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Jan 04 2003

About Schmidt, Elevation, and Poverty Porn

Published by at 8:05 am under Uncategorized

I just saw the movie, “About Schmidt” staring Jack Nicholson. It was a great drama, in which Nicholson’s character spirals downward through a series of misfortunes, but during which begins supporting a foster child in Africa via a $22/month gift. The climax of the movie is a rather stunning display of the emotion of elevation as Nicholson realizes the impact of his generosity. This is an illustration of Jon Haidt’s work on The Positive Emotion of Elevation :

“Elevation appears to be the opposite of social disgust. It is triggered by witnessing acts of human moral beauty or virtue. Elevation involves a warm or glowing feeling in the chest, and it makes people want to become morally better themselves. Because elevation increases one?s desire to affiliate with and help others, it provides a clear illustration of Fredrickson?s broaden-and-build model of the positive emotions.” (Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being)

It is fantastic to see Hollywood produce entertainment with such a raw, uplifting message. An earlier film of similar genre, “Pay it Forward” had a similar uplifting theme, but they seemed to include a senseless act of violence to “balance” the message.

The pattern of giving illustrated in the movie, adopting a child in a less developed country, obviously creates a lot feedback to the donor. In my wanderings over the past few years, I have asked those in the trade what they think about this particular pattern of giving. A former VP of one of the largest organizations told me that of the $28/month they collected, “maybe” $4 made it to the child, despite tax reports showing 85% “efficiency” of giving. Another woman told me she had been sending letters and gifts to her “orphan” supported by this charity and was surprised to get a letter from a kid talking about his mother. She called the charity, and they said that the fine print didn’t actually direct the funds to a specific child; she felt that the whole thing had been a charade. Another 30-year veteran in humanitarian field work called it “micro welfare.” I watched a television pitch on the subject in which the solictor weepily told the camera how his donation put shoes on a boy in Latin America, while his sister went shoeless. Is it really uplifting to play Santa Claus to one kid while the others stay deprived? Does this pattern build dependency or autonomy in the less developed country? David Ellerman of the World Bank writes about how to create autonomy-respecting uplift practices.


Michael Marin, in “The Road to Hell, The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity” is a former Peace Corps Volunteer and humanitarian worker who has witnessed these processes from the ground. He quotes a former director of a sponsorship program in Cameroon was shocked to learn that most of the sponsored children were receiving nothing more than Tee shirts (with logos), hats, and invitations to parties. “Sponsorship pays for sponsorship…the fact that it was a $24 million industry that paid for itself – and itself only – never seemed to bother anyone, except those of us in the field.” (p. 153) “NGO’s are accountable to accountants, not to their individual donors, who have no way of judging the organization’s work, and least of all to the victims, the recipients of their aid, who have no voice and who are expected to look grateful when the cameras are pointed their way.” (p. 121) “Few foreigners ever invested the time or effort to see aid from the point of view of the recipients. They rarely looked beyond their own idealized images of famine and charity. Into Somalia’s nightmare world of warlords and forced starvation, they held aloft the imagery of the hungry child-God they themselves had created to justify their own actions.”

I once visited an “authentic” Samburu village in Kenya. This nomadic tribe seemed to be permanently encamped just outside a national park, convenient for our tour group’s visit that afternoon. Each of our group paid $20 to the chief (carefully watched by another man) for admission, a phenomenal amount of money to these folks. During the tour, we were invited to tour (and make a donation to) the ophan’s school who sang a touching song for us. Suspicious of the extremely high percentage of orphans in the village, I innocently asked the teacher where the kids went after school. She said, “Home to their mothers, of course.” These folks were able to practice and fine-tune their sales pitch on a daily basis, which each new load of visitors were fresh meat for the marketing efforts.

Schmidt’s elevation was a wonderful thing, and his gifts to impoverished children could have been a wonderful thing. But what happened between the two? What portion of the $22/month made it to the kid? If he knew that $20/month went to the intermediaries, would he still feel the same? These intermediaries thrive not by being successful uplifters of the poor, but rather being the most aggressive marketeers of their program. The actual delivery of service has little or no effect on their success. This is a system driven by perverse incentives.

After September 11, Americans responded with an outpouring of generosity and compassion. According to the Sept. 5, 2002 issue of Chronicle of Phanthropy, 175,000 from 50 states volunteered in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, and gave $2.3 Billion in donations. But the net effect was:
Americans expressing ?lots of confidence? in charities had fallen to 18 percent. (May, 2002); 42% of Americans said that they had less confidence in charities now than they did before; Those who express ?a lot of support? for federated fund-raising campaigns fell from 39% in July 2001 to 26% in December, 2001. Something is terribly wrong with a system in which acts of generosity and compassion result in increased distrust and cynicism. Public trust in charities is at an alltime low

What if Nicholson’s character could have supported 10 kids with the same donation by giving directly to the orphanage? What if he could make his donations based on the reputation of the orphanage.

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