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When Helping Hurts: Good Intentions Gone Awry

We need to start thinking about how charity prevents solutions, and find alternatives to it.

Do you ever see those television commercials (usually on network TV) of kids staring poignantly at the camera, bellies distended and flies nipping at their cheeks?

They're living amid the terrors of war, famine, disease, or some other catastrophe that has befallen their town, or the entire country where they live. Their misery is evident. Children are barely able to pick up a spoon to swallow what looks like some rice gruel. Mothers are too weak and malnourished themselves to feed babies from their breast.

The images are heart-wrenching, and then the big "ask" comes: Can you please spare some change so that this caring international organization can feed these kids?

You want to help. But maybe you turn away. Maybe you think it's an impossible task not worth trying to fix. Maybe you're unsure whether your financial support would even get to those it intends to help.

Bet you never thought your help would actually make the problem worse. And yet, there it is. A serious, and seriously overlooked downside to aid and relief.

Consider orphanages in places like Cambodia and Haiti. James Huenink, a Lutheran pastor who takes a keen interest in helping the poor, says our good intentions are making the orphan crises worse.

In Cambodia and Haiti, for instance, orphanages only create orphans. In Cambodia, following the bloody reign of the Kmer Rouge and years of civil war, orphanages were an important way to care for the children left behind. Now they are a plague. Since the 1990s, the number of orphanages has risen dramatically—and so have the number of “orphans.” Estimates suggest that between 70 and 80 percent of the “orphans” living in institutional care have at least one living parent.

This orphan crisis naturally pulls on our heartstrings, as it should, but some of these orphanages have learned that they can use kids to bring in more money for themselves, and they convince parents that this is the best way to earn a buck.

They are exploiting the children — and our own generosity — to extract a short-term financial gain.

The worse the children look, the more money they can make. Orphanages dress them in rags and coach the children to look sad. Then well-meaning westerners fly from all over the world to adopt these children out of poverty, paying exorbitant adoption fees—only to find out that their new child already has a family. The orphan supply is so important that orphanages will sometimes pay parents cash, in addition to promising to feed, cloth, and educate the children, to turn over their children to an institution that will only harm them.

When perverse incentives in the developing world drive parents to give up their kids rather than raise them at home, that is no recipe for a thriving society.

I'm not heartless. I'm not saying don't help in a crisis. Indeed, Americans are utterly selfless when it comes to helping out in times of needs. It's our nature. We. Can't. Stop. Ourselves.

There comes a point, however, when we have to stop being sympathetic and start being productive.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, authors of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, explain in their new book that there are three phases to a disaster: relief, rehabilitation, and development — and in many cases, as described in this Federalist article, we're not getting past phase one.

Americans have a problem—we get stuck on relief and rehabilitation, and never move on to development. Relief and rehabilitation are necessary parts of a recovery. But they can hurt communities when they go on for too long. Our charity can keep people in poverty rather than help them out of it.

How does our good intention undermine the would-be beneficiaries?

Clothing donations given to charities like Oxfam and the Salvation Army are often shipped overseas, where they destroy local textile markets. Why buy a locally made shirt, when you can get a better quality, cheaper shirt donated from America? For every secondhand shirt we ship to Africa, a local clothing manufacturer or retailer loses a sale. Soon, the textile mill goes out of business.

When we donate bags of rice to famine-stricken areas of the world, we help people who desperately need it. But when the famine is over, every bag of rice sent from America is a bag that a local farmer can’t sell to support his family.

So what we really need to do is focus not merely on relief, but on development, even at home.

Eleven years later, volunteer organizations are still using Hurricane Katrina to sell spots in mission trips. ... One video by the Voluntourist introduces her trip to New Orleans with a recap of Hurricane Katrina, saying how badly the wards of New Orleans still need help. (Notice the subtle guilt trip: 11 years and we haven’t done enough. You should be ashamed.) ...

Imagine if the same money was used to help the homeowner gather neighbors to do the work while creating a grant, or low-cost loan, for the building materials. The homeowners initiate the project and build relationships that they could rely on in the future. Neighbors learn skills and get to care for one of their own. You could even have volunteers work under the direction of the neighbors. This is development: a partnership between benefactors and the benefitted. The whole community learns to serve—but they also learn to solve their own problems.

People need work, and economic growth is how they find it. Helping poor regions grow requires more thinking and intentionality. That is how the free enterprise system has done it for decades, and this is how we solve problems over the long term.