The Child In The Pond Dilemma

Interesting William Easterly review of Peter Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save, in The Wall Street Journal last week.

Singer’s signature argument in the book goes like this:

Suppose you are taking a walk and you come upon a child drowning in a shallow pond. Would you stop and rescue him or would you worry about ruining your shoes? Of course you would rescue the child. Then why don’t you spend less on shoes and instead give the money to Unicef or the World Health Organization, since they can surely save a child with your donation-in-lieu-of-shoes?

Singer’s conclusion? You should be more generous.

Easterly’s conclusion? Singer puts too much faith in Unicef and the World Health Organization. He goes on to cite some examples of the bureacratic inadequacies of NGOs and recommends that they improve.

My conclusion?

Singer’s book is the latest in a growing trend (including Christian Smith’s Passing The Plate and Christianity Today’s cover article, Scrooge Lives! Why We’re Not Putting More Money in the Offering Plate And What We Can Do About It) that sees the fault in the (greedy and materialistic) individual and the solution in individuals overcoming that, likely through being chided and preached at and reminded to buy fewer nice shoes and make more donations to international NGOs so children overseas don’t starve.

What these articles accept without question is the great good of organizations caring for children overseas in such a way that what is required of ordinary people is simply to give their money, and more of it, thank you. The efficiency of professionalizing care in this way seems so obviously beneficial that no one stops to closely analyze the results and ask, “Um… So how is this approach actually impacting the cause?” (And, for Christians, how is this approach impacting the church growing in maturity and Christlikeness in relation to the cause?)

What if the problem is not caused by the fact that ordinary people are selfish and greedy but rather by the fact that nonprofit organizations keep ordinary people at progressively greater distance (paradoxically, as organizations become more successful) from directly interacting with the cause, in effect mystifying it such that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that solutions are best left to the paid professionals?

What if the reason we save the child drowning in the puddle but don’t sell our shoes to make a donation to Unicef is not that we are selfish but rather that we respond when we are directly engaged in the cause but that nonprofits, sometimes inadvertently, are isolating us increasingly from interacting directly with causes that Jesus intended Christians to deal with ourselves?

The solution, then, comes not from us being motivated to be more responsive to appeals for indirect involvement but rather for organizations like Unicef and WHO to pioneer ways for ordinary individuals to be directly involved with the cause.

That’s the beauty of child sponsorship which most fundraisers fail to grasp. Most fundraisers love the idea of monthly sponsorship and try to adapt it to their cause. In doing so, they are rarely successful because what makes child sponsorship work is not the idea of putting a dollar amount on something abstract but the fact that it places individuals in direct relationship to the cause. The cause has a name and a face and writes to them three times a year. They can even go visit the cause if they like.

This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t be more generous. Far from it. But it does mean that the gateway to greater generosity is organizations working to more directly engage Christians in the cause, not characterizing Christians as ungenerous because they fail to respond to organizations’ appeals to support their professional efforts.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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5 Responses to The Child In The Pond Dilemma

  1. Matt Bates says:

    More please about the mystification of the cause and the professionalization of the nonprofit. When did this develop? How? Why? It feels to me like a symptom of a greater process at work that also impacts churches and church participation, civic participation and governmental operations, education, family life, even consumer behavior. And it doesn’t feel new. Is it cyclical? I’d love your thoughts on this.

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