Reconsidering your donations: the ethical implications of charity

Illustration by Sarah Butler
Illustration by Sarah Butler

With a Mother Teresa-esque complex and far more t-shirts then I would ever need, I landed in the Andean city of Cusco, Peru with the best of intentions. Through broken Spanish, I managed to direct the cab driver to the women’s shelter for teenage rape victims and their children (I use teenage very loosely here, as two of the girls could barely even be considered preteen at the ages of 9 and 11).

The shelter ran entirely on volunteers’ donations and time, and I quickly began to recognize the discrepancies between the incoming donations from volunteers and the quality of life for the young women in the shelter.

Despite generating hundreds of dollars per volunteer a week with five to eight volunteers in the shelter at a time, all of the babies were still anemic and fed sparingly. A malnutritious diet consisting of predominantly rice and bread does very little for both the physical and mental development of a child.

The weeks passed and I continued to recognize serious issues with how the shelter was run. The girls did not attend school, were not allowed to handle money, nor were they given the option to seek employment. With no education or work experience, these young women were kept severely unprepared for the outside world they would inevitably enter at the age of 18.

Illustration by Sarah Butler
Illustration by Sarah Butler

As young women fully dependent on a shelter which was fully dependent on its volunteers and their money, any opportunity to escape an impoverished future had been stripped from them at the start. Lacking any form of sustainability, this system of dependency only further perpetuated the cycle of poverty, holding these young women as prisoners of the system.  

After six weeks, I left Cusco with a lingering feeling of guilt and a substantially altered perception of charity. My donations had gone toward needs that seemed incredibly insignificant in the grander scheme of things. Clothes. School supplies. Shoes. Why wasn’t my hundreds of donated dollars going toward the girls acquiring an education? Their transportation costs to and from an employment opportunity?

My donations had been put toward alleviating the women’s immediate needs as opposed to the necessary means by which they could potentially live independently.

The bottom line is no matter how altruistic your intentions may be, your charitable giving can have a surprisingly adverse effect on the elimination of an issue such as poverty when that said charity is misdirected. My time and money spent in Peru are prime examples of unintentionally misdirected charity, as I had unknowingly fed into prolonging the girls’ dependency.

With that being said, why is our charity so frequently misdirected? Oscar Wilde attributes this misdirection to man’s innate emotional response to suffering we view another human being experiencing firsthand.

In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Wilde states, “The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence… it is easier to have sympathy with suffering, than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

Wilde theorizes that humans tend to sympathize with an individual’s immediate suffering more than they sympathize with ideas on how to eliminate the epidemic in its entirety. This discrepancy is simply due to the lack of an emotional trigger.

Comparing poverty to a disease, Wilde states that charitable donations such as money, clothes, and food, are merely remedies for immediate suffering. Through these remedies, we are actually further prolonging the epidemic as opposed to addressing the problem beginning at it’s origin.

In layman’s terms, we are putting a band-aid on the issue instead of finding the cure.

Essentially, these donations, “keep the poor alive.” Although that may initially appear to be beneficial, donations feed into the ravenous cycle of poverty and dependency. Charity keeps the poor alive while simultaneously keeping the poor… poor.

Wilde urges us to shift our focus towards ways in which we can reconstruct society in order to make issues such as poverty unable to exist in the first place. Charitable donations prohibit change and progress, and it is therefore imperative that we allocate our time and funding towards means which allow for this crucial societal reconstruction to occur.

Increasing the budget for education, opening up the workforce and making both childcare and housing more affordable are all examples of potential methods of societal reconstruction. Although this may seem out of the average society member’s hands, donating money and time to reconstruction, or “thought” as referred to by Wilde, ultimately boils down to activism.

Activism could include signing petitions, voting for government officials whose views coincide with yours, or donating to well-researched charity organizations that work towards ending poverty as opposed to merely remedying it.

That being said, charity in response to witnessed-suffering is not intrinsically bad. The issue may lie more-so in the disproportionate amount of charity toward suffering versus charity toward thought. Society would benefit from a shift in focus from remedying immediate suffering to ending it altogether by addressing it beginning at its roots.

Eliminating social issues such as poverty on a global, national, or local scale may seem like a daunting task, but it stems from the individual. Together we form society and together we have the power to reconstruct it.


Ellie Fialk. Photo by Julie TrippOpinion Editor, Eleanor Fialk
Eleanor is a junior broadcast journalism and philosophy double major with a concentration in ethics and public policy. She often writes about issues of social justice and human rights, and her dream career would include traveling the world as a documentary filmmaker. You can usually find Eleanor binge watching an entire television series in one night or planning her next backpacking trip. // fialke@commonwealthtimes.org

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