Side effects may include…

illustration by Jay Arcansalin/ UVU Review
illustration by Jay Arcansalin/ UVU Review

This campus seems to be one where giving to charity abounds. One can donate cans of food to pay off library fines and donate shoes and clothes at locations all around the school. We hold events to raise money for Haiti and other causes. We have even seen the organization of charitable fundraising for specific people in need, like UVU girl. This is certainly an admirable characteristic of our student body taken as a whole. But every good quality has its obverse.

What you are doing in giving to charity is not only helping those who are in need. It is certainly that, but it is first and foremost an exchange, and in return for your money you get several things. There’s that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at having contributed to something good. But the corollary of this feeling, even if it is deserved, is the ability to be done with, in short to ignore, the suffering and difficulties of others, even those others who we collectively oppress economically.

Taken to its logical end, the other side of the warm fuzzies that charity gives is that it allows us to have it both ways – we can buy jeans manufactured in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Vietnam just so long as we are willing to put those jeans in a box by the Clubs office where they will be sent back to aid the wage slaves who made them in the first place.

This is not to say that no one should give to charity. A $10 text message donation will help as much as $10 can, and it is neither insignificant nor morally wrong in some way. But it certainly isn’t so simple as having done your part. Like any medication we take to make ourselves feel better, charity has side effects, such as blindness.

Perhaps this seems pessimistic. But Haiti provides an interesting lens to look through.

The same countries that have contributed most heavily to Haiti’s aid over the years are those who have most directly interfered with, and formerly enslaved, the people of Haiti. After Haiti won its independence from France in a revolution led and fought by slaves (talk about freedom fighters), France demanded first 150 million and later only 90 million francs in compensation for lost revenue from slave labor, a debt which demanded up to 80 percent of Haiti’s economic output at times, and which was not paid off until 1947. The U.S. has occupied Haiti more than once and has helped to overthrow democratically elected leaders and to install dictators economically friendly to us throughout the twentieth century. Haiti has been burdened with “aid” in the form of loans from the International Monetary Fund that are almost impossible to repay.

Is there not some sense in which, by giving so much now, we allow ourselves to either forget or to never bother to learn things like this, a history which seems to indict Haiti’s neighbors as much as its leaders? It would be better if every act of charity also came with a history lesson.

Like the cheap toys children dig through every box of cereal to get, we get a free pair of blinders with every act of charity. We should absolutely give – but it is perhaps best if you throw those cheap blinders away.

One Response to "Side effects may include…"

  1. NR Pickett   August 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Haiti also provides an ideal example of this charity problem in another way. Immediately following the devastating earthquake, the entire nation coalesced around funds and drives and trips and charitable giving, often in small amounts, but as you said, every little bit helps. But then a couple weeks go by. People start to forget about Haiti; E! has recaptured their attention. But the situation in Haiti is even today deplorable. Temporary housing has become a favelaesque permanence. There is still much work to be done, and many opportunities for everyone, including Americans to help.

    Reply

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