On Giving

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.

4 thoughts on “On Giving

  1. Steven Scott

    Forgive me, but wouldn’t local industry also be wiped out in a natural disaster? To further your example, what if the T-shirt factory is demolished by the typhoon? What if the warehouse holding their stock became flooded, and 50,000 T-shirts are reduced to rags?

    Supply and demand would cause whatever T-shirts are left to skyrocket in price. The end result would be that the industrious people who owned what stock was left (who are often the richest people in a poor land) would get richer as people pay 2000% of what it cost to make those shirts with American dollars. Meanwhile some will choose to go naked (or hungry, or without heat, or without whatever) and will suffer, and others will turn to crime because those shirts are as a former Illinois Governor would say…”Fucking Valuable.”

    1. Jean-Paul Post author

      It’s certainly possible that all local industry might be wiped out, but it’s not a normal scenario. Disasters don’t generally hit an entire country and places close to the disaster should be the ones to pick up the slack. The point is that you stay as local as possible within reason. The closer you are, the more likely it will help the locals.

      Price gouging wouldn’t be a problem. Or at least not much of one. First off, you have to consider economies of scale. The items necessary after a natural disaster are just a small increase in a factory’s output when you consider factories generally supply to the world. Secondly, the reliable charities are very good at these things. If factory A can’t supply things at a reasonable price, they can go to factory B the next country over.

      1. Steven Scott

        A disaster doesn’t have to wipe out all industry in order for there to be a hiccup in the supply chain causing price increases.

        Most of the real necessary goods aren’t produced in factories, such as food and water which locally would be hit hard in a typhoon/hurricane/etc. The production on those cannot be easily ramped up to meet demand.

        Meanwhile you can just look to how incorruptible our own politicians are when it comes to handing out money to local contractors to help people to see how ballsy your statement looks.

  2. Jaime

    Easy, Only send what is specifically requested by the disaster struck area. Usually Food, Water and Shelter is what is needed immediately. Crews to help clean up and Utiliity companies are very good at helping there neighbors by sending crews to help restore power.

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