Philanthropy and ‘Big Aid’

Kevin Williamson‘s latest column at National Review Online highlights a challenge to the standard model for philanthropy.

Philanthropy can be a funny business. Let’s say you’re a do-gooder in Malawi and you hear about a little girl who has been attacked by a crocodile. She is badly hurt, but her family has no money for medical care at a private clinic.

What do you do?

The traditional philanthropic approach would be, approximately: build a hospital, staff it with the best doctors and nurses you can hire, and endow it generously so that little girls who have been chewed up by crocodiles and whose family has no money for medical care have a place to get help. Philanthropists love infrastructure, partly as the result of the natural human desire to see concrete results (maybe a big building with one’s family name over the door), partly because organizational leaders almost inevitably think in organizational terms, and partly out of lack of imagination. Without being uncharitable to the charitable, philanthropic enterprises are not immune to the effects of bureaucratic inertia, vanity, and career-building. …

… Gret Glyer, a young Grove City College graduate who did years of humanitarian work in Malawi as well as stints in Haiti, understands that better than most managers of name-brand philanthropic enterprises do. He also understands the need for more accountability and transparency in relief funding, having seen too many expense-account heroes ensconced in four-star hotel suites and white-tablecloth restaurants miles from the action. He has a keen appreciation for the Twitter generation’s love of instant gratification. The result is DonorSee, an app that directly connects charitable benefactors with local needs around the world.

The premise of DonorSee is straightforward: A trusted aid worker or local source identifies a problem — this little girl has been attacked by a crocodile, that one is deaf and needs a bone-conductor hearing aid — and puts up a request for funding (often in the low-hundreds-of-dollars range), donors transfer funds, and, a short time later (possibly within minutes or hours) the donors get a video of a patched-up girl returning to her family or of a little girl hearing for the first time.

That is the sort of thing that will get you fired from the Peace Corps.

Glyer can be pretty pointed on the subject of Big Aid. “They should be embarrassed of how ineffective they are, by how much they spend on infrastructure instead of projects,” he says.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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