There is a lot of good in the world. We focus too much focus on people and institutions that are behaving badly and on things that are not working, major failures and minor aggravations. Instead, we should be paying attention to things that really matter more—like the decent work of millions of people who assure through adhering to social conventions that our lives are livable and in many cases, pleasurable. David Brooks recently quoted Pope Francis who described people who were kind to the needy, who took their turn, and who instead of running the other driver out of the merge lane waved him into traffic, as “the artisans of the common good” (https://nyti.ms/2E9c6iR). I strongly support celebrating this sort of behavior simply to remind us that without it, we’d need to be more vigilant, more wary of each other and require more protection from the other guy. Think of the quiet comfort we enjoy in daily interactions and how one rude clerk or nasty customer can rattle our whole day. Pile too many of these together makes us bitter, prone to act in kind, setting off our own discharges and sparks of misery.
We don’t hear enough about small acts that make a difference, like making a loan through KIVA. About twelve years old, KIVA invests money to micro-entrepreneurs in 82 countries across the world (https://www.kiva.org/). KIVA is not a government agency, neither is it funded by major philanthropists. KIVA relies on small donors—as little as $25—to fund its work. To date, 2.7 million loans amounting to $1.09 billion dollars have been granted to farmers, shop owners, parents who need to pay school fees for their children and other reasons. More than 1.7 million lenders—average citizens and community groups—have loaned these funds. And, in 96.9% of the time, these loans have been repaid. Once repaid, these funds can be re-lent to support the dreams of another entrepreneur or hopeful parent. I established a student-managed KIVA fund at my university, loaning more than $2500 over a five year period. We have funded cucumber farmers in Estonia, a truck driver in Belarus, a women’s coop in Chile, a store in Peru and many more endeavors. We feel that we contributing in a small way to the economic welfare of the individual, her family and her larger community. Certainly we are not saving the world, but we are contributing in a small way to do our part.
Each at the end of year, I receive a report on our fund which prompts me to make another loan. I defer the choice of who to support until I get a chance to meet with my sociology class. Here, we look at our portfolio of outstanding loans to see where we would like to make this small investment. It challenges students to think about how much difference we can make in someone’s like with a $25 loan. Our loan joins others until the amount requested, let’s say $500, is fulfilled. Once the loan is granted, we’ll get reports on the progress of the project and begin to receive loan repayments. To maximize the sense of community, individuals can create a team made up of people who share a common interest—members of a church group, a school, a large family or other basis. The team manages a portfolio of loans and maybe even engages in some friendly competition with other teams about who can loan the most money or manage the most loans. There are more than 36, 000 teams that loan through KIVA but the two leading teams drew my attention (https://www.kiva.org/teams).
In first place among the teams with the greatest amount loaned are KIVA Christians, founded in August 2008. They have 20,648 members and have lent $42,000,000 dollars pooled in 758,425 loans. KIVA Christians loans have biblical inspiration, which they cite in their reasons to give. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved, so you must love another” John 13:34 and from Corinthians 13:8 “Love never fails.”
In second place is the A+ team of Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious, also established in 2008 The A+ team has 38,108 members (almost twice as many as the Christians), loaning $36,109,650 (less than the Christians) with more than 1,200,000 loans (about half a million more than the Christians). The Atheists et al loan money because they “care about human beings and understand that it takes people to help people. We are one human family and know that people can do good without believing in a god.”
What are we to make of this? I am wondering which group came first? Maybe, a Christian and her pal, the atheist, met in a coffee shop and set down this dare.
I bet that we Christians can donate more money than you non-believers.
We’ll take that bet and challenge you to put your money where your God is, replied the Atheists.
I suppose we could review these portfolios to see what causes each team has supported. Have the atheists spread their investments far and wide while the Christians have supported a different set of causes? Who is supporting the Palestinians? Muslims? Women and children? School fees for girls? Maybe, there is very little difference between their giving patterns and if so, why donate under the banners of Christianity or non-faith. Does even something as seemingly non-partisan as giving a loan carry partisan baggage? What is really the best way to organize ourselves to do some good? Maybe, a donation to KIVA is, in fact, not the best use of these donations.
I would affiliate with neither team nor claim for giving. I don’t want to give because we are all members of one big human family. That squishy premise doesn’t motivate me at all. On the other hand, loving one another as God loves us also leaves me wanting for more. I can harbor all the positive feelings for my fellow human beings and wish them well as other beings on the planet but until I seriously consider the moral obligations that underpin the simple statement that all human lives have equal value, this one human family loved as God loves us, doesn’t carry much weight. Neither principle calls out my obligation to give in a world where the spoils of our economy and polity are so unevenly distributed and where some have so much and others. These inequities should serve as an embarrassment to all of us.
This, for me, is more a matter of justice than it is kindness and compassion. Similarly, I don’t want to give only when the mood strikes me–when I see that suffering child or when I am moved by a sad tale. I want to connect this giving to commitments that motivate me do more and to do it effectively. If I can shop for a cellphone, I can certainly research whether my donations are doing the most good they can. If the world were suffering from too much kindness and compassion, that would be one thing. But the fact that most of the world lives at subsistence level and a small percent of us are doing quite well is quite another. And, maybe, a donation to KIVA is not the best use of my charitable dollars after all.
As a privileged member of a rich nation and a beneficiary of the gifted generation, I believe that I have encumbered unplayable debts. These include government programs and unparalleled prosperity. A recent book (Goldfield 2017) argues that the generous governmental programs—GI bills for education and homeownership, virtually free college tuition at public institutions, and much more—were designed to lift the working class to the middle class. This gave many of us baby boomers and by extension, our children, great advantages that the current college-age population can scarcely believe. We do have to note here that those benefits were not distributed to blacks and other minority groups but they did establish the point that well-crafted government programs served as escalators into better lives for millions of American families. And, according to most economists, these approaches were far more effective than tax-cut supply-side approaches championed by conservative ideology.
It didn’t occur to me until much later in life how much these advantages propelled me and my peers into a middle class life. If I count up all the fortunate breaks that fell my way, all the investments made in me because of the sacrifices and forethought of others, it is clear I will never repay these. How do I repay those Catholic sisters and my parochial school for an excellent education? How do I repay the government for those social security and GI benefits that arrived just in time after my father’s early death? How do I repay the enormous gift of free tuition for four years from my state college? How do I repay that Ivy League university for their scholarship to this working class student so I could earn a Masters Degree, which impressed many people more than it should have? How about those state-sponsored low-interest loans to first-time homebuyers that allowed me, a single woman, to buy a house after three banks had turned down my application? I could go on. These benefits meant sacrifice on the part of others, of course, and I have reaped the benefits greatly.
Prosperity for many of us came because the U.S. In the fifties and sixties was the unchallenged world economic power. This afforded us with great advantages. This sort of wealth and wealth-making opportunities seduce us into thinking that we climbed through the class hierarchy and the world pecking order due to hard work and brilliant business acumen when in fact, other forces were in play. Much of the ease and prosperity we enjoy comes at the expense of others. The masters of the universe and kings of commerce have figured out how to create a global engine that spits out low-cost consumer products using the lowest wage labor and under-valued raw materials. We could make the argument that our brothers and sisters in the global south subsidize our comfortable lifestyles in the global north. Behind that great curtain of commerce, we cleverly learn not to ask too many questions about who has made this shirt and iPhone and under what conditions. We ignore that man behind the curtain and assume that some one is taking care of these questions. So much for the great human family.
Given that acknowledgement that we have benefitted from programs (state supported and private) and a favorable economy, what should guide our course for giving back. How much and to whom? What commitments should steer these values here? Local giving to alumni organizations? Scholarships to children like me? Perhaps there are other considerations to examine. Is all giving equally good?
For me, the commitment here rests upon basic math. As Peter Singer has calculated, the rich of the world (the 10% of earners) could easily devote 10% of their income to the poorest people on the planet affording them basic educations, clean water, avoiding needless deaths, better nutrition, sanitation and more (2015). Importantly, this would include not the just the richest citizens but many of us who have middle-class lifestyles. Singer’s plan is not directed at only those people we imagine are comfortable enough to give; he would argue that many of us are in that situation. As radical as it seems, this plan would right the world, as we know it. And, this is simply seen in an organization like KIVA or Heifer where a small donation of $25 (a dinner at a reasonably priced restaurant, yet another T-shirt) could really make a difference in saving a life.
The developing effective altruism movement directs our charitable dollars where they will do the most good to organizations and approaches that are vetted and proven to work. Many things that we expect to address poverty, illness and illiteracy don’t. (For more information on this movement and its applications, see Derek Thompson’s article https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/what-is-the-greatest-good/395768/). Movements like the effective altruism movement focus on populations with the greatest need addressing these with field-tested solutions. This approach eliminates the argument heard from so many—who knows where your money goes—and also addresses the concern that one may be throwing good money after bad.
So clarifying the motive to give–those unplayable debt and the great extremes in wealth built upon accidents of birth, the unfair distribution of spoils—and targeting effective strategies to address basic human need—work for me as a compass point for better giving and perhaps deeper commitments to making a difference. This is not to say that this movement lets me live with a clear conscience. Our complicated world is too ethically challenging to do that. But I can live with these questions and hope that they continue to reveal a truer path for me.
Brooks, David. 2018. How Would Jesus Drive? New York Times, Jan. 4.
Goldfield. 2017. The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good. New York: Bloomsbury.
Singer, Peter. 2015. The Most Good You Can Do. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Thompson, Derek. 2015. The Greatest Good. The Atlantic online