It as become fashionable for charitable groups to fight against creating “dependencies”, a central focus of books like “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity”. While there is merit to many dependency issues, these are often vaguely clumped together with little clarity. One of the problems with our vague concepts of dependency is that based on these hazy ideas our intuitive responses tend to be pretty misleading, and we miss out on positive aspects of dependency.
It is an telling statement about our culture that offering dependency as an impact of charity is sufficient to criticize without actually articulating any of the the negative impacts of dependency. We are in a culture where self-sufficiency has been raised to such a virtuous level, that dependency itself has been deemed evil, regardless of its impact.
Of course, if we actually think about it, this is nonsense. Dependency isn’t wrong, in fact our lives are filled with dependencies on each other, even if we don’t want to admit it. In fact there are many positive aspects to dependency as well. But before falling into the same mistake as others generalizing dependencies, let’s consider the specific detrimental forces that are often vaguely described as dependency, as well as the positive aspects of dependency:
Negative forms of dependencies
There are indeed negative ways that we can impact others that are called “dependencies”. Let’s look at these in more detail so can understand them and their solutions better.
Perverse incentives are situations in which people can reasonably greater reward for poor behavior than good behavior. Most often this is term is used in the context where a lack of effort and productivity are (expected to be) rewarded with better financial incomes.
Perverse incentives are definitely undesirable and can inflict a negative impact on society. Perverse incentives can also be particularly pernicious in leadership, where certain corrupt actions can yield tremendous personal gains and significant harm on society.
However, often times the natural instinct when discovering perverse incentives are poorly thought through. Many recoil by wanting to simply avoid or decrease any assistance. Of course this gives up on the whole endeavor of helping others. From a theological perspectives, this is a rejection of God’s mandate to give to others that are in need. From an economic perspective, this may actually increase perverse incentives. One of the most significant roles in a thriving economy is entrepreneurs. But we know that starting a business often leads to failure. Any realistic entrepreneur must take into a consideration the implications of the likely failure. If safety type assistance is not available, the risk of starting a business dramatically and greatly reduces the incentive to take on risky and innovative projects.
Others seem to think the solution is to have private charities do the work instead of government led efforts. This ignores the fact that private charities have proven to be just as proficient at inciting perverse incentives as any public systems.
Perhaps rather than rejecting Biblical teaching, we should ask if perhaps we have ignored important teaching in how we go about giving. And I would suggest that is exactly the case. It is critical that integrate the Biblical concept of righteousness. Many (mis)understand this to mean personal piety, but in reality the Biblical (tsedaq in the Hebrew) is more related to right equity and fairness. When our giving results in perverse incentives, this isn’t because we are generous, but we given in an inequitable way, often times giving large sums to a few people, while many are ignored. More equitable and thoughtfully distributed (righteous) efforts are the best guard against perverse incentives.
Role Replacement and Market Crowding
Market replacement occurs when goods are given to people, essentially creating a zero cost competitor to other local industries and markets, disrupting and undermining the opportunity for these vital local businesses to succeed. This is very frequently the side-effect of food aid. This danger of market replacement is heavily dependent on which type of aid we are providing and what local industries are available. Vaccinations are often delivered to countries without any of their own their source, and therefore are much safer economically. Agriculture and textile are often critical industries in developing countries, which is why bringing over food and clothing is problematic.
One of the most egregious examples of this is in our USAID’s policy of requiring food aid to come from America instead of local farmers. This has consistently been deemed a bad practice, both inefficient in its delivery (locally produced food would have huge shipping overhead), and economically destructive. Fortunately there is work to overturn this policy.
Another accusation against charity is that it creates an unhealthy savior-like donor complex and humiliates the pitied recipient. This issue of dependency is a little more subjective, and therefore a little harder to address. To some degree any time someone needs help, it is humbling, and refusing help is hardly the solution.
However, both the market crowding issue and the potential for humiliating and demeaning recipients points to an important strategy. We should be seeking to maximize recipients opportunity to use their skills and talents to be productive. We shouldn’t approach this strategy with a narrow mind, either. Doing something for someone may in fact be empowering. Let’s consider an example:
I am a software engineer. I do take pride in my work. If someone comes to me and says that my programming is useless and they will do all my programming for me, I would certainly be greatly disappointed, and feel like my skills were being wasted.
Now on the other hand, if someone came to me and said they I am not doing a good job edging my lawn, and they will do all my edging for me, from now, my response would, “Yes! Please! Thank you!”. I don’t take any pride in edging. I don’t like it, it takes too much time, and it feels like merely a distraction from focusing on what I am really productive at.
The difference between the two offers wasn’t that one involved me being included in the work, or receiving training, or paying something back. It was quite simply about understanding where I could make an efficient, productive contribution, and whether assistance would be something to help focus on my productivity or replace. And in many cases, the stakes are much higher than an edged lawn, it could be about providing life saving medicine or clean water. And when it comes to health-related issues, most of us simply want good health, not spending our time and energy of medicine, filtering water, or other such productivity-robbing tasks.
The old proverb says “give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish, he will eat the rest of his life”. The point of this proverb is not to suggest that giving a man a fish is harmful. It is in fact a good action. But the point is that often a good action falls short of actions that can yield far bigger or more sustainable benefits to others.
I would suggest that the majority of charitable activities fall into this category. They aren’t harmful (or at least the harm doesn’t outweigh the good), they simply fall short of more impacting ways to help.
It is probably worth noting that this proverb can be fairly simplistic. You might add that “he may eat for the rest of his life, but that may be less than year. Teach a man to fish and give him a vaccination and bed net and he may live long enough to enjoy his new skill”. Of course there numerous additional complication and considerations in really giving someone the opportunity to succeed.
Reduction in Freedom
As mentioned before, many people’s natural instinct for combating dependency, when presenting with the issue in vague terms, tends to be not so thoughtful. Many think that if dependencies are possible, than the most dangerous type of charity is giving cash, and that we need tight controls on exactly how money is used. However, if we are to think of dependency in terms of reduction of freedom, this is precisely the wrong solution, and only further exacerbates the controlling, paternalistic approach to charity that strips others of their freedom to make choices. In most types of charity, the donor is making the determination of what the recipient should get, whether it be healthcare, education, water, religious services, etc. However, with direct monetary gifts, the act of choice is completely turned around. The recipient is the one given the freedom to choose, and with the direct transfer of money the recipient has maximum agency to determine which of their needs is most pressing and can be most effectively dealt with for a given sum of money.
One of the conclusions that is often drawn from a fear of dependency is that microfinance is the best solution. Microfinance has worked well in some situations, yet much of the most recent and best development research has shown very disappointing results in many others areas with microfinance, with remarkably promising results with direct cash transfers or free access to medicines. Such reality can’t be explained by a simple anti-dependency ideology.
Positive Side of Dependencies
We are made to live in community with each other. That means more than just tolerating each other, it means we learn to use all collective skills in harmony with each other, mutually dependent on each other, doing more together than we could apart.
Ironically, if we look at the most successful and productive people, those that are driving companies, innovating, and doing big things, they often are some of the most dependent people out there. They waste little time on the relatively menial tasks of survival, and often have people taking care of their food, their home maintenance, and more. Trying to be self-sufficient in every aspect of life is the opposite approach of one who is extremely focused on their specialized skill where they can maximize their productivity and contribution to society.
We have looked at a number of ways we can fall short of truly helping people. While these are often called, “dependencies”, each of these are in fact actually very different problems and have very different solutions and preferred strategies. More carefully thinking about and identifying these issues is critical, so we can properly address them. Simply being anti-dependency can instinctively lead to not only the wrong solution, but can lead to cause us to miss opportunities, resulting in as much harm as the supposed dependency we may be fighting. If we are to choose single idea, a much better one would be seeking to “empower”.
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