If you haven't read the 2014 annual letter released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last month, you should. It's a quick and approachable read addressing three of the most popular myths surrounding foreign aid which block progress in the fight against extreme poverty. Mr. Gates concisely explains how foreign aid for health and development in the world's poorest countries is not only worthwhile, but essential.
As a fundraiser and advocate for humanitarian organizations working in these fields, I often encounter similar myths that typically manifest themselves as excuses not to give. These 5 take the cake for the most common and tired of them all and should be addressed:
1) International aid doesn't work.
Um, yes it does. The Gates' letter is one simple frame of reference for this point. Humanitarian aid is not a perfect science, but we're talking about work done within contexts that are very broken. We can't expect complex systematic issues to be resolved quickly and permanently. That being said, approaches to relief and development have evolved and improved with experience just like they would within any other natural learning curve. Good nonprofits know how smart aid works and almost all of them pair relief efforts with sustainable local development and training. In the last 20 years alone we've seen child mortality rates in low-income countries reduced by 50 percent and overall life expectancy increased by 15 percent. Neonatal mortality rates are down 36 percent. Millions of lives (and livelihoods) have been saved by vaccines and basic health care. Although progress is clear, the problem remains that a child born in the world's poorest countries still has a one in six chance of dying before their fifth birthday. In high-income countries, those odds are one in 165. No one can rightly say that money used to help save these lives in the lowest-income countries is wasted, just as no one can rightly say we've already done enough to help.
2) Governments in poor countries are corrupt.
Yeah, no kidding. So are governments in wealthy nations. Don't apply the the overstated and often outdated criticism you've heard about government aid not making its way to "the people" to the idea of privately supporting NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Humanitarian nonprofits aren't in bed with political leaders and their financial reports are available for accountability to donors and the general public. They use their funds to achieve their mission, which is to reach desperate populations with aid and development support. There is no need to fear that charitable giving towards a properly vetted NGO will be stolen or used for any purpose other than increasing their capacity to do their work.
3) People need a hand-up not a hand-out.
Much of the popular criticism about aid not working is based on valid but misdirected observations about chronic charity-dependence in welfare populations of wealthier countries and foreign aid recipients in medium-income countries. Unfortunately, these observations are mostly irrelevant (and should be considered amoral) when applied to contexts where extreme poverty is severe enough that people are literally dying from poverty and incapable of meeting their basic needs without assistance. A person dying from starvation or disease doesn't need a job before they need food, water and health care. A mother with no money whose child is dying from complications of water-borne illness should not be prevented from receiving help from others to keep her child alive. A woman with no doctor who is bleeding out from complications during child-birth should not be allowed to die if a medical organization is capable of offering her a surgical repair at the financial expense of others. The excuse about "not wanting to give hand-outs" just isn't valid in these situations. Westerners need to remember that their perspective on charity is skewed by living in one of the richest, most secure cultural contexts of any period in world history. Most of us don't even know that 18,000 children still die every day from preventable poverty-related causes. That's 6.6 million per year. Yes, there need to be economic improvements and education and training and emotional and psychological support and many other fundamental stabilizing frameworks developed, but such systematic change requires more funding of good organizations for capacity building -- not less.
4) There's plenty of need here in my own country.
So you want to help people in your own community? Awesome. You should. But you should also help reduce the 10 million (est.) or so preventable casualties that occur in the worlds poorest communities each year. If you value all life equally it is an indisputable fact that extreme poverty causes are drastically underfunded. Ninety-four percent of charitable giving in the U.S. goes to support causes within our own country. Of the remaining six percent given to foreign affairs (which includes giving by multi-national corporations and foundations), only a small fraction actually goes to extreme poverty alleviation in the poorest countries where this death toll resides. In light of the annual holocaust of devastation being experienced by folks at the bottom of the global economic ladder, the least we can do is start designating more of our charitable gifts to the types of relief and development work that help them specifically. Logically it makes more sense that until life is stabilized for the bottom billion we should give more money towards extreme poverty alleviation work than any other competing philanthropic interest.
5) I can't afford it.
If you're reading this article right now, chances are this one just isn't true. Sure, your disposable income may be tied up in other things but that doesn't mean it's not possible to re-prioritize how you spend it. If you don't already give, extreme poverty alleviation would be a great place start. If you already give to other charitable causes, perhaps decide to re-designate a portion of that giving to benefit the world's poorest people. Even if you started giving as little as one percent of your income to fight extreme poverty, you'd literally be saving lives in the process. How is that not incredibly worthwhile? Here's one simple way to get started right now: OnePercentforHumanity.org