We all can feel it. Between the financial crisis and a looming recession sits the fear of worse things to come. It makes even those among us who have not yet felt the pinch of it think twice about whether we can afford to spend.
I am deeply worried about the self-fulfilling-prophecy-effect that these fears could have on our economy because what hurts us here in the US will have devastating consequences for the poor around the world. It is said that 'when America is coughing, the rest of the world catches the flu.' I think it is actually much worse. When Americans start curbing their generosity and give less to humanitarian and development organizations, the 'flu' will have a ripple effect on the health, livelihood, and food security of the most vulnerable in every corner on earth.
When the finance ministers of the seven richest nations met this month in Washington, World Bank President Robert Zoellick rightly said that our inward focus on the economy makes us forget about the human crisis that "is pushing poor people to the brink of survival." The World Bank has calculated that the number of malnourished people globally will grow by 44 million, to 967 million, in 2008 alone.
It is good news that governments and multi-lateral institutions are planning to counter the crisis and promise to continue helping the poorest. But will this be enough? Americans are among the most generous people in the world. Last year alone, we donated $306 billion of our private money to charitable causes. This money is highly effective because it allows for flexibility in spending that institutional and governmental money often lacks. Targeted giving reaches those in need immediately and without large overheads. If this money dries up, it is difficult to replace it with government money in the short-term.
So when we start thinking twice about how we are spending our money, we should put charitable gifts on the 'must-have' list. Cutting back on our giving might save us some money now, but it will cost the vulnerable their health, income, and even their food. And it is precisely in times like these that giving can achieve most. Our 15-years of experience of working with the most marginalized communities, particularly women, tells us that when provided with an opportunity for economic participation, women can contribute to a bedrock of stability underpinning global markets--stability that is greatly needed in today's economy. Now is the time to continue giving; we know that will continue to pay dividends.
Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO, Women for Women International www.womenforwomen.org