Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Charity, Haiti, And The Nature Of Humanity

Normally, I don't allow myself to get drawn into a debate on Facebook. The opinion of some guy who used to sit behind me in study hall whose name I can barely remember doesn't really matter to me. However, I've seen the following posted in a few peoples' status updates lately and I'm just shocked at the level of ignorance being displayed, even though it's little more than the regurgitated ramblings of someone trying to look selfless and intelligent:  

Shame on you America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment - yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations. Lets rebuild OUR country before we try to rebuild every other one................ most people won't have the guts to copy and paste this

On the surface, this sounds like a noble sentiment. After all, charity begins at home, right?

Robert Heinlein once postulated that the beginning of the end of all civilizations will occur when we allow ourselves to be identified too much with sub-groupings. For example, instead of humans, we might think of ourselves as Americans. Or more specifically, Mid-westerners, or Illinoisans or Chicagoans or South Chicagoans or South Chicago Irish. The more you identify with increasingly granular groupings, the less you identify with humanity on the whole. It's then that you begin to rationalize, often saying "Well, we need help more than they do". What winds up happening is that no one gets assistance. To put it in perspective, even Liberia and Congo, two countries much worse off than Haiti (pre-earthquake) are sending money. Look at it this way: You are no doubt familiar with the old saying "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will be fed for a lifetime"? Well, most problems in America can be solved by teaching people to "fish". Under the current circumstances, we don't have time to teach the people of Haiti to fish. We need to give them some fish before they starve to death.

In the United States, we have programs that assist those in need such as welfare, food stamps, medicaid, medicare, etc. They're not perfect, but there's only so much you can do at home. We have one of the most extensive public assistance programs in the world. In Haiti, even before the earthquake, they had nothing. The amount of aid we are sending (both pre-earthquake and post-earthquake) is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend on social programs here. It's about economies of scale. The per dollar effectiveness of a donation to Haiti compared to a similar donation in America is different by an exponential degree. The average wage of a Hatian is $2 a day. Simply put, a dollar goes much further in Haiti than it does in the states. As a nation, we pledged $100 million to Haiti. The UAE pledged the same amount. The EU pledged over $600 million. Even Iran and China are sending aid. What does that tell you?

I acknowledge that we have our share of problems here in the states. Which country doesn't? When you consider the scale of human tragedy in Haiti, upwards of 200,000 dead; this is more than 9/11, more than Katrina and even more than Hiroshima; anyone who doesn't have a heart made of stone would realize that these people are in much more immediate and dire need than most of the folks we have here at home.

Yes, charity begins at home. But communion begins next door.


  1. this reminds me of the quote i put up on Facebook about a week or so ago...

    "Our mess will always be our mess unless we see beyond it & help others. In doing so it will inturn clean up our own lives" - Joyce Meyer

    now, i'm no holy roller by any means, but i do believe in the power of charity. giving and not asking for anything in return. it's really sad to see posts like that on facebook, especially when i saw them reposted by men and women i know personally that have "worked the system" in this country for their own laziness and greed and not as a temporary tool to get ahead.

    i read you loud and clear on this one Tommy!!

  2. Some fine words there, Cher. Let me pontificate further by quoting Carl Sagan:

    "Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing."