The rain began July 19, 1996 over the semi-mountainous terrain surrounding the Kenogami basin in Québec and continued for three days, dropping enough water to fill the Kenogami reservoir one and a half times. Unfortunately, it was nearly full to begin with. Torrents of water flowed over the dam and into the cities of Chicoutimi and La Baie. Homes and businesses were washed out into the bay, two children died when a mudslide buried them in their downstairs bedroom, 14,000 people were evacuated to the homes of relatives or to temporary shelters.
People across Canada donated food and containers of used clothing and trucking companies delivered them free of charge. I was in La Baie for a few days and saw the results. People here are not poor. There are good paying jobs in the aluminum smelters, forest products plants and the Canadian Forces air base. Bottled water and food items were welcome and quickly distributed. But, Oh, the clothing! It appeared that people had gathered up their worn out clothes and sent them to La Baie. A theatre was used as a triage centre and the sorting operation provided a diversion from the devastation outside. I doubt if any of the clothing was ever used in the area, except perhaps as rags. The crowning moment came when some ladies called my attention to a dozen brand-new ladies shoes they had unearthed from a container — all for the left foot! Their mates never did show up. Some kind hearted folks even sent Bibles — English Bibles. This is a French-speaking area and few people can read English.
The local people were more amused than offended by this strange generosity. But I began to wonder how much good is really done by our charitable donations.
There are 85,600 registered charities in Canada. Some lose their charitable status each year because of irregularities, usually because the funds collected were used for personal purposes. Some more sinister operations have been uncovered, such as the financing of terrorist activities in other countries.
The average charity spends 33% of its total income on fund raising activities and another 8% on administration. Doesn’t it warm your heart to know that 40% of the money you donate to a charity is going to pay the salary of the person who made that annoying phone call requesting the donation?
The Canadian Cancer Society spends large amounts of money advocating for the reduction, or elimination, of pesticide use. Yet its website states that there is no proven link between pesticide use and cancer. Do they feel that well publicized anti pesticide advocacy brings in more funds from alarmed citizens?
The Canadian Diabetes Association gets a large part of its income from collecting used clothing and selling it to Value Village (which is a business, not a charitable organization). At least that clothing remains in Canada.
These charities are doing useful work that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise. When it comes to international relief organizations there is cause for a lot more skepticism.
In Toronto there is serious competition in gathering used clothing. Much of it is sold to distributors in third world countries, who resell the clothes below the price of locally made clothes, causing the loss of thousands of jobs. All the companies putting up used clothing bins in Toronto claim that the proceeds are going to charity, but the amount going to charity is very small. Drivers picking up used clothing from the bins can make up to $100,000.00 per year.
James Mikwati of Kenya says: “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!” He says the countries that have received the most aid are the ones in the worst shape. Economist Dambisa Moyo of Zambia has written a book, “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There’s A Better Way for Africa” in which she argues that long term aid programs undermine African agriculture, business and governments. One little example is an African maker of mosquito nets that was put out of business because some Hollywood star issued a plea to send mosquito nets to Africa.
In an article in The East African Rasna Warah tells how governments come to depend on food aid and neglect agricultural policy. This creates an artificial economy based on the distribution of food aid. Much money flows to government officials to grease the wheels of the distribution system and to local militias to protect the convoys.
Faith-based organizations like World Vision and Compassion are using donors’ money in efficient and effective ways with the least detrimental side effects.
The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, to which I belong, does low-profile, small-scale aid projects in thirty countries through Christian Service International and Humanitarian Services International (for countries that will not allow an organization with Christian in its name to operate in their country). Fund-raising costs: 0. Administration costs: 1%. There are thousands of broken down wells all over Africa. Teams are at work in several countries repairing those wells, and teaching the local people how to maintain them. There are sanitation projects in rural communities, supplies and equipment is provided to hospitals, eye and harelip surgeries are funded, and so on. The goal is that these projects will empower the local people, rather than make them dependent on aid.