On helping

Charity comes from a deeply human place: When we see others in trouble, most of us want to help out if we can. It’s not helping which needs to be learned: all those explanations we give our kids as to why the homeless guy on the corner can’t come stay in our house, or the perverse financial reasons why, if you’re hit by a car in China, the driver might well try to kill you. It’s shocking precisely because it’s unnatural.

Small acts of human kindness happen almost automatically: we come together to help each other as needed, because that’s what people do. Zadie Smith has a great passage about this in a recent essay for the NYRB, where she talks about how, on the corner of Mercer St and 3rd St in Manhattan, twice in one week she and others came together, quickly, to help a woman in temporary need. First there was a young mother with a disintegrating stroller; half a dozen people, “white, black, Asian, tall, short, male, female, young, very young, and old,” put it back together in a shot. Then there was an older Chinese lady who fell over; again, an instant community was formed to help as necessary.

Such groups can be found all over society, at various levels of size and formality. Churches, in particular, do quiet sterling work on a daily basis, checking in on their parishioners and extending a helping hand as needed. I was recently in Texas, looking at the post-Harvey disaster relief operations there, and evidence of charity was everywhere, from FEMA tents all the way to hand-drawn signs offering help with laundry.

I travelled to Texas in order to take a closer look at the work of GiveDirectly, which was handing out $1,500 prepaid debit cards to the residents Rose City, of one of the poorest and worst-hit towns in the state. It’s a project I support, both in theory and with my own cash: I am convinced that individuals in need are the best arbiters of their own need, and that charities second-guessing what’s good for them, and spending money on those things, will rarely be more efficient than a simple cash transfer.

There’s a lot of need in Rose City, and a lot of gratitude for those $1,500 debit cards. The people there lost everything, across the board: not just the poorest folks in the trailer park, many of whom literally lost their homes, but also local authority figures like the mayor and the pastor. (Pastor Tony’s story was like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie, just without the happy ending.) The mayor passed her annual budget the evening before I interviewed her, and the total amount she had at her disposal for the year, including salaries for herself and her police deputies, came to about $300,000. That’s almost exactly the same amount that GiveDirectly handed out to Rose City’s residents, household by household, in just a couple of weeks.

So: Cash works. We should do more direct giving, and less indirect giving.

But, that’s far from being the end of the story. For one thing, we’re alreadygiving out cash, in enormous quantities. The two big disaster-relief organizations in the US are FEMA and the Red Cross, both of them massive organizations set up to respond quickly and effectively when needed. Both of them are now mostly in the business of giving out cash, partly because they’ve been starved of resources to do anything else. And neither of them gives out cash very well.

This is something which has largely been missed in the conversation about disaster relief generally and about cash transfers in particular: how you do it matters, a lot. One of the best aspects of cash transfers is that they preserve dignity: the person receiving the money is explicitly being trusted to know what’s best for them, rather than having to rely on someone else’s idea of what they probably need. But if you talk to people who have received cash handouts from FEMA or the Red Cross, it’s clear that no one in those bureaucracies cares about preserving the recipients’ dignity. The experience of applying for money ranges from the dehumanizing to the kafkaesque, and it’s not just money where that’s the case – just about everything that FEMA and the Red Cross do, including the basic provision of food and shelter, seems to be done in a heartlessly industrial manner.

Disaster relief when it’s done right always comes from deep human compassion and desire to help. It might be individuals cooking up fajitas or offering free laundry services; it might be organizations which spring up semi-organically like Occupy Sandy or the Centros de Apoyo Mutuos in Puerto Rico; it might be well-established local organizations like Baker-Ripley, in Houston, which proved much nimbler and more effective at creating shelters than the Red Cross was; it might well be faith-based organizations like Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and any number of other church-based operations.

In Rose City, for instance, pretty much every single home was mucked out by church-based volunteers – an urgent and necessary job which simply couldn’t be done by paying a contractor money. (The contractors were all busy on other jobs, as you might expect, and even if they were willing to do it, they would charge so much that no one in Rose City could afford their rates.) In many ways, the $1,500 from GiveDirectly is being put to its best possible use only because Christian volunteers managed to lay a lot of the groundwork and at least allowed the Rose City residents to start from zero. Before those volunteers arrived, Rose City was not only physically but also financially underwater, and GiveDirectly’s money would have gone much less far.

GiveDirectly, it turns out, is very good at the nuts and bolts of giving out money. They make it very clear what they’re doing, and they put the onus on themselves, rather than the recipients, to ensure that everybody who’s eligible ends up receiving what they’re due. When the actual transfer happens, it’s done with friendliness and respect and joy; the non-financial aspects of that moment are an important part of the transaction.

In a sense, of course, GiveDirectly has it easy: they can pick a manageably-sized population they want to give money to, where FEMA and the Red Cross aspire to helping everybody. But even accounting for that, goodwill is incredibly important. If you give me $100 in the spirit of friendship and compassion, I am likely to value that more highly than if you give me $200 while in a dead-eyed bureaucratic stupor. Which means that if the Red Cross and FEMA were friendlier and more respectful in their dealings with disaster victims, the inevitable bureaucratic snafus would be forgiven much more quickly. One simple tip for the big guys, which the little guys understand intuitively: if someone is complaining that they haven’t received their money, don’t tell them that they must have done something wrong. Instead, take it on yourself to fix the problem and make sure that they get what they’re owed.

A similar story is playing out in Puerto Rico. GiveDirectly isn’t the only disaster charity I gave to this year; I also donated to World Central Kitchen, the organization which has served some 2 million meals in Puerto Rico, largely under the aegis of celebrity chef Jose Andres. In that case, the contrast with FEMA is unavoidable, and not only because of the bitter feudbetween the two. After all, food is qualitatively different when it’s made with love and compassion. World Central Kitchen’s meals tasted better, and were more nutritious, than the offerings from FEMA and the Red Cross, just because Andres and his team cared deeply about their craft and about the people they were feeding.

It’s worth noting, too, that World Central Kitchen has a deep enough understanding of how Puerto Rico works that it knows not only where the need is, but also where the need isn’t. The organization understands that wherever it gives meals away for free, it’s hurting local businesses. As a result, as and when those businesses can start operating again, it scales back and allows them space to start rebuilding.

The big lesson here is that even with something as ostensibly simple as cash transfers or cooking meals, you still need to see how an organization comports itself on the ground in order to be able to judge whether it’s doing a good job or a bad job. You need to see not only what the organization is doing, but how it is being received.

Wellbeing is, in large part, subjective. As any mother knows, sympathy is just as important as medicine when your kid is sick or injured. It’s relatively easy to measure calories going into bellies, or dollars going into bank accounts, but if you want to measure the degree to which your actions make people feel better off, then you need to ask the people being helped. Insofar as those people feel seen, and respected, they will invariably respond more positively. No matter what form your aid takes.

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