09/13/2010 03:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'There Is No Luggage Rack on a Hearse...'

Former Governor Sarah Palin, the quitter from Alaska, deserves some acknowledgment. She can see Russia from her porch.

Compared to most Americans, Palin is an authentic internationalist. Less than ten percent of all Americans have current passports.

And yet the American heart is a generous one. Annually, Americans as private individuals working through private sector nonprofit organizations donate about $12 billion to causes and charities in the developing world. Foundations, corporations, churches and others kick in another $25 billion or so.

In the book The Culture Code, the cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille notes,

"There is no luggage rack on a hearse, and since you cannot bring into the afterlife, Americans choose to give a significant amount of it away..."

Representing its people, the American government spends additional $25 billion on foreign aid. An impressive dollar amount to be sure, but still far less per American than, say, what the Norwegians or Japanese spend per citizen.

Does any of this generosity matter? What are your expectations for results?

It is senseless and naïve to assume that good is being done just because a charity, church or cause has good intentions. It is pretty easy these days to identify social and economic injustice (hello, Golden Rule!). It is a lot harder to something about it.

Here, former President Reagan's caution about negotiating with the Soviet Union comes to mind. "Trust, but verify." Donors and charities alike should be held accountable for results, not merely turning out flowery, fact-filled problem statements.

The need for impact analysis noted, in the matter of global poverty, a bit of perspective and common sense are also in order.

Humankind has 10,000 years of practice at creating poverty, gender exploitation, polluted waters, illiteracy, health care apartheid, lack of opportunity and so on. Three billion human beings struggling in disgraceful poverty attest to this ugly truth.

Everyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit, train a worker or raise a child knows that change can come slowly. The analogy is germane because in the end poverty alleviation is about changing human behavior, raising expectations, inspiring individual self-worth, creating hope, teaching, building coalitions, and upsetting the status quo.

But -- as Opportunity Collaboration Delegates know better than anyone -- a helping human hand by itself is not enough.

If you think that throwing money at problems doesn't work, try solving a problem without it. As movie director and comic Woody Allen tartly observed, "Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." Money pays the helping hand which can pat a student on the back, feed a sick person, dig a well or pull the levers of change.

No one has ever told me that they want to live in a world in which billions of people are cast aside. Yet for many people, global poverty is just too daunting, discouraging and depressing.

You don't have to be a pessimist to believe that the poor will always be with us. You do need to be ashamed enough to take action.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.