. So a public pissing contest might have significant benefits, as it seems to have done in the case of national aid to the tsunami victims.
In this spirit, I'd like to note that Canada is looking to "allocate five per cent of their total spending on research and development to [fund scientific] projects that are directly related to the needs of developing countries." It'd be great to see more governments follow suit. Maybe if enough of us talk about what a great idea it'd be, someone more influential will eventually listen? (Worth a shot at least, surely?)
Another issue I'd like to raise is that of government vs. individual donations to charity - which is better? I prefer the former. (That should come as no surprise: everyone knows that lefties prefer to spend other people's money!) Seriously though, I think our moral obligation to the developing world exists at the societal, rather than individual, level. It's not that you and I are personally obligated to anyone over there. But we, as a society, are. And proportional taxation ensures that everyone contributes appropriately.
A problem with individual charity is that, being optional, the option is all too often not taken. Compulsory taxation can thus have more beneficial consequences. It is better if individuals approve of these compulsory donations, of course. But I think many people might - even those who would not have given as individuals. Some people might just be lazy, like me. It's easier if the government takes care of the rest of the world for us. I for one am happy to give them my permission (and tax dollars) to do so. Others might be concerned about fairness - why should they give if their neighbour does not? Compulsion removes such concerns. Lastly, an individual might think their little contribution would make no difference. A huge bundle of government aid is more obviously significant.
I should note that the last person would be making a mistake. Even indiscernible contributions can be morally significant. In Reasons & Persons, Derek Parfit asks us to consider a thousand torturers, and a dial which causes pain in proportion to the number of times it is turned - a single turn being indiscernible, but a thousand causing intense pain. If each torturer turns it once, they (collectively) cause a great harm. Each individual is doing wrong, even though their contribution is indiscernible. They do wrong by being part of the group of wrongdoers. Charity is the opposite: we do well by being part of a group of welldoers, even if individual contributions make no noticible difference - which often isn't true in any case.
An objection to government aid might be to appeal to the value of participation, as discussed earlier in the post. Individuals engage with charities on a more personal level when they give personal contributions. In doing so, they act virtuously - something government compulsion deprives us of.
So perhaps it is best to strike a balance. I feel quite strongly that governments should spend a lot more on developmental aid than they currently do. But even if they changed, that needn't stop personal donations. Individuals could still give charitably, in addition to their government doing so. The only problem is that increased taxation might lessen their ability to do so. Even so, aren't the needs of those receiving the aid more important than our virtue?
See also: Click to make a difference