Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Enlightened assistance: Exploring the limits of charity



Participants in World Vision Taiwan’s 30-hour Famine fill a stadium in Kaohsiung, Southern Taiwan.

Every year in Taiwan and elsewhere, a Christian organization called World Vision holds a special event to raise awareness and funds to benefit those suffering from hunger; the 30-hour famine aims to simulate the conditions of chronic hunger and invite participants to learn about and pray for its actual sufferers.

In Cape Town, South Africa, “The Street Store” campaign uses cardboard hangers to display used or donated clothing available for the homeless in public areas. These displays are meant to simulate an actual retail experience for homeless people, granting them a degree of dignity as they satisfy their needs as best they can.

Without a doubt, these two campaigns and others like them are driven by an indelible and admirable ambition to create a better world for the disadvantaged. And yet, approaches like these carry with them serious and inherent flaws that compromise the value they generate for the world.

Problematic Messages

Criticism of charitable works does not make it any easier to win friends or admiration, as Christopher Hitchens no doubt realized after publishing his searing critiques of Mother Teresa. Still, if self doubt and introspection is the wellspring of self-conquest and improvement, what better object can we find for our criticism than our good works?

Our most valuable deeds are worthy of the highest degree of scrutiny.

That said, my contention is that the 30-hour Famine and Capetown’s Street Store put forward a vision of good works that risks drowning out the lived experiences of people in need amid the dominating perspectives of charitable workers.


World Vision’s 30-hour Famine raises funds that participants can earmark for certain regions like Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, North Korea, the Philippines, Somalia and areas of the United States. Exactly what channels this money goes through to get to people in need (especially in closed, politically hostile countries like North Korea) is anyone’s guess; the 30-hour Famine website offers little detailed information about the “child sponsorship” programs they’ve created worldwide, or about the percentage of contributions swallowed by administration costs.

What the website does offer in abundance is validation for its participants:

“You are the resource we need.”

“Without you, this whole thing crumbles.”

“You will grow closer to God.”

“We promise nothing less than a transformative experience.”

… along with plenty of resources and merchandising to help “Promote your Famine” and provide you with your “Famine gear” (clothing) at the e-store.

Capetown’s Street Store came into being as an open source model of giving in January 2014 and has since spread to other cities spanning multiple continents. Compared to World Vision, the organization seems less focused on the spiritual or other benefits accrued by charity workers, but the preeminence of the workers’ worldview is still self-evident in the group’s public relations message.

The Street Store first came to my attention when I read an article about their efforts in a local (Taipei, Republic of China) newspaper. This article made clear that a significant experience homeless people feel they lack is the inherent dignity [sic] of a capitalist retail experience. Furthermore, these cardboard hangers on public streets actually make the homeless feel as though they are in a real store.

There is clearly something wrong with these presumptions.

Deconstructing Good Will: An Enlightenment Perspective

If we re-visit the analogy of consciousness as a spectrum between enlightenment and a kind of suffocating individuality,  we can pinpoint the problems residing in these organizations’ messages.

To move closer to enlightenment is to forego the biases of the self in favor of a more detached and inclusive worldview. In a different sense, it is to forego the illusions of certitude (feeling sure of your own importance and the rightness of your understanding of others) in favor of a more fluid and certainly more humble perspective.

Where World Vision falls short in its message is by overemphasizing the value of its mission for those executing it, rather than those on the receiving end. What’s more, World Vision puts forward the highly problematic idea that fasting for less than two days in a safe environment with friends and plenty of liquids is a valid means of tapping into the lived experience of the have-nots.

The Street Store similarly errs by putting forward a justification for a new model of charity that purports to know with conviction what homeless people need and want and equating that with a lifestyle of consumerism. Unlike World Vision, however, The Street Store has produced a promotional video that features the voices of the have-nots, albeit these voices are almost totally focused on praising the organization.

And yet, a few lines of the video touch on what is perhaps the real value of The Street Store. Rather than “giving dignity” to the homeless or simulating a store so well that its patrons fall into a temporary illusion of “normalcy,” the organization seems to recognize that what is really at stake is human interaction:

“South Africa, a country where the haves and the have-nots live side by side but seldom connect.”

“Over 3,500 homeless were clothed and millions in free PR was generated … more importantly, we brought people together like never before.”

There is a glimmer of hope in this.


My aim is not to critique the way these organizations try to help others by suggesting that I know a better way to help the disadvantaged. That would merely be supplanting one privileged orientation for another. My aim is three-fold:

1. to critique these organizations in their understanding of their own mission

2. to encourage a more realistic appraisal of the value they offer others

3. to consider the limitations of understanding the plight of the disadvantaged

In other words, I believe the most significant problems for some charities lies in their message and their understanding of the problem rather than the actual substance of their work.

If an organization seems to be more devoted to improving the lives of its volunteers than its aid recipients, this organization has room to grow. World Vision is not the only potential culprit here. Indeed, perhaps all missionary work has this flavor of self-aggrandizement that comes with supposedly executing God’s Will. In the secular realm, the Peace Corps in the United States has also been widely derided by former participants who realized their experience garnered many more benefits for themselves than the people they supposedly traveled abroad to help for two years.

If an organization assumes that it can reason backward from its own privilege (being able to shop, owning property …) to an all-too-easy understanding of what disadvantaged people need, they have room to grow. Considering the great variety of human needs, it may even be the case that lack of involvement in a supportive community is closer to the heart of why someone is “disadvantaged,” rather than their lack of material supports.

If an organization says with a foolhardy certainty that they can instill pride and dignity into the hearts of other human beings, then this organization has room to grow. The universe of a human mind is susceptible to influence, but our feelings are ultimately a choice and a habit. Recognizing that there are limits to how we can change other people is a hallmark of rational humility.

And when confronting the morass of human suffering and need, humility is precisely what is called for.

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