Thoughtless Generosity, by Danielle Balbi

Something that has struck me recently, roughly 7000 miles away from my New York City home, is our endemic need for self-fulfillment as a society. And paired with our impatience, we feel that we don’t have time to wait around for something to happen.

Perhaps this desire for immediacy is a result of our Western consumerism. We all know the term instant gratification—we want things when we want them. We like to see results. That is why those ladies sit on the south side of Union Square Park, propped up on their little chairs with stacks of cages housing tiny little kittens. If you get close enough, you hear their dainty little meows, and can’t help but fall prey to this very simple marketing tactic. How could you not donate money to that shelter? That would just be cruel, wouldn’t it? Jeez, maybe you’ll even take one home.

But what if those women weren’t sitting amongst those kittens in cages? What if they were standing on the corner, handing out thoughtful, detailed pamphlets about how your money will help house animals in comfortable conditions, with all the food, water, and cat toys imaginable? Would you still feel inclined to donate money? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can confidently say likely not. It seems like you don’t have time to think twice about exactly where your money is going to end up. You just want to see an instant change, or see the person – or animal – that you’re ostensibly helping.

And sadly, we employ the same mentality when donating money, clothing, books, or other goods.

Since arriving in Cambodia, I have been inundated with countless examples of this thoughtless, even patronizing generosity. While some people may be well-intentioned in their desire to “help,” many of us have very simple and naïve conceptions of where donations can be most helpful. I want to help feed homeless kids. I want to clothe poor children. I want to give them books to read. But are we informed when we act? Just because you have the checkbook, or the stockpile of old trigonometry textbooks you haven’t used in seven years, you get to make these decisions—decisions that directly affect the lives of those who are the recipients of your “aid.”

On our recent visit to the Life and Hope Association’s language school, I saw rows and rows of physics textbooks lining the walls. What exactly will students who are learning English for the first time do with those materials? At another school, we saw a brand new kitchen that was converted into a storage room. Despite the school’s advice, the donor ignored the importance of ventilation when cooking in the Cambodian heat and humidity. So, why couldn’t the same money have been used to fund a math program? You can’t take pictures in front of a math program. You can’t “see” what you have contributed. So I ask: what is the purpose of “giving” if we’re doing it for ourselves?

This notion of thoughtless generosity has also entered my work here in Cambodia. I have been assisting in the redesign of a media curriculum for middle school and high school students—a curriculum that focuses on harnessing students’ imagination and critical thinking skills so they can tell their stories, both on a personal and political level. They will be able to narrate their own stories rather than letting others do it for them. But part of the issue with the program is its sustainability—keeping money flowing in so that the basic infrastructure is supported. Donating to this kind of program requires foresight. Although the “impact” is not immediate or easily measurable, many programs like this suffer because their goals work in opposition to the instant gratification people often seek. The donor must be able to consider the long-term goal, and view their contribution as an essential part of the process of change.

Even though it seems that no one is going to tell you to take your false generosity elsewhere, I am advocating that we take some time to truly think about our actions. Change is a process that requires time and patience. You can’t alter social conditions immediately and different kinds of programs need to be part of this process. We need to abandon this practice of instant (self) gratification and consider the future, especially when donating.


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