Ten Arguments Against Relationship-Constrained Charity (2/4)

Relationship Constrained

by Dominic Roser


In this blog series (the introduction is here), I argue that we shouldn’t focus on having a personal relationship with the ultimate recipients of our charitable donations, or with the NGO people who deliver the aid. Rather, we should just donate our money to the most effective organisations. I will now list ten considerations in favour of this position:

(1) While relationships are an important part of a flourishing life, they are not everything. Other aspects matter too, for example going to bed with a full stomach, surviving childbirth, and just generally getting out of poverty. If we have a “relationship constraint” on our donations — i.e. if we limit our donations to those causes where we can enter in a relationship with the recipient — then we may forego the most effective ways to fight poverty. If we forego the most effective ways to fight poverty, then more people suffer from poverty. Thus, in our fallen world, there is a trade-off between focusing on relationships and focusing on poverty eradication. And, in my view, many Christians are wrongly over-focussing on the former. For those people who will go to bed hungry it may seem cruel that rich donors put more emphasis on knowing the recipients of their donations face-to-face rather than helping them escape poverty.

(2) Relationships matter, and they matter much. But the relationship between recipient and donor or deliverer is not the only relationship that matters. The relationships of the ultimate recipient to the people in her family or community matter just as much. Relationships are often under huge stress due to poverty. Desperate fathers have to work far away from the family for most of the year. Desperate mothers mistrust their neighbours due to scarcity of resources. Desperate children fight with each other due to the mental stress of a life in poverty. By providing the material resources for poverty eradication, we indirectly provide one of the core enablers of wholesome community relationships. By foregoing the constraint that there must exist a relationship between donor and recipient, we can donate to more effective charities, i.e. to charities that help more families out of poverty. By helping more families out of poverty, we can do away with one core obstacle for healthy relationships. Refraining from the insistence on a relationship between donor and recipient thus ultimately supports the flourishing of relationships in the ultimate recipient’s community!

(3) Yes, relationships between the poor and the wealthy are important. And these relationships ought be face-to-face, personal, and holistic. But there is little reason why these relationships must be relationships with exactly those poor who are the recipients of my donations

In my view, every wealthy person (i.e. at least 95% of people in the West) should try to build at least some links to their sisters and brothers in extreme poverty (see also this nice quote from Pope Francis). We should know each other personally. We should talk to each other. We should meet and know each other’s names. However, it is more important that we have such a relationship than that every donation of ours is linked to such a relationship.

For example, my church could have a sister church in the global South with the faithful in both congregations sharing life with each other. Separate from this, I could donate to the most cost-effective poverty eradicating charities. Thus, both would be covered: relationships and poverty. They are simply covered separately from each other. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

(4) Many who emphasize donating money to people they personally know put much less emphasis on buying things from people they personally know. They buy their shirts, their yoghurt, and their mobile phone apps from people they have never met and will never meet. If relationships are so important, why would they apply this only to donations and why not equally strongly to their shopping?

Of course, some of us do emphasize local shopping and prefer buying stuff from acquaintances who made the products themselves. However, this is mostly a fringe phenomenon. It applies to eggs we get from the farmer or to the mittens we knit for our sibling. And there is a good reason why we apply no “relationship constraint” more widely to our shopping: it would be very very cumbersome. It would allow us to buy much less and much less useful things. The same applies to a “relationship constraint” for poverty eradication: If we primarily donate to people with whom we can personally interact, then we can achieve much much less poverty eradication. While buying less stuff is not that horrible for wealthy people, achieving less poverty eradication is horrible for those fighting for a life free from it.

Click here for next installment (part 3) of the blog series with further reasons.

2 thoughts on “Ten Arguments Against Relationship-Constrained Charity (2/4)

  1. Thanks for this excellent work Dominic, I really like your arguments.

    (a) If we consider a basic model of charity: donor->aid organisation->recipient. Then it would be interesting to ask the relationist which of these links need to be done relationally. Perhaps some might say that any aid mediated through an aid organisation already is wrong as it limits your relationship with the recipient, yet this seems very extreme. I don’t think I have many friends who think that the Donor->Aid organisation link has to be done relationally, or if they do this is for purely instrumental reasons of knowing/trusting them. So I guess there are two fundamental questions left: (1) Does the Aid organisation->Recipient link have to be done relationally and (2) Does there have to be an overarching relational link between the Donor and the Recipient even if the donor uses an intermediary aid organisation to do the work. I think that my friends might feel stronger about (1) over (2).

    (b) I think your second point is really important. If relationships are of prime significance, then there is no reason to favour donor->recipient relationships over the recipient’s relationships with their local community. I had never considered it like this before, and it’s so clear that attacking unnecessary suffering and poverty is such a key way of allowing people to relationally flourish. Perhaps the relationists might still suggest that they aren’t arguing for the constraint in a consequentialist fashion but merely that this is just a requirement of proper charity in the same way that a deontologists might want to argue that it doesn’t matter how much stealing you could stop if you stole a thief’s crowbar, you still shouldn’t do it.

    (c) With your third point, it seems to me that if there really was this relationship constraint then that would just create an overwhelming reason for Christians to go and build relationships with the potential beneficiaries of high impact interventions. This would become quite a strong obligation, for if it wasn’t the case then if you have no poor friends/people in your community then it would mean that you would have no need to do charity.

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  2. Thanks, Alex!

    You mention that some people value relational links for “purely instrumental reasons of knowing/trusting them”. I think that is important and I hadn’t sufficiently considered this before writing this blogpost: Often people think the personal relationship is important simply because it allows better control of what’s happening with the money.

    And I agree very much that mostly “having a relational link” must either be about (1) the Aid Organization having a personal link to the ultimate recipient or (2) there being an overarching link between donor and recipient.
    I assume that (2) would include those people who say that one should primarily donate to organizations in one’s own community (“charity begins at home”)?
    In any case, (2) should definitely also be covered by my blogpost because I think some people think it is not only important that the recipient has some relational link to the source of money but that also the donor is more deeply engaged in charity than simply by getting rid of his/her money (though this whole focus on how charity should benefit the donor is anyway overemphasized in my view).

    Your point (c) is great. If I understand it correctly, then it is kind of a turning-the-tables: Some people say “You should focus your charitable donations on where you have relationships”. And one could reply “OK — I agree that donations and relationships should go hand-in-hand. But I conclude from this that you should build relationships where your donations should go.”

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