The citizens of the United States are a fairly charitable people. Our giving of money and goods to charities is one of the best per capita. Obviously, this is at least partly because we are by far one of the richest countries. Our vast wealth makes us so far removed from the people on the receiving end of charity that we don’t consider the ramifications of our giving. (As an aside, volunteering your time is a great way to help you get closer to the people you are helping.)
Nowhere is our charitable aloofness more clear than our response to natural disasters. Take the recent Typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines. There was an enormous outpouring of goods and money from the United States to help with the response to the typhoon. Can anyone point out what is wrong with that last sentence? If you asked, “Why in the world would you send goods half way around the world?”, you win a cigar. We were sending C-130s full of goods to the Philippines. It certainly makes you feel good seeing all of those boxes lined up waiting to be loaded on a plane, but you are actually causing more harm than good with those goods.
Here’s why. Local economies are often devastated by natural disasters. This devastation can reach much farther than the track of the storm. By sending goods, you are destroying any opportunity for the local citizens to make much needed money. By sending 100,000 shirts, you are denying 100,000 from being sold locally. This is especially egregious because the purchasing of those shirts can often be done with less money than it takes to send it over in the first place.
The lesson to be learned is you should never, ever, ever give goods that are destined to another country. Heck, you should probably never give goods that are destined for another state most of the time either. The answer is give money. As much as you can. And don’t mark that money to be used only for a certain event. The charities that help in these instances are much better equipped to spend that money where the money will do the most good and be able to purchase exactly what they need and when they need it. The charities can take your money and buy 100,000 shirts locally and be able to take advantage of scale and likely lower prices and have even more left over to buy other necessary supplies as a result. All while helping the local economy get back on its feet.
To sum up. Be generous with your money. Be generous with your time. Save the giving of goods to local charities.