International Giving

This guest post is written by Kris (my amazing, genius of a husband).

About 1.7 billion people live in absolute Poverty. Poverty is the inability to meet basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter due to insufficient finances. The United Nations defines poverty as living on less $1.25 (US Dollars) per day (less than $465 per year). About 18 million per year (a third of the deaths in the world) are a result of poverty-related causes. But the real tragedy is the fact that this continues when there are abundant resources to alleviate this suffering. There are plenty of disturbing comparisons of the relative ease with which we bring relief compared to the things which we spend money on here in the states. For example, the most extreme poverty in the world could be eliminated with the amount we spend on ice cream in America, and the cost to bring clean drinking water to most of the worlds poor is less than we spend on our pets in America.

America gives about 0.1% of US GNP to overseas relief, making it one of the least generous developed countries on the planet. The United Nations has long had a goal of 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product, although in 2005 they dropped this to 0.5% since only four countries were achieving the goal (and America obviously wasn’t even close).

Of course these statistics are nothing new, but I wanted to share them as a defense of international giving as a priority over domestic charitable causes. Currently the charitable donations in the US total about $250-300 billion per year. Less than 10% of that goes internationally (and about 20% of that goes to military funding). However, basically all of those living in absolute poverty are outside of America. America doesn’t even keep statistics on UN defined absolute
poverty because the UN poverty line is so far below the lowest income levels and freely accesible resources. It is difficult to avoid even tripping over $1.25 worth of commodities in a day in America. If the overwhelming majority of the needs are overseas, why does international giving comprise such a small part of our giving?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that it is wrong to give domestically. I certainly wouldn’t discourage local giving. But everyone of us are people of limited resources. We can only give so much. If the purpose of your giving is just to satisfy some religious obligation or clear your conscience, than I guess it doesn’t matter where you give it. If the purpose of your giving is to make a real tangible difference in people’s lives, why not look for how your monies can make the biggest impact for those that need it most?

I wanted to consider a few objections to international giving:

“But we have poor right here in America”
When we refer to the “poor” in America, this is generally a form of relative poverty, rather than absolute poverty. Relative poverty means that you have less than those around you (perhaps embarrasing, but not usually life threatening). As I mentioned before, there is so much freely available commodities in america (free water at drinking
fountains, free bathrooms, freed food at various missions, and even legitimate food in dumpsters), it is almost unrealistic to even classify anyone as living in absolute poverty in America.

Now there are real problems of hunger in American. It would be naive to consider the UN poverty level of $1.25 a day as appropriate across all countries. Basic necessities are simply much costlier in America. People really are in need here, that can’t be denied, but when faced with the comparison of needs, the reality is that poverty we see in America is not commiserate with the poverty in the third world counties.

The higher monetary levels of food and trading in America leads to another important consideration: Not only do the poorest of the world live outside the US, but due to exchange rates and currency inequalities, we actually have far greater purchasing power of relief and development supplies overseas than we do here. The US dollar can buy vastly more food in Africa and southern Asia than it can in the US. Given the option between spending your dollar to feed ten people vs feeding one person, why aren’t we choosing the former?

This is a serious question that deserves real consideration. Why does someone choose to meet the needs of someone who is close in proximity when the same funds can serve the needs of many that are further away? It seems the most noble answer would simply be ignorance and lack of consideration or apathy. A far more frightening and disturbing
possibility is that we actually consider the life of an American worth more than the lives of a several from other countries. Could we really be following such a sick and detestable form of racism, dressed up in nationalistic pride or worse, religious-based supremacy? Could we really be claiming that American lives are worth more than foreigners? It seems there are immigration and international affair decisions that suggest that we do.

This inequality is taken for granted in journalism; the death of one American is considered to be equivalent to the death of 10 Europeans or 100 Africans in terms of newsworthiness. It is one thing to apply this concept to printing newspaper, it is far more troubling when this dictates who gets the basic essentials for survival.

“Jesus said if someone asks, we should give…”
From a Christian perspective, shouldn’t Jesus’s mandate to give to those who ask, compel us to give to those around us who are asking? We are frequently exposed to the local needs and even panhandlers, who are directly asking us to help them. However, the needs of the poorest of the world have been made known to you as well. Do we believe Jesus’s mandate only applies to those who directly ask in person? This leads to an absurd conclusion: only those that have the ability to come in contact with the wealthy should have the priviledge of benefitting from their generosity. Should Africans be denied our generosity because they can’t afford to travel to our highways and put cardboard signs asking for money? The reality is that we live in globalized society, and the needs of the world have been made known to us. Jesus is telling us to meet the needs that are made known, not give prioritization to those who are able to deliver the request in person. And this mandate is not just here, the core of  Jesus’s message is about meeting the needs of this world

“We should fix our own problems first”
If of our “own” problems were worse or actually physically prevented us from helping others, this might have credence, but in reality this is a pathetic excuse, and basically is nothing more than self-centeredness. This is comparable to ignoring a child drowning in a lake due to a headache, because one must deal with one’s own problems first.
“But we can give to both, I am in favor of all these charitable causes”
Prioritization questions are often the most difficult and frequently avoided. It seems like we are often quick to offer an answer to black and white, right/wrong questions. But when faced with choosing between multiple good alternatives, we usually default to politically correct rhetoric, avoiding any commitment. Unevitably such decisions must be
made when it comes down to writing a check, but the lack of well-reasoned dialogue about prioritization means that are decisions are often poorly informed, misguided, and based on nothing but any residual emotionals we feel at the moment. We can do better.

Sure, it would be great if we didn’t have to choose. And if you have a couple trillion dollars to blow, then I guess you wouldn’t, but once again, we have limited resources. Lets use them wisely.
“Handouts just keep people in poverty, they don’t really fix the situation”
It is definitely true that finances can be used poorly overseas and even make situations worse. However, most credible charities have decades of experience in understanding how to really deal with problems instead of just providing handouts. These are experts, they know the store of teaching a man to fish inside and out. But teaching a man to fish still takes resources and money.

If you are truly keen on seeing your resources used in an equipping way, take a look at microfinancing. World Vision recently launched a new site where you can see potential small business entrepeneurs who simply need a small loan
(usually $300 – $500) to give them an opportunity to rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient. What is incredible to me is that World Vision reports over %98 payback rate. That means that these small entrepreneurs are truly succeeding, once they are given the chance. Not only that, but the money goes back into the pot for other loans. If you
provide $400 loan, it won’t just help the recipient you select on the site, it will actually be reused and finance and potentially rescue over 50 people before being used up! This is an amazing return on investment and is the complete opposite of a handout.

“You’re being totally naive, you can’t just boil these complex issues down to monetary figures”
Yes, you are absolute right. It is true the poverty is actually caused by a complex web of corruption, resource mis-allocation, education shortcomings, brain drain, disease, and much more, more than just resource scarcity. And there are tredemendous local charities that are doing excellent, critical work here in America, than can’t be discounted
just because they aren’t constantly facing starving children and can’t extend their dollar as far as workers in third-world country. I am not writing this to try to get you to stop giving domestically (well, I wouldn’t mind if you stopping giving to panhandlers).

However, I present these arguments because I believe that we are truly out of balance in our giving. There is always a tendency to give more to the needs that are closest, but we need to be resolute in considering the needs of those far from us. And I don’t think we are in any danger of giving too much overseas. Even if half of our giving went overseas to
meet the needs of the vast majority of the suffering world, we still wouldn’t be overdoing it, and with our current level of less than 10%, giving more internationally will never be likely to put us out of balance.

Consider these needs of the truly poor abroad and the remarkable power you have to alleviate suffering as you evaluate your finances.

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11 responses to “International Giving

  1. Wow. May I please post this everywhere? And, I’d love to talk to you about some specifics because God is leading Jeff and I to take a leap and we need to gather information about the wisest leap to take. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this out. This is exactly what I want to share but am not able to ariticulate it like this. Some cool news is that mom and dad want to revamp our whole Christmas/gift thing in order to giver internationally instead. SUCH exciting things going on! Love you both.

    • I am so humbled by the passion demonstrated by our kids,…all 4 of you,….and convicted by the waste of time and energy over the years. But God can restore what the locusts have destroyed Joel 2:25 .

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  3. Kris, Thanks for this post. I pray and hope that the followers of Jesus will be known here in our country as radical givers of our resources, of our lives. Many of my friends truly believe our country gives more than any other country to the poor. How would you effectively address this belief. I think there is a great deal of mistrust in how figures are used to talk about this. How would you address this as well.

    Thanks,
    Sam

  4. @SamB: I think our country does give more than any other country in total dollars. But you have to consider our giving in context of our GDP, which due to the size and affluence of America is vastly higher than any other country. Its the percentage that is significant, it is just silly to look at the total dollar amount.

    I wasn’t aware that there was much dispute about these figures, do you have sources that suggest significantly different totals?

    • Kris, I don’t know the specifics. From listening to people, I distinctly get the impression that it is a common belief we are the “best” at giving. And there is strong skepticism concerning how numbers are used. Please understand I am not disputing the numbers. I am trying to understand why the skepticism exists and was wondering if you have any ideas.

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