THE BLOG

Charity Rots on Docks and Lines Dictators' Pockets

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

Some friends at the remarkable Center for Global Development just put together this confronting graph, which shows the distribution of annual income around the world.

WORLD INCOME DISTRIBUTION
Population (y-axis) v. Annual Income in US$ (x-axis)

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Living in the New York metro area, sometimes I feel like I know what poverty is. I see small pockets of it driving through the inner city. I catch snippets of it on the news. Poverty is a terrible, self-perpetuating fringe on the edges of a generally well-off society. And then a graph like this snaps me be back to reality: I live in a tiny, high-walled palace. Outside those walls, it's shantytowns as far as the eye can see. I'm the one who lives on the fringe. The average GDP per capita in the U.S. of $41,500 is fabulously wealthy by global standards, even adjusted for purchasing power parity. Around the world, two billion people live on less than two dollars a day - and are desperately in need of food, shelter and the most basic health care. Every day, more than 30,000 children die of easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, malnutrition, tuberculosis and malaria. Thirty thousand - every day. How do you get your brain around that? Every day, poverty packs a baseball stadium full of children and mows them down.

Yes, this graph is shocking. But it's also deceptively encouraging. As Peter Singer pointed out in the NYT, it would take the tiniest fraction the developed world's wealth to end extreme poverty on this planet.

The problem is, when it comes to getting rid of these stadium-sized massacres, it's so hard to know where to give money and time. Too often, what passes for charity is ineffective: food rots on docks, money goes to pay affluent Western consultants, aid goes to the wrong communities ( here, and here, for example). Too often, charity hurts more than it helps: inefficiency creates cynicism, money goes to line the pockets of ruthless kleptocracies and so on. So how do we figure out where to give? Over the past few years, my wife and I have sifted through countless NGOs with a group of friends, and have picked out and done due diligence (including volunteering in-country where these NGOs operate) on a number of best-in-class social entrepreneurs. There are innumerable first-rate NGOs beyond this list, of course. But for us, these were enough to get rid of the excuse that international aid is a waste. For what it's worth, here's our list:

Partners in Health - PIH, founded by the extraordinary Paul Farmer, is a model for delivery of whole-system health care in countries like Haiti, Peru and Rwanda.

Cambodian Childrens Fund - Thousands of children live in Cambodia's biggest city dump, a living hell. CCF has built an entire ecosystem around helping these children and their families: orphanages, health clinics, schools, vocational-training centers, micro-lending, clean water systems.

Angkor Hospital for Children - in a country effectively without health care (literally: you break a leg, you're dead), AHC offers pediatric health care at a cost of $13/patient visit, acts as the region's only teaching hospital, training thousands of Cambodian nurses and doctors a year, is now 95% Cambodian-staffed, and runs numerous community outreach programs.

Heartbeat - South Africa's population of AIDS orphans is an exploding - and explosive - problem. Heartbeat has developed highly-leveraged systems to support these orphans and keep them healthy, well-clothed, well-fed and well-educated.

Grameen Bank - Muhammad Yunus won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his innovative efforts to harness free-market entrepreneurship in the fight against extreme poverty.

BRAC - BRAC's whole-system approach to relief in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka includes microfinance, health care, education, legal service and other social development programs, including the backing of for-profit, financially sustainable businesses to provide products like nutritionally-enhanced milk and yogurt.

The Central Asia Institute - The CAI has built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan's poorest regions. Three Cups of Tea, about CAI's founder, also happens to be a great read.

The Green Belt Movement - Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, started a movement by planting a remarkably simple - and brave - seed. She paid Kenyan women to plant trees.

A few other resources:

· The Times ran an excellent piece listing highly effective organizations.
· Nicholas Kristof wrote this piece about a school for girls in Cambodia.
· Ashoka has created an extraordinary network of thoroughly-vetted social entrepreneurs- you can be confident that any of Ashoka's flagship Fellows are first-rate.

Eighteen months ago, I was at a lunch where a woman explained to her children what happened at Nazi concentration camps. She noted, to her kids' disbelief, that nearby villagers went about their daily lives even though they saw smoke rising from the gas chambers and had to wipe the falling ashes off their clothes. And an awful question popped into my head: in a world where we're all a mouse-click away from baseball stadiums filled with children who are about to be mowed down, how are we, as a society, any different from those villagers?

PS: HERE IS AN UPDATE TO THE GRAPHIC, FROM THE CENTER FOR GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT.

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