The targets of humanitarian aid over the last few decades have been badly misplaced to the detriment of leading nations and third world recipients.
Lets say somebody forced you to give 500 dollars away but gave you the option to choose who to give it to. Lets say they also gave you the option of giving same amount in the form of a gift or labor. Would you give it to your loved ones and/or friends or would you give it to total strangers? It might seem like a no-brainer since you can help your family out with something they need, brighten the day of somebody you know, see tangible results and improvements right away, and even get a bit of that money back through improved relations and reciprocity. The benefit of improving a stranger's life pales in comparison from the perspective of self interest.
We all know how people shriek when other people force them to give away their resources through the muscleman of the government. We are familiar how many Americans would rather give the same resources to somebody close to them (themselves or their families) than other fellow citizens. This is not an article about that. Neither is it about the philosophical debate on possibility of unselfish action. All human action is done to expand influence within the world in a variety of creative ways. Even something like suicide that seems blatantly against the person's self interest expands that person's influence after death since it is such a powerful act.
This article is about proper prioritizing of private humanitarian aid. This type of aid is considered non-coerced and voluntary giving of personal resources to others. Many individuals around the world, particularly Westerners, seem to have their prioritizes of this type of resource giving mixed up.
Let's start with describing 3 of these primarily Western humanitarians (although non-Westerners have been making inroads recently when it comes to giving):
In United States in particular they are a large number since poorer education in large swaths of the country allows such demographic to be numerous. They point to how much Americans contribute to private charity compared to other countries. They are these Americans. They say since Americans are so generous on average (compared to Europeans), government shouldn't get involved in humanitarian aid. A point is made that people who already give a lot would give more if it wasn't redistributed under the barrel of the gun and if citizens could personally decide on the target of the aid. They say that they don't want government to take fruits of their labor and spend it on practices that their internalized moral dogma prohibits. This point is as valid (and powerless) as a Green party member not wanting his tax dollars going to the military. The religious humanitarians don't see that funding for contraception and abortion for poorer American citizens produces Christian results. Government funding that they are against reduces poverty, disease, death, suffering, crime, and "ungodly" behavior that economically disadvantaged are more at risk for such as earlier teen sex.
Christians, if they are predisposed to giving, would rather give the money to their local church or religiously based humanitarian organization. These in turn can spend it on local or third world missionary work that uses food and medicine as an incentive to show up to church. Third world is often more of a focus for large churches than local humanitarian work since they can convert more desperate people abroad. A lot of the money does find its way to feed, clothe, and provide medicine when it's not used on stamping out fairy tale literature and mega church expansion. Let's leave alone for now the perpetuating cycle of poverty and misery that just feeding and clothing the poor creates.
2) Secular middle class humanitarians -
These are a lot more numerous in Europe but are also prevalent in all Western urban areas. These people acquired just enough education about the international situation to be able to adequately compare their middle class lifestyles to the rest of the world. Many of these people have sufficient neural emotionality to feel above average levels of empathy for others. They get involved in raising awareness about the suffering but are less inclined to give actual money since that money does not strengthen the power of the church internationally as is the case with the religious people. Their contribution in food and medicine does not come with additional benefits of imposing a moral worldview on the third world poor, and as such has less influence.
3) Oligarchical philanthropists -
We know about how charity can help with tax write offs and company image, but many philanthropists are genuinely helping third world peoples with tangible large scale schemes. They are the ones who start the organizations that the urban activists get involved in. Although the reasons (for starting the organizations) are often fad based or economically self serving to better public image, the end result is that billions of dollars flow to other countries.
The true outrage is that these people's only publicly stated humanitarian focus is not their own families, communities, and countrymen. A middle class woman who writes a 200 dollar check to be spent on some tsunami relief does not use that money to buy a nice present for her mother, father, uncle, sister, brother, husband, and child. Sure, she might be wealthy enough to give all of them even nicer gifts but the fact remains that she could give to people actually close to her even more if she didn't write that check. Some things are zero sum games and a personal income is one of those things. Are all American families so smoothly functioning and so happy together that even a dollar can be spent to be sent abroad? Over 50% divorce rates seem to indicate the opposite. Does giving $3000 worth of personal labor to work for some humanitarian organization bring more joy than spending $3000 worth of personal labor to help out one's own flesh and blood? If it truly does, then logically, the foreign strangers are the real family who should be lived with.
One might argue that a person is single and hates his or her distant relatives. In that case, is there no suffering in one's own community? Why travel to a distant land when many American children can use a boost in contraceptive education or funds to get to college? Surely one's neighborhood and community can be well off and its members roughly co-equal. Then why not give to a domestic humanitarian organization that will bring needed resources to fellow tax payers, fellow language speakers, fellow contributors in one's country's competition with other states abroad? The suffering in the richest countries is of course materially different than suffering in the poorest but that doesn't mean vast differences in contentness levels.
A poor rural American in Appalachia or New Orleans might be 20 times better off materially than a rural man in a poor African province but it doesn't mean the African is 20 times as psychologically distressed. Individual psychology is remarkably adaptive. Studies in psychology have shown that peoples' physiologies and their conscious appraisals of how content they are are remarkably stable. A man who wins a lottery and a man who losses a leg return to roughly the same level of self reported contentness level after a few years. A man born in Africa, raised illiterate, and who did hard labor to survive can be just as psychologically content as a person who was born into poverty in New Orleans, worked hard to survive for many years, and then lost his wife in a divorce. An illiterate person who never left his region also does not have the self consciousness to really assess the hole he is in compared to those in wealthier countries to be too distressed about it. Yes there are actual famines, wars, and disease in Africa. However, unless 99% of aid is contraceptive and educational, the situation is just worsened since only that type of aid can decrease fertility rates and improve economic methods.
When millions of Americans are uninsured, borderline illiterate, have access to inadequate nutrition, are poor, and burdened with excessive birthrates, the sheer outflow of money to the third world is borderline treasonous. Richest countries becoming socially and economically destabilized can have drastic effects on the poorer societies. Large developing nations, like China, Brazil, India, and Russia, understand this and know that there are plenty of their own citizens who need aid even though many Africans and Central Americans are dirt poor as well.
There is a slogan that is very appropriate. "Think globally. Act locally." Lets start adhering to that. If one has to give, it is better to give to family and loved ones and then his countrymen. World government does not yet exist and as the economic crisis has shown there is plenty of rot within our own society that has to be addressed. Private outflow of money abroad for charity purposes has to be banned. Too much has left the country instead of being invested into infrastructure, economy, and country's citizens. Only national governments should be in control of giving proper developmental aid to other societies. The government should encourage humanitarian aid organizations to provide domestically and can create a list of targets for them. Maybe Bill Gates should be appointed as the economic developmental officer of Appalachian schools rather than be allowed to waste his wealth on bettering foreigners. Maybe the international community should finally pressure the Vatican on the condom policy so millions don't die from AIDS and don't leave many children to suffer as well. If it takes Iran level marginalizing and alienating of the Vatican, as well as refusal to meet with Vatican's leadership, so be it.