« What's the Spanish word for "hack?" | Main | Hell, no, I don't want my money back! -- A contractual obligation piece (3 of 7) »

Doing well by doing good: A "contractual obligation" piece (2 of 7)

(Yes, I know before I said 6, and now it's 7. It turns out I'd overlooked Just Me's request. My apologies, especially since it's a slam-dunk easy one.)

Just Me wants me to explain why private charities do a better job at getting aid to people in need than the United Nations does. This is so easy, all I can think is she is giving me a "gimme" so I can take the opportunity to kick around some of my favorite targets. Thanks, Just!

It's pretty much a given that private charities do a better job than bureaucracies at actually helping people, but why is that? On first glance, it would seem that the bureaucrats would do a better job, because they are usually better educated, better trained, and better paid -- the qualifications that most people cite when rating the qualifications of public servants, such as teachers.

But there are far more important qualifications for doing good works. And it is in those categories that the private charities pound bureaucracies into the dust.

1) Motivation. The charities, generally speaking, are more interested in doing good and helping the suffering. The bureaucrats are usually more interested in the process, not the results.

2) Accountability. Here in the US, charities that want tax-exempt status have to have "open books." The amounts of their budget that actually ends up helping people is clearly rated. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are rarely subject to that level of scrutiny, and often are under pressure to spend every penny in their budget, for whatever reason, lest their funding in the future be cut.

3) Goals. This is the big one, the one that most people overlook. The ultimate goal of most people who work for charities is to end the problem. The bureaucrat's goal is to preserve their position.
Let's take a concrete example of this, and take it to the extreme. In the struggle against AIDS, but charities and bureaucracies are struggling mightily. But let's say that a miracle cure is suddenly found, and AIDS is suddenly eliminated. How would these two groups react?

Among the charities, there would be two reactions. The first would be overwhelming relief, followed by a search for a new cause to help. The second would be the same relief, followed by a sense of accomplishment, and they would leave the charitable field and resume their own lives.

But among bureaucrats, such news would cause panic. Without AIDS, they would simply have no further purpose in their work. Their budgets would be slashed, positions eliminated, prestige blown away like dust. The motto of the public employee is "don't kill the job," and the ending of this great scourge would be a deathblow to their programs. There would be a massive reorganizing effort as they desperately try to find some way to justify their continued existence. They'd try to rope other diseases under their purview, expend massive efforts to "verify" that every single trace of AIDS was exterminated, pour funds into research on more effective cures should it return, amass stockpiles of the vaccine, and in general do whatever they could to keep the fight against AIDS going long after it has been won. Witness the Strategic Helium Reserve for one particularly silly example.

And that's why there are thousands of private aid workers in the field helping the victims of the tsunami, while the United Nations officials are holding "meetings" and "conferences" in five-star hotels, trying to figure out how to best to take the credit. Once, of course, they resolve the shortages of ice cubes and caviar.



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Comments (6)

In theory, I agree with you... (Below threshold)

In theory, I agree with your 1,2,3. And I would like to think charities are more altruistic than govt bureaucracies. But here are some thoughts to the contrary:

2) Accountability - wasn't there a huge unsuccessful effort to view the books of Jesse Jackson's charities vis-a-vis his mistress scandal? And aren't govt records public? We need an accountant's expertise on this subject.

3) Goals - I think private charities can become just as ensconced in self-perpetuation as govt entities. It's practically illegal to cure cancer in this country. And what would all the bleeding hearts do if they couldn't go on another "Breast Cancer Walk" and poison all my favorite music radio stations with continual ads promoting cancer? Research has already proven that prior abortion is linked to later breast cancer (interference with the body's natural reproductive process).

And are you now calling the UN a government? I'm sure they'd like to think of themselves as that already, but I see them as the largest corrupt charity there is.

Well I almost had you argue... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

Well I almost had you argue why refugees moving from Taxachussettes to NH is a good thing.

Also, while the UN isn't exactly a government, it definitely acts as one at times, and they have proven they are incapable of effectively managing money.

I think another reason private charities do better than government run ones, is that the private charities are dependant always upon donations to do their work, so they have to prove they are worthy, the government generally has unlimited access to tax money (essentially charitable giving by force) and they don't have to prove their effectiveness to keep the money coming-shoot, they often argue that the reason their charity isn't working, is because the tax payers have failed to give them enough money.

So which of the private cha... (Below threshold)
Neil S:

So which of the private charities donated the use of its aircraft carrier and fleet of helicopters for the initial disaster response?

Neil, it certainly wasn't t... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Neil, it certainly wasn't the UN that sent in the carrier. And I don't recall anyone ever arguing that the US Navy (or, by extension, the US government) was a charitable institution. That the Lincoln battle group was sent just goes to show you that even charities have their limitations... but the American people have trouble recognizing such things as limits. For good or ill.


- Now that was Ubber-snarky... (Below threshold)

- Now that was Ubber-snarky JT.... Ubber-accurate but non-the-less snarky.... there are some things that just aren;t disscussed in Washington polite company.... ribbit

Actually, consider the Marc... (Below threshold)
Sabba Hillel:

Actually, consider the March of Dimes. When the Polio vaccine came out, the organization went hog wild trying to find a disease to replace polio. I suppose that you could consider that it was the beaurocratic segment of the organization (or the research labs that wanted to stay in business) rather than the charitable component that reacted in that way. In any case, they began trying to take ove "birth defects"., which while a necessary activity, did not have the mass appeal of polio.

BTW in talking about "charity" the word comes from the Latin "caritas" (heart) which means taking care of people we feel sorry for. I prefer the Hebrew word "tzedakah" which is from "tzedek" meaning justice. The donations to charity and the work that we do should be regarded as a matter of justice and not just feeling sorry. I think that this is the way most Americans feel and act. It is the reason that religious people do more charitable work and that we react so immediately to crises.






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