Monday, February 07, 2005


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


  1. I think hte main psychological effect is on the person DOING the activity - it is rather like a club itual - the fact that there is somthing to do makes you more comitted yourself alows you to think of the starving etc - that means that you will campaign harder for that organization.
    40 hr famine gets you thousands of little money collectors, who dont ask to take a cut of the donations and will probably donate more themselves in the future.
    therefore a win for the cause. 

    Posted by Geniusnz

  2. Forcibly taking money from one person and giving it to someone else cannot possibly be described as any kind of charity, so your two options are actual charity (which is necessarily private) and government spending.

    The feeling you get from voluntarily choosing to help someone should not be underrated, but I have no real problem with people being forced to contribute to private charities in proportion to their income. The big problems start when the government controls how the money is spent.

    The big problem with government spending of any kind, although it's particularly acute in this case, is that there's little incentive to spend the money wisely.

    If I donate to a private charity and it turns out the money wasn't spent properly then I'll donate to a different charity next time. Charities are essentially competing for your dollar by trying to prove they can turn that dollar into the greatest quantity of help to people in need. Not so with governments.

    Also, many countries in need of aid have hopelessly corrupt governments and there is potential for aid money to be diverted to greedy politicians and their friends and relatives such as happened with the U.N. Oil for Food Programme. Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein and their cronies got rich while innocent Iraqis starved.

    Don't forget that Helen wants to stay on the good side of those corrupt governments so they will support her into a high-ranking U.N. post when our voters finally come to their senses.

    The incentives associated with government aid are all wrong. 

    Posted by Nigel Kearney

  3. I would hope those are the sorts of problems which could be overcome. Perhaps they could hire competing 'charity brokers' whose job is to find the most efficient way to spent the government's aid money. Whoever finds the best genuine deal gets a cash bonus, or something. Could that work? 

    Posted by Richard

  4. still Nigel - you may watch your charities closely enough to keep them under presure to operate properly (and good on you for doing that) but most people don't. 

    Posted by Geniusnz


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