expatriate altruism

Without much effort, most of us can think of two or three large-scale tragic events that occurred in the last decade that shook us. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, that killed over 200,000 people, springs to mind, or the recent earthquake in Haiti that may kill many more when the final toll is realized (due to sickness, lack of clean water and so on).  Without much additional effort, man-made disasters like war, ethnic cleansing or terrorism can also be added:  9-11, the Sudan or the invasion of Iraq.  Many people are motivated to help in these instances, by giving – often to incredible extremes – of their time and money.  But in a time of great economic hardship in America – or any other country – should a helping hand be extended across the border, or should citizens look to help their own country first?

Not every disaster has a face. When natural disasters hit, it’s easy to put faces to the tragedy.  Television coverage of the Haitian earthquake veers too close to tragedy porn for my comfort.  The exploitation of suffering by news organizations for the sake of ratings – which attract advertisers – is understandable.  But imagine if that attention was turned to the “less sexy” issues that kill in America:  poverty, cancer or even crime.  The possibility of improvement is significant.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t empathize with the rest of the world, but I think many people still imagine it is 1991 and America has an unquestioned and unquestionable perch atop the world, economically, militarily and even maybe philosophically.  It doesn’t anymore.  America is sick, too.

The debt forgiveness movement focuses on countries with crippling debt, but America is approaching that point, too. We send medical aid to Haiti, but you know what?  I know people who don’t have health insurance right here in America and who can’t afford to see a doctor.  Americans want to think that they are showing their generosity by extending a helping hand to the rest of the world, but it hides that fact that there are urgent, desperate needs here that aren’t being addressed, too.

I know this may come across as jingoistic, and perhaps it is. My liberal political leanings have always been shot through with a nationalistic bent; I have always felt deeply the saying “charity begins at home.”  To demonstrate my mindset, I’ll point to the idea of charitable giving in general.  Most people say that you always have something to offer the less fortunate.  That’s true.  Wallace Wattles, in the Science of Getting Rich, points out that the best thing you can do for the poor of the world is to get rich yourself.  Sounds crazy?  Look at what Bill Gates or Warren Buffett is doing.  The vast accumulation of wealth allows you to make a real difference in a given area (for example, immunizations for Gates).

Am I being selfish? If I choose to give to a local charity in northern Florida instead of contributing to Chilean relief, am I being cruel because their need is more urgent?  If I say that taxpayer’s money that’s being spent on aid to other countries would be better spent on providing health care for Americans, am I being a jerk? I don’t know – I’m torn myself, sometimes, but to pretend that America (or the West in general) are full of limitless generosity to the rest of the world seems disingenuous.  At some point we have to admit that the doctor is sick, too.

photo by respres

6 comments

  • The best thing Bill Gates did (as far as helping other people) was run his business. Microsoft has created thousands of jobs and affected the productivity of millions (thus enabling businesses to hire more and/or offer lower prices to consumers…..which they then spend the money buying other goods and creating more jobs). I have no doubt the wealth he created and spread through Microsoft is a lot more effective at changing peoples lives than the charity work he does.

  • I have *always* believed that old adage that says charity begins at home. I have never and will never contribute to causes in foreign countries – as you say, we have too many social ills here in America that require money to fix. I don't think you're being selfish at all!

    I've wanted to blog about this very issue but haven't got 'round to it. You've said it, so I'm going to put up a link to this on my blog. Well done.

  • Please keep talking about charitable giving. It always bugs me a little when PF bloggers admit they don't give, or that they haven't gotten around to it, or that they know they should but… (my very favorite one is guilty of this, last time I checked).

    I don't give a lot, and I don't have an audience like other bloggers, but I do try to mention in conversation and to friends that last year I gave 1% of my take-home, and this year I've bumped it up to 2%. Not a lot, but it is measurable. My main charity of choice is my local food bank, because it kills me that in this land of plenty, people are going hungry. I also give to Doctors Without Borders and NPR.

    If there are particular charities you like, I'd love to see another post on the topic, or even better, some mentions sprinkled throughout the year.

  • You are not wrong or selfish nor are you a jerk. In my humble opinion (and I have only been reading your stuff for a little while now) and as you state in the post, you ahve liberal political leanings so you feel guilty about this very natural and normal reaction.

    Of course, you WANT to help everyone, but that just isn't possible, so you must determine who to help and how to help them

  • Who you give a helping hand to is an extremely personal decision. I don't think you are being selfish or a jerk by saying you need to help local charities. But at the same time you have to keep things in perspective. If you help local charities in local florida regularly that's excellent because that's where you live! As a human you have to make a connection to who you are trying to help. However, IMHO a tragedy of the scale of tsunami or haiti earthquake, requires some diversion of local charitable funds to people who have a bigger/immediate need.

  • I certainly don't think you're a 'jerk' or selfish if you choose to direct your charity to one group over another. Theres poor people in every country that can use help.