Further Than Africa

Imagine you asked people whether they cared about poor Africans, and if so, what were they doing to help.  Imagine your heard following answers:

  1. Africa is so far away, and some Africans are much richer than I am.  The process of sending money to such a distant place is so complex that I fear anything I gave would be stolen along they way, especially by rich Africans.  So I don’t give.
  2. I contribute to the world economy just by doing my job and buying stuff.  Eventually that ends up helping everyone in the world, including Africans.
  3. I donate to my local hospital, volunteer at my local school library, and buy cookies from local girl scouts.  All charity helps the world, and so helps everyone in the world.
  4. I buy fair coffee to save the rain forrest, march to stop nukes, and drive a Prius to stop global warming.  When I save the world in these ways that helps Africans, who also live in this world.
  5. If I gave directly to Africans, that would cheat all the folks between here and Africa from the chance to help their neighbors.  My plan instead is to give to a local neighbor and have faith that this neighbor will then give to his neighbor, and so on until far away Africans are helped.

Which of these folks would you conclude really did care about Africans? What if you offered to match their donated funds by a factor of a million or trillion, and they still fell back on these excuses? Would you still think they cared?

A few weeks ago at Oxford I talked on “We Don’t Donate To The Distant Future; Do We Care?” (slides here).  I pointed out that no one tries, like Ben Franklin, to use compound interest to donate huge sums to the distant future, at a tiny cost to themselves.  When I suggested that this fact suggests few care much about the distant future, people responded with arguments like the above.  They donate to charity, try to save the world, do their job that builds the world economy, they fear donations would be stolen and many future folks will be rich, and its better to just give to their kids with faith that each generation will give to the next.  So of course they care about the future – how dare I suggest otherwise?

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