Does charity begin at home?

Today I arrived in Kolkata for a project where I’ll be looking at the monitoring and evaluation practices used for rural water projects in West Bengal. As is common when arriving into an Indian city by train my first glimpses of Kolkata were of slum housing lining the sides of the railway line. The spaces between the different lines were even being used for hanging out washing or the odd makeshift home. For western travellers it’s often quite shocking to see the extremes of poverty so close to the relative wealth of others. These inequalities are pronounced nowhere better than the rapidly growing cities of developing countries. Everyday sights might include expensive western cars next to bullocks and carts, men in suits walking past beggars, and high rise buildings next to slums. The initial response to these sights is often one of unfairness. Why do we live in a society that finds this acceptable and why are the people in these cars or suits not doing more to help out their fellow citizens?

However is it right to condemn the relatively wealthy in developing countries when on average we in the west are much better off? Even if a rich man is ignoring a woman walking to collect water, they will probably have far less money to do something about this than most people reading this on the internet. The only difference between us and them is distance. This distance has two potential effects; one on our ability to help, and one on the morality of helping others.

A similar case is neatly outlined by Peter Singer’s paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ written forty years ago about the East Bengal famine of 1971. ”The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away [...] From the moral point of view, the development of the world into a ‘global village’ has made an important, though still unrecognized, difference to our moral situation. Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block.”

Singer’s hypothesis rests on the assumption that people do have the ability to help those far away and in need. In the context of developmental aid the assumption is that aid is effective in helping people. The overall usefulness of developmental aid, or lack of, has been the subject of extensive debate and the efficacy of aid is far from conclusive. This combined with the information asymmetries that characterise the donor–NGO relationship mean that donors do not know that their money is being used effectively. In terms of Singer’s argument – people do not know that it is in their power to help.

My PhD research includes looking at methods for impact evaluation for NGOs which examine the effectiveness of charitable interventions. Advances in the monitoring of project inputs and outputs, combined with an increased drive for charities to be transparent with this information means that donors can now access very detailed information on the work of a number of charities. Although the overall impact of aid is unclear, rigorous impact evaluations and tracking systems that monitor inputs and outputs provide strong evidence that for certain interventions money is being used effectively. As an aside; my work for FRANK Water includes looking at which indicators we need to collect to demonstrate effectiveness, and how we should display them to be as transparent (or Frank) as possible. Expect to see much more information on FRANK Water Projects in the coming year.

The main point of this piece, however, is that morality should not be affected by distance. If you can see the effectiveness of a charity then you are in the same situation as the rich people walking past the poor. If pictures of skyscrapers next to slums makes you question the morality of others then perhaps you should question your own.

Stewart Kettle is a PhD student, writing his thesis in association with FRANK Water