Anyone would have seen the tear-jerking photo: a malnourished African child, dressed in torn rags that can barely be defined as "clothing" and sitting on barren red dirt, tears and nasal mucus freely following down her earth-crested face. It is a poster child for the likes of UNICEF, so well-utilized to help part the sympathetic rich folks of the First World with their cash. It is a strategy used prevalently even among the less fortunate in more well-off places: give a visual representation of misfortune, and the many people who feel sorry will mindlessly donate to "end the misfortune." Not saying this is a bad thing. NGOs, and especially the purely charitable kind, keep themselves financially afloat using this strategy. It is a win-win situation: NGOs get operational funds, some of it trickle down to people genuinely in need, and the donors are satisfied by their abilities to make their money work magic in remote corners of the world. There is no denying that institutionalized charity, in some ways, have made some trinkling down of wealth to poor geographies, certainly in ways that it is not nearly as possible or speedy when completely reliant on private enterprise.But one has to wonder whether using the malnourished black kid as the poster child of the charitable efforts is wise. Not just because such posters propagate stereotypes of Africa as an exclusively impoverished continent (which of course, is a problem), but more because by outrightly communicating to the donor that the money donated will go toward helping a visibly distressed poor kid, such imagery help the donor not think about the underlying reasoning of why such impoverished children exist in the first place. They forget that the kid is poor because of structural failing of the society that he inhabits.Scaled to the organizational level, such blissful ignorance to structural social problems can distort the incentives of how NGOs operate. Because donors expect their money to help many many people who look and suffer just like the poster child on the donation box, charities feed the donors exactly what they want to hear. Reporting on their successes, these organizations highlight how many people are directly helped by their initiatives, resulting in how much more income per person. By multiplying the desire to help one poster child by hundreds and thousands of multitudes, charities go along with the donors' more direct desires.Yet to just say how many people are helped is also taking the easy way out, so to speak. It can be assumed that the "help" received by the poor locals that enabled them to extricate themselves from poverty is made possible by foreign donations, a finite resource that may or may not continue to exist as more and more people are pulled out of poverty. After all, as a country gets richer, it becomes more and more difficult for the charities seeking more funds to justify continued need to "help" locals get by, and as a result, more and more difficult to attract donors who are primarily donating to satisfy their needs to help the poor.To take a step back, even if poverty is not alleviated in the charity's areas of operation, strictly depending on donations for relief work is of only limited effectiveness. After all, the most impoverished areas of world contain millions upon millions of those stuck in extreme poverty, and elevating these people to "adequate" levels of living standards with solely donations will incur massive amounts that First World donors cannot afford in the long-term. To create assistance structures of support based only on donations risk the possibility of the structures falling apart overnight when donor money suddenly cuts off.The alternative is for NGOs to think about building financially sustainable business models in impoverished areas. The idea is to execute only projects that can generate enough of an income to offset operational costs, ridding itself of any dependence on donor money even in the very short-term. Yes, this process will be much more difficult than simply hand out resources to people in need (not the least because poor people have little money to pay for anything), but it is a venture that will allow locals to sustainably hep themselves without the volatile largesse of sympathetic rich people.Unfortunately, those tear-jerking pictures of malnourished black kids stand in the way of the effort to build sustainable systems. People expect instant results because they want instant gratification (for anything they are willing to spend money on), and for NGOs, instant results generally mean giving things away for little or no price to the recipients. Donors will be elated by how their money is put to good use to help their poor poster child, maybe with better food, clothes, housing, and education, but will the donors ever stop to think just whether the same kid, as a grown adult, may have the resources to furnish the same for his own kid?
Image Credit: http://america.aljazeera.com/