I lost a certain amount of my philanthropic cred when I announced at the local post office that I wouldn’t be sending a cheque off to Thai-Haiti relief fund. One little old lady who sells bananas at the local market was in there turning her four dollars worth of change into a money order. She’d been collecting coins from the other traders and wanted to do her bit for the starving Haitians. Being Thai, she merely smiled when I made my stinginess public but I knew what she was thinking. “Cheap bloody foreigner”. Here was an entire country stirred into a national frenzy by all those pop singers and soap stars corralled by guilt to appear on telethons. Once more they’d been able to momentarily pierce the ‘its not my problem’ armour of the viewing public. All those donors could sleep soundly ‘cause they’d done their charity for the year. The Lord Buddha be praised.
As sorry as I feel about the untold hardships thrust upon the Haitians, I’m afraid I’m not the type to get that rare urge to empty my wallet whenever the international entertainment world gets a benevolent spurt on. A flurry of ‘We are the world.’ doesn’t do it for me. I’m a rich guy who was once a poor guy and, as such I’m permeated with a constant urge to help people like the old me. Oh, I was never smelling bad and panhandling in front of fancy restaurants, nor was I stateless and petrified and sold into slavery on deep sea fishing vessels. But I’ve been unemployed and counting out three noodles a day till I could be sure there’d be another packet for next week. So altruism isn’t a debt that plagues me; it’s in my job description as a functioning member of the world community.
I subscribe to a principle of charity – if not beginning at home – at least starting around the next door neighbour’s back garden. There are some five thousand Burmese day labourers living in our area, some, through one of those quirks of nature I’ve never really come to grips with, have produced children. Despite the fact that Burmese have been living here for many years and contribute immensely to the Thai economy, none of those kids have ever been to school. There’s a Thai law that says all foreign children living on Thai soil have a right to go to school but anyone who’s spent time here will tell you there’s law and then there’s non-fiction. So Jess and I bought some books, hired a teacher and rented a space. Thirty kids are now learning to read how their country is being gobbled up by fat generals and to calculate how much they’re being ripped off by their Thai employers. It means we can no longer run the lawn sprinklers and we’ve had to let our Pilates instructor go and we’ll have to do without that talking bathroom scale we’d so had our hearts on, but life is all about sacrifices.
The banana lady lives in the middle of the same community we do and for ten years has watched the Burmese kids hang around waiting for that glorious day when they can be uneducated criminals and prostitutes. But because the Thai version of George Clooney didn’t tell her to dip into her purse she kept her blinkers on awaiting that glorious day when she could help the starving Haitians. And, generous though she’s been, I fear for where her four dollars might end up. I briefly worked for the UN and I have constant nightmares that feature a three-thousand dollar vacuum cleaner with curtain tassel and shag carpet attachments taking six months to be delivered from Sweden to our little UNESCO supported education project in Laos. If I knew someone in Haiti I’d stick some cash in an envelope and mail it to them as we did to friends in tsunami-hit Phuket. But my suspicious self tells me there’ll be a lot of nouveaux riche public officials in the Caribbean in the not too distant future.
The myth of the magic bubble of international aid has never been popped with a more pointed needle than it was in Graham Hancock’s excellent book, Lords of Poverty. The author reminds us, “Another serious problem, also not beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to solve, is the sheer number of different kinds of organisation that flock like benign vultures to the scene of every Third World catastrophe. Leaving aside for a moment the private charities which, by definition, are a diffuse and scattered bunch with widely differing skills and concerns, it is a little-known fact that there are at least sixteen specialized United Nations agencies which can become involved in disaster relief activities; frequently, they all do so at the same time…treading heavily on each other’s toes, bickering violently amongst themselves…”
So, kindhearted fellows, let us take a leaf out of Dr. Siri’s book and do the little charities well. “Forget the planet: save the garden.”