Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fast-food Giving (and a word on Kiva's behalf)

"I have my standards
And I am eating them for dinner."

That is a slogan I just read on a Whole Foods shopping bag. At least it went something like that. I didn't actually purchase the bag...or my I can't be quite sure. But you get the idea.

How thoughtful of Whole Foods, don't you think? They have made it so nice and convenient to have our standards. It we start running low, we can just drive across town and pick some up. But I am starting to wonder if they are being a bit too generous with their standards. I mean does everyone really qualify? If I go and buy a bag of apples at the store, then surely I have earned my standards bag. I mean who can deny that an organic apple has standards? But if I buy a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, maybe they should just give me a regular brown bag. Or maybe they could just put a smiley face on it...

In that same Whole Food store I noticed bags of food on display. Each bag had a hand-labeled tag displaying the contents and who had donated them. Presumably they were being shipped off to some needy cause. I enjoyed looking at the carefully selected cereal bars and Thai rice mixes that filled the bags. And as I swiped my debit card (oops.. I admit it...I did actually purchase just was so small I apparently did not qualify me for a standards bag. Perhaps I should have demanded my standards?) But as I was I swiped my debit card, a picture of Rwanda flashed on the screen, offering yet another way that I could donate money to help feed hungry children I think.

Now don't get me wrong. I have no problem with feeding school children, or donating to food pantries. I just am starting to wonder if it has all gotten a bit too easy.

In this age of convenience have we made our giving just another fast-food convenience? Have we become so consumer-oriented that we have begun to think of giving as a commodity? We want to give, but we want it to fit on our clocks, and in our check-out lines, and don't forget to make sure it is tax deductible.

The problem is that fast-food isn't very good for us. The reality is that the flashiest, easiest to reach, and quickest to consume snack is not usually the most healthy one. And "fast-food giving", probably has much the same problem. If you give a donation to something that looks flashy, is well placed and well advertised, it might be a good thing, but you had better count on a decent percentage of your donation going toward marketing and overhead. It takes money to create that convenient and compelling package.

But that isn't even my real concern. Perhaps we are perfectly happy to consider part of our donation as the cost of making it quick and easy and pretty.

But what happens when we think that we can address the problems of the world, by swiping a card or carrying a bag. Sure we swipe more cards and carry more bags, but do we also begin to believe that this is what social activism should look like?

Charity organizations rely on donations, and spend a significant amount of time and money figuring out the best way to attain them. They cater to our demands as "consumer-givers". We give to help, but we also give for the experience. And they know that. And they want to produce the best "giving experience" for us. The child sponsorship model grew into great popularity in the 90s because it met the consumer demand for personal connection. It provided people with the sense that they could connect to an individual child and make her life better. Likewise the organizations where you can give a goat, or a cow to a family in Africa have similar, personal appeal. But in both cases, the reality is more complicated. Money is not often miraculously delivered to individual families, and goats are not often delivered directly either. Rather donations become part of larger, more complex programs. Both child sponsorship organizations and animal giving organizations have had to go back and explain that the actual money you donate may not go to that individual child, or to buy that individual goat. Often your donation is used as part of a larger program, which may do very good things, but... well, it is not exactly what their slogan said.

The latest organization to struggle with this marketing problem is Kiva, who markets itself as providing direct, person to person connections between small lenders and small borrowers. It is a fascinating idea, but the reality is that your loan is actually processed through local microfinance institutions and does not necessarily go directly to the individual person whose photo you clicked on, as described in this NY Times article and in this blog post. Now this does not make your donation any less effective in the lives of individual people, in fact it means that your donation is being better monitored and better distributed. Ohhh...but we so love clickable photos.

And isn't that the problem? When we support easy, fast and flashy ways of giving, we encourage other organizations to package themselves in this way. We encourage them to simplify the problems for us, and make promises they may not be able to keep. Kiva is an excellent organization with a unique and valuable model. And if we read the information on Kiva's website, the lending process becomes clear, and if you know much about microfinance, the way Kiva is operating makes a lot of sense. In fact it makes a lot more sense than it would if Kiva worked exactly they way people imagined it did. The problems of people around the world are complex, and so must be our part in them.

I recently received a fund-raising appeal from another organization. As far as I know, they are a very good, solid organization that works to treat children with cleft pallets. The back or their envelope featured a big lettered promise that if you made a donation today, they would never ask you for anything again.

Is this really the way humanitarian aid should be packaged and sold? But this is what happens when aid organization find themselves marketing to a consumer market.

And so I worry about the convenience of our society. When I was living in Africa I hated waiting in restaurants. You would sit, and sit and sit. Then they would bring you a soda. And then you would sit and sit and sit. And then they would bring you a platter with a salt and pepper shaker on it. And then you would sit and sit. And about two hours later your meal would come. This never appeared to bother Africans in the least. I guess they were there for the experience. I, on the other hand, was there to eat. And was usually doubled over in hunger by the time the food came.

Since I have been back in the US I have not waited for one meal. I mean I have not once gotten to the point of looking at my watch and wondering where the food is. Sometimes I try and imagine what the trendy New York people sitting at the table next to me would do if their food didn't come for two hours. That always makes me smile.

But has fast and easy food really been so good for us? In his book "Africa Doesn't Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It" Giles Bolton
argues that there is a difference between the type of aid that we like to fund, and the type of aid that is most effective. Child sponsorship, and animal giving exist because we, as consumers like them, not because they are the most effective or efficient way of delivering aid. Bolton argues that real change must come from direct budgetary support to poor countries, but you see that got jumbled up in my mouth as I said it. It is hard to make that flashy and compelling, and it isn't readily available in the check-out lane.

How does SHONA fit in this? Did I really just say that we shouldn't think that purchasing a bag will address the problems of the world? I didn't mean a SHONA bag of course!!! I can just see the SHONA craftspeople jumping up and down and gesturing wildly for me to stop my rambling before I scare away our customers. Please don't go away. We desperately need your purchases and they make a very real difference in the lives of 5 incredible people in one of the most difficult regions of the world. And unlike some larger organizations, with us the direct connection is completely real. An individual craftsperson did sew each item and they are receiving 100% of the profit. But stay tuned for my next post, on how these issues do affect SHONA, and in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.


Kristi said...

So well said! I think you give some good motivation for us as Americans to get better informed about how humanitarian organizations work and what is really effective, so that we recognize the complexities of meeting needs in poor and hurting places!

shona congo said...

Thanks Kristi! I am glad to see you have a blog yourself, and I am looking forward to reading all about your upcoming move to Congo! Should be fascinating. Safe travels, and keep us updated.