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December 2010

Post image for The Straight Dope on Kiva

Last post I talked about having mixed feelings about donating money to charity. Society’s prevailing attitude is that giving money is always helpful, and is always motivated by genuine altruism. I’m not so sure about either, and I know I’m not alone.

My suggestion for people who feel that way was to find a cause you can give to with your whole heart, without reservations. I hinted that I had found such a cause to give to, one that doesn’t make me feel condescending, or unsure of whether I’m actually helping.

It actually isn’t a charity. It’s a non-profit that facilitates small loans to small-time entrepreneurs around the world. Teresa needs $750 to properly stock her general store in Paraguay. Sergio, a furniture maker in Mexico, needs $425 to buy a reserve of wood so he can fill more orders.

These are independent entrepreneurs who probably wouldn’t otherwise have had access to any kind of financing. With a small loan, a hardworking individual can get a business off the ground, or help it become profitable.

The organization is called Kiva and I’m sure many of you have heard of it by now. Rather than donating money, you lend. You choose an entrepreneur, read their story and their business goals, and send them a no-interest loan, as little as $25. Nearly 99% of the loans will be repaid to you, usually within a year. You can then use that money to loan to another entrepreneur, donate to Kiva’s operating costs, or even cash it out and walk away with it.

By lending, rather than donating, you can help to create a self-sustaining source of income for these people. It builds economies and empowers people to support themselves, rather than depend on aid.

The three primary values Kiva is trying to promote are:

Dignity — by creating an equal-ground, partnership-type relationship between you and the person you lend to, rather than a downward, benefactor-type relationship. This promotes dignity on both sides.

Accountability — Because repayment is expected, these loans create accountability where a donation would not. Each borrower enters the relationship with the expectation of the recipient becoming self-sustaining financially.

Transparency — Kiva prides itself on being open about its operations and the financial transactions involved in an attempt to avoid some of the cloudiness people perceive in some traditional charitable organizations.

This article was supposed to wrap up around here, with an earnest appeal to lend through Kiva if you are feeling weary or ambivalent about traditional charities. But I did a bit of research, and although Kiva advocates transparency, it might not be quite what it appears at first. I want to make sure all the cards are on the table, so that people can contribute without reservations. Read More

Post image for Does Charity Leave You Cold?

Last month I bought myself an espresso machine, when for the same price I could have instead cured someone’s leprosy.

I was in a position to do either, and the decision wasn’t that hard. Somebody will continue to live with a horrendous disease — however — now I can make my own lattes.

Why did I do that? Why don’t I feel that bad about it? What will stop me from continuing to choose small luxuries for myself when I could be making enormous changes to the quality of life of other people?

Honestly, I have always been a little uncomfortable about giving to charity. I wondered if I was alone here, so I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that a lot of people have a similar ambivalence about it. The most common reasons people cited for not giving much to charity (or feeling weird about what they do give) were:

“Who do I help” syndrome — Why cure one person of leprosy, when I could provide polio vaccines for dozens? Should I help the homeless in my own city before I help the homeless in Pakistan? Who is suffering more? Does it matter? Should I give to the most popular causes (think Katrina, 9/11, Haiti) or avoid them in favor of neglected ones?

“Where do I draw the line” syndrome — Even if I had chosen someone’s leprosy treatment over my private cappuccino party, how could I justify only curing one person, when I make enough in a year to cure over a hundred? I could make some lifestyle changes, and maybe swing ten with some planning and sacrifice. But even then I’m still neglecting people whom I could save if I was willing to eat bulk spaghetti twice a day. There are some established guidelines for giving to charity. The traditional tithe is 10% — though that’s to be given to your church, and historically it hasn’t always been a voluntary contribution. The 10% mark is a real stretch for most people; the typical American household contributes 2.1% of its annual income to charitable causes. But each person’s “line” is ultimately arbitrary.

“Into the void” syndrome – Most of the time, when we donate to charity, we have no way of seeing how our contribution helps. It just disappears into the coffers of a charitable organization, and there’s something unsatisfying about that. I know I shouldn’t need the personal gratification of actually seeing somebody’s life change because of me — that’s not really the “proper” spirit of giving — but maybe I’m kind of vain and that’s what I want. Read More

Post image for So This is Christmas… and How Are You?

It’s Christmas time, and even though the holiday season is lauded as a time of giving and thinking about others, it’s also a time when people end up thinking about the state of their own lives.

For a number of overlapping reasons, this time of year often triggers some pretty heavy self-reflection, whether or not we want to call it that. In households around the world, some common scenarios are poised to unfold as the holiday season rolls in:

As the average person’s spending hits a peak, this time of year we often think about our finances, and how they got to be that way. Is this the one month when your Visa card will carry over a balance? Or is that every month? Many people perennially find themselves sitting across the dinner table from someone with whom there’s a history that might be… touchy at best. Old wounds can surface, as well as the reasons behind them, especially with a bit of wine. With the seasonal proliferation of Salvation Army Santas and World Vision commercials, we sometimes find ourselves in an uncomfortable reflection about what we actually contribute to society and the people in our community. Do you change the channel when “So This is Christmas” comes on, over images of starving children? How do you feel about that? By the same token, we often can’t help but reflect on what kind of family member we’ve been, this year and in years past. Any lingering disappointment with regard to the fulfillment of familial roles — in ourselves about others, in others about ourselves, and in ourselves about ourselves — tends to reach a head in December, for some reason. Read More
Post image for What to Do About the World’s Suffering

In all the emails I receive from readers, perhaps the most common theme is a question in this vein: how can a person be at peace with the world when there is so much suffering going on?

I don’t think I need to start rattling off specifics here — virtually every story in every newspaper is a tiny, nominal record of horrendous suffering for someone somewhere. Crimes. Deaths. Famines. Wars. Fires. Floods.

How do we live with so much suffering going on? How can I do so much as enjoy a bagel with a clear conscience while so many people are enduring unspeakable suffering?

I never really had a satisfying answer for that question most of my life, and so my only strategy was distraction. Get into something more immediate, more consuming, and those thoughts go away.

But it never really sat right with me until I began to question the usefulness of those thoughts. I think the key lies in understanding the difference between two oft-misunderstood responses to suffering.

Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, and though they are definitely not the same thing, I can’t really say my definitions are the right ones. But I think if you read on, you’ll understand why it’s so important to make a distinction.

Both are related to feeling the suffering of others. The more common reaction is sympathy, which is essentially feeling bad because someone else feels bad. It doesn’t require an understanding of the nature of the other person’s suffering, only a mental acknowledgment that they are suffering. When you react to the suffering of another with sympathy, it means you are suffering over their suffering. However, as we suffer we become less conscious. In a state of suffering, wisdom disappears, reactivity takes over, and you begin to feel helpless.

Empathy is more subtle. It is not a reaction, but rather a capacity to be aware of the suffering of another. In sympathy we can be aware that another person is suffering, though we remain preoccupied with emotions and thoughts about the suffering, making it impossible to stay keenly aware of it.

To cultivate empathy requires that you remain receptive and stable — able to listen without judgment, to stay aware without getting indignant. Above all, it requires that you do not make their suffering yours. Read More

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