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Nikolas Katsimpras Headshot

Buying Out Our Guilts

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Life is built on inequality, from nature's food chain to our social structures. In order for me to be able to write this piece on my iPad, someone in China produces it under borderline humane conditions. In order for us to be able to afford our fuel gluttony, someone else across the globe bares the impact of the "necessary" strategic policies. Our whole western livelihood has unfortunately been rooted in someone else's suffering: Native Americans, Africans, Australian Aborigines and the list goes on. One of the effects of the information era is that the raw images from the bottom of the pyramid can now reach beyond our doorstep, marching right into our cozy living room. We are now obliged to confront our present and past identity guilts. This blunt confrontation induces us to prove to ourselves, and perhaps to the ones around us, that we actually do care.

This need to soothe our conscience has transcended into a multi-billion dollar industry. We are consistently bombarded by commercials featuring malnourished kids, amputees and puppy seals. The guilt trade flourishes immediately after each disaster and right before the end of the fiscal year -- performing a good deed is great, getting money back for it is even better. Afterwards we forget all about it, like we do after throwing a dollar in a homeless person's cup, walking away with pride, having temporarily silenced our inner voice. No questions are asked if the donated money finally reaches what it is meant for and in what way.

The enormous increase in humanitarian aid over the last decades, especially through private donations, is a tremendous positive development for our global society. It is one of the inspiring outcomes of our evolving interdependency, the very core of globalization. However, our tendency to give and forget has contributed to serious issues about the accountability, effectiveness and coordination of the receiving institutions. The intentions are apparent, all we need to do is start developing a long term relationship with the organization we support and ask specific questions about the projects that concern us and the actual impact of their work on people's lives. In the long term, robust accountability should be institutionalized, even on an international level, in the meantime let's just try to raise our awareness. There are numerous unfortunate examples of our incompetence in sustainable aid, but few are willing to investigate further. As the independent filmmaker Michele Mitchell points out in her documentary Haiti: Where did the money go?, hundreds of thousands of Haitians still remain in the post-disaster slums despite the billions of dollars donated mostly by the American people. Van Soest's and Jeremy Levine's Emmy-awarded documentary Good Fortune raises similar questions regarding the effectiveness of humanitarian aid in Kenya, especially in the Kibera slum, where -- like in Haiti -- the local population has barely any participation in the decision making process; they are mere observers. These two productions are just a sample of independent awareness efforts; the material is out there, all we need to do is look for it.

Needless to say, there are bright examples of organizations that do inspiring work on the ground, however there is a paramount need for shift of our own mentality along with the whole paradigm of the humanitarian field. We need to stop treating donations as guilt auctions and start regarding them as humanitarian investments. To quote independent filmmaker Michel Mitchell: "We have to become better in doing good."