Should you give ‘Directly,’ for impact? Lessons from my mom’s charitable experiments

What is the best way to help people? Is it to let the market forces determine who should survive and who should sink, or should there be intervention from the state or other players? How should philanthropy be directed towards individuals and communities? These questions have neither clear-cut answers, nor a good way of being resolved. At least not anytime soon. While these questions come up in the context of discussion of both domestic welfare programs as well as international development, we often hear talk of ‘impact evaluation,’ and the need to see results.

photo credit : Give Directly
photo credit : Give Directly

So, how does one think of the ‘right ‘answer? Is it ‘Giving Directly,’ i.e., giving cash transfers to the poor, to let them decide what is best for them? Or is it a more targeted and  specific program – like school scholarships, loans to purchase cattle or agricultural equipment? I suggest that this debate is not so much about the right metrics or longer duration of measuring them, but rather about ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy,’ and which one is more effective.

For the uninitiated, charity is any form of giving that aims to save or transform the individual and is short-term and driven by emotions or a ‘higher’ calling. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more ‘scientific,’ way of doing charity, which aims to change the social structures – education, healthcare or others – that make people poor. This ‘scientific’ movement emerged in the 19th century, with the mega-rich such as Rockefellers, Carnegie and Ford – who sought to use their enormous wealth to rectify some social ills. A similar thinking permeates the international development sector too, where there is an increasing demand for showing ‘results,’ for the money spent.

As those who study or practice International Development know, there is an almost obsessive urge on the part of organizations carrying out the ‘development,’ to prove that what they are doing is indeed working. Combined with this, there is also a huge amount of resistance to any form of international aid from certain political groups and ideologues in the West – the Republicans, for instance, who think that the U.S. is spending way too much on aid, than it should. There is an entire discourse of how countries should ‘help themselves,’ and not depend on the U.S. or others – whereas the U.S. spends about one percent of its annual budget on aid, globally. This too, serves as a ‘soft-power’ tool, rather than being wasteful. This helpful chart outlines how much the U.S. spent on aid in the year 2012.

So, American aid to the world is seen not so much as charity, but rather as ‘philanthropy,’ a scientific tool and a measured response to how the U.S. should be perceived by the world. Since WWII, as the only super power in the world, all eyes have been on the U.S., in terms of looking for how it would behave. With Marshall Plan, the U.S. set off a very successful model of development that has continued to be seen as a gold standard.

While there are other discourses of charity and philanthropy out there, that do not privilege or prefer ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact measurement,’ over other aspects of ‘why’ we give aid the meaning making processes that lie underneath these actions. Religious understandings of charity and philanthropy can be seen as the alternate to our obsessive quantification. While Give Directly has received a lot of praise for initial results and successes, critics point out that it is precisely that, the initial results from a trial experiment. Reality, they argue is far more complex and convoluted. And in this, they are partially, if not fully, right.

My (late) mother’s model of doing charity was surprisingly similar to that of Give directly. As a financially independent person (my mother worked as a high school teacher), she made many big and small decisions about money on her own – after taking care of her own family’s needs. This meant she identified the poor both within our extended family and also others, who came to her, for help. In her lifetime, I have seen my mother help at least four families in a substantial manner – to the extent that they are actually better off, in many ways., The kids are better educated, better fed and now, almost 20 or 25 years, after she started helping them, are in better jobs – because of their education or other opportunities – than they would have been otherwise. This, to me, is the power of giving directly. It works. But, with many caveats. Life is never as simple or linear as it seems!

In analyzing the effectiveness of giving directly, there is also the bigger problem of the ‘problematization of poverty,’ as Arturo Escobar has pointed out. This means that we tend to define, measure and position poverty in the third-world, sitting in the first world, not knowing and not fully appreciating how people understand poverty themselves, the strategies they use for survival and what means are available to them. This, I think is the bigger problem in this debate, as much as it is about charity and philanthropy. Until we find more details and more long-term results of what transpired with the families that Give Directly has helped, we must deal with the confusion that exists and the lack of ensuring clarity.