Monday, September 12, 2011

When Generosity Hurts

Giving is good. Giving is noble. Giving is taught in the Bible as being a better act than receiving. I am a proponent for giving, and I regularly encourage people to give as much as they can. When a certain country suffers a natural calamity like an earthquake or a nasty typhoon, it is common to see the media issuing calls for help, and for people to provide financial or food aid. The aims and results of generosity are in general very helpful. In fact, giving is often the chief way to show that we care for one another. We stand in solidarity with one another to live a better life.

Yet, there are situations when generosity hurts more than helps. It is when our giving and our generosity is based on erroneous thinking. A missionary couple in Haiti recently issued a plea to the American Church not to send peanut butter to Haiti. In a sermon, one American pastor for all his good intention, pledged his church to donate 28000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti. The logic is that the typical diet of Haitians shows a lack of protein, and peanut butter is a rich source of protein. Unfortunately, this good intention creates more problems. Generosity of this kind hurts more than helps.

Firstly, it hurts the peanut industry in Haiti. Peanuts are big sources of income for Haitian farmers. More than 66% of Haiti's employment is in the agricultural sector. Imagine what will happen if 28000 jars of peanut butter comes from the USA free for Haitians? What will happen to local peanut sales?

Secondly, it hurts the jobs. If the farmers cannot sell his produce to cover his costs, he cannot pay his workers. If workers are not paid, they have no income to pay for his bills. When unemployment rises, the dependence on foreign aid continues. This then causes a dependence on more donations.

Thirdly, it cuts away any incentive to develop the local resilience. What may be cheap to produce in the rich West may not be so for local economy. Any economy that has gone through a disastrous calamity will be extremely fragile. Giving may help in the short term. However, for the sake of Haiti, long-term considerations are key.

Proverbs teach us that:

"The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him." (Prov 18:17)

In giving, what we feel is right at the beginning, may be based on erroneous data or information. It is crucial that whenever a foreign party wants to help, ask before giving. Ask for help before attempting to help. Ask for advice. Ask for counsel from wise sources. Sources like missionaries who have been living in the country of concern. Ask for advice from people familiar with the economy, the political scene. Best of all, help through the people who the organization is familiar with.

p/s This reflection is inspired by Corrigan Clay's blog here.

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