Defining necessity


I have seen an image going around Facebook that will make you think twice about your holiday spending. It juxtaposes a photo of obviously starving children, holding out their hands, with a photo of harried shoppers with arms and carts overflowing with electronic goods and toys. The caption says “DEFINE NECESSITY.”

Ouch – a punch to the gut. (Even for someone who’d rather pull out her eyelashes than go shopping on Black Friday.)

[pullquote]We should probably choose to give to those in need, whether in Africa or in our own communities, but ideally using the most direct means possible.[/pullquote]Then the devil’s advocate in me whispered: If those women weren’t buying those consumer goods, would that help the starving children? Is it possible that the United States’ huge appetite for spending somehow helps the Third World?

Well, perhaps. Many economists with far more education and experience than I have wrestled with similar questions. The world economy is incredibly complex, and various barriers to free trade certainly play a role in extreme poverty. Two other factors also loom large: political corruption and war.

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof writes:

In any case, it is clear that African countries can register enormous economic growth when they are well-governed. Botswana is a great example of that. Sure, Botswana is helped by its diamonds, but diamonds haven’t done anything forCongo. The difference is that Botswana since independence has had a series of wise, honest rulers, and partly as a result no conflict. What distinguishes the fastest-growing economies in Africa, also including Rwanda, is simply their good governance. And what distinguishes the worst-performing countries tends to be a combination of bad governance and (often related) incessant conflict.

So what do overfed American shoppers have to do with good (or bad) governance in Africa? Is it possible that the excess of our comparative wealth is contributing to it? Direct government aid to African countries has been criticized as enabling corruption. Dambisa Moyo, a former economist at Goldman Sachs, writes in The Wall Street Journal:

A constant stream of “free” money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power. As aid flows in, there is nothing more for the government to do — it doesn’t need to raise taxes, and as long as it pays the army, it doesn’t have to take account of its disgruntled citizens.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a fascinating and eye-opening perspective on bad news from Africa in “Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs Prefer Bad News.”

[T]he main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes … may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Africans themselves readily concede that there continues to be terrible conflict and human suffering on the continent. But what’s lacking, say media observers like Sunny Bindra, a Kenyan management consultant, is context and breadth of coverage so that outsiders can see the continent whole—its potential and successes along with its very real challenges.

To their credit, aid organizations such as Grameen Bank and Heifer International take the “teach a man how to fish, feed him for a lifetime” approach, which fosters self-reliance.

So, though Africa’s problems are real and serious, it seems we are not seeing the whole picture. Still, we should probably choose to give to those in need, whether in Africa or in our own communities, but ideally using the most direct means possible.

In the end, I suspect the “Define Necessity” picture is not focused so much on starving children – it’s aimed at us. It’s supposed to zing us and make us recalibrate our perspective. There’s no crime in getting a good deal on an electronic plaything. But particularly on a holiday that celebrates peace and giving, all of us First World shoppers would do well to remember the words of Jesus:

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matt. 25:37-40)