When is giving too much?

I’ve been here long enough to become very aware of my surroundings. The amount of French organizations that pass through Alakamisy is astounding. They reside for around a month, pack up and return to France, to return the next year. An organization comes every year with a large shipping container of donations. Another organization comes every July to build wells and schools (Alakamisy has one of the highest schools to fokontany (burrows) ratio in the Fianarantsoa area. Yet another organization donates hospital supplies each year (in which case it sits in an office in the village hall because the hospital is fully stocked already with hospital beds, wheelchairs, blankets and the such. Organizations donate computers, computers that due to lack of education and inexperience break and pile up in yet another room in village hall. Books get donated in languages the villagers have never seen before and build up dust in the corner of the Maison des Jeunes.

This raises a question in my mind, when is giving too much? Humanitarian aid is a commonality in Generation Yers. We want to see that our life has meaning; that we tried to make the world a better place. For many, that means giving. Giving supplies, money, donations. Heck, I donated my time. But my time, that’s just the point. Peace Corps is not only just building relationships with other countries; it’s sharing our knowledge and gaining some in return.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I can easily translate this to fit.

“Give a village some computers with no training, and they last at most a month. Teach them how to maintain them, and endless amounts of students can learn and build business skills.”

When I first arrived in Alakamisy, my village had 12 computers, newly donated by one the French organizations. To date, we have 2. 10 computers in one year. That means one computer on average broke around every month. Can you imagine going out and purchasing a new laptop every month?

So rather than just making charitable donations to an organization, maybe invest some time in what is to become of your giving. Will the organization just send the money abroad? Will they purchase supplies and ship it? And if so, will they send someone to accompany the shipment and teach the importance of the supplies? Example, mosquito nets in Africa. Great project. Africa still suffers from an overwhelming rate of Malaria deaths. Mosquito nets are to prevent the mosquito carrying the disease from biting and infecting someone. Will someone be sent with those nets to teach the importance of the nets and what it does? Or will it just be distributed, no explanation given, to families and then turned into a fishing net the next day? (True story, that does happen, mosquito nets made into fishing nets.)

Just a thought…

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4 thoughts on “When is giving too much?

  1. Danon says:

    You hit the nail right on the head.
    Giving well is hard, even with the good intention, not just making one feel better. It takes commitment and humility from the giver or the aid organization. Most of us who give tend to think that “my way (here giving money, supplies,…) is the high way” but it may not serve/address the needs of the beneficiaries. The best approach is to find out what the community needs/wants first and then finance it.

  2. Emily says:

    I’m glad you wrote about this, because it’s something I’ve become more aware of during my Peace Corps service. Before becoming a PCV, I was always a little wary of the whole notion of “give someone thing X for free to make Y problem go away”. And now that I am here and actually living amongst some of these problems, one of the biggest realizations I’ve had is that simply donating “stuff” does not work. I’ve noticed that in my area of Madagascar, there is an all-pervasive mentality of expecting free stuff from ‘vazahas’- be it food items or mosquito nets- because these donations have been so ingrained in them as the status quo. But what I also notice is that people do not take care of these items. Mosquito nets don’t get used (or they get used for fishing), food items get resold or improperly consumed, and the cycle just goes on. People won’t use these mosquito nets without the accompanying behavior change, just like they haven’t taken care of those donated computers because they don’t know how. So many well-meaning westerners want to donate some THING and then pat themselves on the back so they can feel like they made a difference, but as we both know, the reality is not quite so neat and pretty. I know you’re a fan of TOMS shoes, but the core issue I have with them is that giving out free shoes (and now, eyeglasses) does not address the fundamental problem of why people cannot afford shoes. It’s because they don’t have access to well-paying jobs, and they need an influx of those more than they do made-in-China shoes. Same thing with the One Laptop Per Child– they did a big study and found that just giving poor kids a laptop does not — SURPRISE!– instantly equate to better school performance.What’s needed are better schools, better teachers, and better study skills. And unfortunately, those aren’t things that can be put in a box and shipped from America.

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