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