Consumer Giving

Tis better to give and receive?

We all know ’tis better to give than to receive. But receiving is nice too. So, ’tis even better to give and receive…right? However, a confluence of stories, ideas and conversations has made me rethink the ethical-consumerism model, and made me more aware of some of the ways our charity can hinder and even hurt the very people we hoped to help.

When I think about the classic  ‘tis better… adage, I think of the tears on my mother’s face on Christmas morning when she has just unwrapped the thing that I have spent hours and dollars putting together. Her joy is my both my goal and my deep satisfaction. So, indirectly my goal is also my own satisfaction, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of what makes Christmas and birthdays so wonderful is the way we connect our happiness with the happiness of others, and this reciprocity is a key part of celebration and healthy relationships. The best gifts come out of the best relationships because healthy relationships are characterized by seeking the best for the other person while being able to be honest about what that “best” might really look like.

But this win-win scenario breaks down outside of this healthy relational context. When the satisfaction of giving unconsciously becomes the immediate goal instead something indirectly achieved through listening and accurately discerning the desires and needs of the receiver, then we are no longer really giving. We are consuming. We’ve all gotten a gift that we didn’t like because someone was more interested in what they wanted to give. This is the awkwardness that surrounds the gift gone awry. It’s a gift so you’re not allowed to complain about it and you should probably set it out whenever they come around. Now time and money has been wasted, and what’s worse, a facade that may require maintenance has been created. Facades only make authentic relationship and effective giving more difficult.

Sometimes we genuinely want to give or want to help, but if we’re not paying attention we can become consumer-givers that are at best inefficient and at worst capable of tremendous damage.

I was recently having lunch with a friend who co-founded a humanitarian non-profit organization. She was telling me about her experiences in fundraising and about how many well-intentioned people can fall short of really being helpful. One way that they have raised support is through art projects with the kids they support. The finished product is a trendy, beautiful piece that brings a bit of financial support to the organization, and a bit of moral and aesthetic enhancement to the buyer’s home décor. Humanitarian and consumer impulses satisfied in one purchase. They raised over $50,000 at a conference by selling the works of art alongside a description of their mission. However, when they shared their financial needs at the same conference a year later without selling the art, they only raised $5000. What happened? Were these people less convinced about the needs or efficacy of the organization? Probably not. This reveals something very telling about our giving motivations. We don’t want to just give, we want to get something as well. We’ve become so accustomed to charity as a transaction that we’ve forgotten how to give without strings attached. It’s obvious why NGOs in need of funding will tap into the consumer impulse: it works. There’s no question that most of them are just trying to do the best they can. The real question is, are we? I, for one, think I could be a more effective giver. The point is certainly NOT “don’t buy stuff” or “don’t buy things for charity.” The point is, think honestly about why you’re buying it and consider: Is it something you would buy even if it didn’t support charity? If so, get it. If not, consider just making a donation. A lot of sideways energy is wasted because we can’t just give. If we really want to help, then shouldn’t we want to give whatever is most needed without expecting some token of gratification in return?

Sometimes those who want to help the NGO in a less “materialistic” way, decide to visit. They want to give in a “hands-on” way. A fine idea. Good intentions. I can relate. However, when we show up to play with the kids for a few days, return home to talk about our “life-changing experience in Africa,” and leave the kids wondering where we went (the overwhelming majority of whom are already dealing with serious abandonment issues) … did we really help? Non-emotional work projects are better ideas, some would suggest. Help repaint some walls or build some houses,… oh and eliminate the potential employment for some local unskilled workers, or waste an opportunity to stimulate the local industry. This is a type of consumer giving, because the determining factor was primarily the desire of the giver, not the needs of the receiver.

Voluntourism can not only deprive local economies of potential jobs, but in its uglier manifestations it can also create a guilt economy wherein “opportunities” are created simply to meet the demand of westerners who want to feel like they’ve done something good. In an eye-opening article Ian Birrell describes “orphanages” in Cambodia that are filled with rented, bought or stolen children in order to meet the demands of voluntourists who want to feel like they’ve done some good on their vacation. Another sobering example is presented by the Human Sciences Research Council in a report on AIDS orphan tourism in South Africa. This is surely not the result we had in mind. So, maybe we need to be more mindful.

If our chief concern is to help, then perhaps we should stay home and give the $2000 we raised to pay for our trip towards hiring people who need to feed their families, or people rooted in the community who might actually have the capacity to incite lasting change. Why not? Honestly? Because it’s not as much fun. It’s not how we want to give. Before I sound overly harsh or judgmental about “short-term” volunteering, let me say that I’ve done this. When I first went to India I was excited about volunteering and traveling, a little altruism mixed with my hedonism to make it more palatable.  (Or was is it the other way around? A little hedonism to make my altruism more consumable?) Bright-eyed and idealistic, I expected to come home reignited in my compassion and feeling like I had made the world a better place. Instead, I realized how inadequate my short-term presence really was. I felt like a poverty voyeur.

However, the time I spent in India was not wrong or worthless, it was just misguided in its sense of purpose. I had to acknowledge that the jaunt would chiefly serve my own ends: joy of travel, experience of a new culture, personal growth through broadening perspectives, sense of adventure and a sense (albeit false) of contribution. Don’t mistake me. I’m certainly not against the “going” part. I am passionate about the value of traveling and think everyone should do more of it. If you want to explore remote places in the world, do it. Don’t even apologize. See the world. Learn something. Plenty of countries could use your business more than your charity. Give them your patronage, but don’t patronize them. Don’t offer to hold their children for a few days, help enable them to hold their own children. I think it’s crucial that we look more honestly at the purpose and efficacy of our altruistic jaunts, and our charity.

The tragic fact is that sometimes our little acts of altruism are more harmful than blatant hedonism because they can keep us from recognizing or condemning deeper flaws in society and in ourselves. When symptom-control starts to cloud pathology, it becomes dangerous. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has some interesting thoughts on this. Zizek argues that “the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, because they prevented the core of the system from being realized and contemplated.” This is not praise for those who treated their slaves badly, but rather a call to recognize our own hypocrisy when we try to use consumerism to fix problems caused by consumerism. We don’t limit our consumption, we just buy stuff that helps alleviate our guilt that other people don’t have as much stuff as we do. [Again, I do not say this as someone remote or exempt from this criticism. If anything, I say it because I am guilty of this and want to be try to be more honest about it. I’ve walked a mile in those TOMS shoes so to speak.] Or as Zizek puts it, “you buy in the very consumerist act, your redemption from being only a consumerist,” but we might actually prolong the suffering of others by prolonging the systems that cause their suffering. Philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins uses Batman, the billionaire capitalist by day and extravagant vigilante crime fighter by night, as an example:

“Indeed one could say that it is the very philanthropic work of his Father and the crime-fighting of Wayne that actually provide the valve that allows them both to continue in their objective violence. What better way to feel good about yourself than volunteering at a local charity in the evenings (like his Father) or beating up on street criminals in the evenings (like Wayne)…The philosophy here is exposed as do something so that nothing really changes. Perhaps then the next film will not have Batman running around beating up drug dealers and pimps…but rather dissolving Wayne Industries, setting up free health care and campaigning for radically different socio-political structures.” (Read the full post.)

Though I am skeptical about the idea that any socio-political structure is capable of completely eliminating poverty and violence, we will never know what our society is capable of if we continue to provide only superficial remedies for systemic problems.

This is not, of course, a case against compassion, altruism, charity, or giving. These things are signs that we are human and value humanity, but our world needs more than cheap consumer charity. Quoting Tillie Olsen, “It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched…Yet how will you sustain?” Jaqueline Novogratz describes the Life of Immersion, and speaks frankly about its cost. The point is not to neglect individuals for the sake of addressing systems or vice versa. The point is that on both levels, we must go deep not wide.  While I don’t have a 10 step plan for a better society, I do think a good first step is an honest look at our purposes in giving and consuming, and what we really think we are accomplishing. As Oscar Wilde writes, “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.” Furthermore, let’s become better listeners. Let’s try to understand what is really needed and think more about the real causes of the problems we are trying to fix. If we cease to let our gnawing sense of injustice be pacified by token shallow efforts, then perhaps we stand a chance to initiate something radical. Perhaps something will actually have to change. Perhaps we will actually change.