When America Goes First, Charity Should Go without Borders

As we embark upon an era in which nativism, racism, and sexism are sanctioned as social norms, responsibility to help globally may land on the shoulders of donors. Too many people worldwide depend upon US charity to erect a wall between them and us. Other sources of help are at risk of drying up. President Barack Obama has planned to allocate $34 billion to foreign assistance for federal fiscal year 2017. Under the sway of Donald Trump’s “America-first” policy this amount may undergo drastic cuts. Remittances, the monies sent by migrants to their native countries, are also at risk. In 2015, migrants living in the United States sent $134 billion in remittances to family in other countries, $24 billion of which went to Mexico. Families in poor countries rely on this money to meet basic human needs, especially the needs of children. Philanthropy plays an increasingly important role in improving the lives of people worldwide. In 2015, US donors gave $15.1 billion to international causes, 4 percent of total giving, a decrease from the year before. The prospect of cuts to foreign aid, coupled with drastically reduced remittances from migrants forced to leave the United States because of Trump’s anti-immigration policy, will only deepen the suffering of the global poor. Donors have a unique moral responsibilities to assist globally.

Philanthropy’s contribution to international development and global health has been substantial. In 2014, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $1.9 billion to global development and $1.1 billion to global health. In the recent Ebola epidemic, some philanthropists pledged more money to stem the spread of the epidemic than some nations did. Paul Allen, for example, pledged more than Sweden, Canada, or the Netherlands. In other words, this is no time for philanthropy to focus on making America great again. Compared to civil servants and migrants, philanthropists are free to choose whether to follow Trump’s “America-first” policy or to allocate their resources globally. They risk neither deportation nor termination, and they are not bound to serve xenophobic values. Philanthropists are well positioned to have an impact on global well being.

In the remaining days of 2016, solicitations from countless charities will fill mailboxes and inboxes. In the years to follow, there will be additional opportunities to give. People tend to give to organizations with which they are familiar: their churches, their universities, the private schools their children attend, and the museums in their cities. In the face of a dizzying array of charitable organizations, and the presence of dire global need, a principled approach to sector choice is necessary. Too many lives depend upon charity to leave the choice to whim, prejudice, implicit bias, or a desire for a warm glow.

Human rights can guide sector choice. They impose obligations first and foremost on nations. But human rights also create responsibilities for individuals—so-called non-state actors. In the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, United Nations appointee John Ruggie made the case that multinational corporations have human rights responsibilities. Before that Paul Hunt, then-UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, maintained that pharmaceutical companies have human rights responsibilities. Philanthropy is an ideal venue through which people can meet their human rights responsibilities. Human rights are universal; they push donors beyond a narrow nativist perspective and encourage them to embrace a global and universal one. Human rights identify sectors that are morally important—liberty, equality, security, food, development, health, and the environment, among others. With a focus on human rights, donors are well equipped to distinguish morally important sectors from those that, although valuable, are not morally urgent. Health, for example, is morally compelling in a way that is not shared by sports, arts, and entertainment. Human rights also signal that some people have a stronger claim to our assistance than other people. Although human rights are universal, the rights of some people are under greater duress than the rights of others: those of women more than those of men, black lives more than white lives, and the health of people living in developing countries more than the health of those living in affluent nations. But ensuring that charitable organizations have an impact on human rights requires more than identifying sectors that target human rights.

Effective altruism, a social movement led by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, advocates that people do the most good they can do and give effectively. Meta-charities, such as GiveWell, demonstrate that most effective charities also address human rights, especially the right to health. In December 2016, GiveWell’s top two recommended charities were dedicated to fighting malaria and schistosomiasis in poor countries. For now, at least, there is a synergy between a human rights approach to charity and the wisdom of effective altruists.

Together a human rights perspective, combined with effective altruism, can guide donors in the direction of charities that are universal in scope, morally compelling, and effective. Both are essential for donor due diligence—the former identifies morally important sectors, establishes the scope of donor responsibilities, and gives donors an opportunity to fulfill their human rights responsibilities, while the latter, effective altruism, ensures that only charities that have been proven to be effective receive support. Human rights cannot be realized with ineffective charities. In the end, a human rights perspective will help donors understand the urgency of their responsibilities, and it will foster charity without borders. As we adjust to life in Trump’s America, donors may be called upon to bear more of the burden of realizing international human rights than they have in the past, and to mitigate the global harm that is sure to follow in the wake of a polity that puts America first.

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