Why You Should Never Give to the Poor

Hard to swallow isn’t it? But before you burn me at the stake, allow me to present my beliefs in the form of a story.

A number of years ago a humanitarian organization went to Africa intending to alleviate pain and suffering. The group came upon a village (in a region I cannot recall) that suffered from an atrocious lack of sanitation services. There was no clean drinking water or sewage disposal. Children played freely in the stream of sewage that ran through the center of the village. Infectious disease claimed the lives of many villagers each month. Clearly, the people of this village needed help.

The humanitarian group, in accordance with their mission, set to rectify the situation. They paid many thousands of dollars to contractors to come to the village and build a modern water purification and waste disposal system. The contractors came, did their work, and within a few weeks the village was given a solution to their problems. The people had clean water, any trace of sewage disappeared, and the rate of disease decreased dramatically.

The humanitarian group commended themselves on a job well done (or so they believed), and left to give charity elsewhere while the villagers lived on happily ever after.

But the story does not end here. For while the humanitarians had given the villagers a great gift, they had not solved their problems.

Several months later, another humanitarian group came upon the village. They had heard about the great gift bestowed by the previous group, and wanted to see the effects of charity first hand. Much to their surprise, they found the village more squalid than ever. Once more children wallowed in sewage. Once more disease plagued the people. As before there was no clean water or sanitation to be found.

But how could this be true? The modern sanitation and water purification systems installed should have lasted for decades. Yet, in only a few months they had fallen into disrepair. The water stations were filthy and misused. A great act of charity had been for nothing!

The humanitarians, puzzled by the situation, sought the chief of the village, and asked him why his people had wasted such a gift. This was his reply.

“How can you blame us? We are simple people who know nothing of modern machinery. The others came and bestowed it upon us, and it was a great relief. But after they left, things began to break down. We do not possess the knowledge to repair these problems, and the result is before you.”

That may be true, said the humanitarians, but what about the water stations? They have clearly been abused. Have you not the common sense to protect your own assets?

At this the chief looked at them cockeyed and replied.

“And what did you expect? These people had been many years without clean water. Then you gave it to them for free in abundance. They took all they could use and more. The people did not work for those water stations. They do not own them, and they could not be persuaded to maintain them.”

The humanitarians were silent. The chief had spoken truth. The great gift alone had not been enough and the reasons could be clearly observed. Perhaps, it is human nature to abuse a gift. The humanitarians returned to their camp and thought long and hard about how they could help the villagers.

The next day the humanitarians returned, determined to rebuild the water and sanitation systems with the following conditions.

  1. The villagers would have to pay for water and sanitation. Not more than they could afford, but there would be no gift giving this time.
  2. A group of villagers would work with the contractors to build the system and would be taught how to repair every aspect of it. These villagers would in turn train others so the system would never fall into disrepair.

With these new conditions in place, the water and sanitation systems were stored. This time the people had respect for the systems because they owned them. This time they were able to repair the system when it broke down. To this day the villagers have plenty of clean water and live free of filth and disease.

The above story is grounded firmly in truth, though the details are mine. It was related to me by a college professor who was himself a member of the second group of humanitarians. Though I forget much of what he taught me, I do recall one very important saying.

Never give to the poor.
Help the poor.

Upon this fine statement, I cannot improve.


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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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