Peter Buffett has a nice article in the New York Times on what he calls “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” The article is linked below and has some important insights:

“Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.”

Buffet points out that as income inequity has risen, so have nonprofits:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

This subject always makes me think of the fact that even as Al Capone was robbing Chicago he opened up soup kitchens for the poor. It is the perfect parable of modern day tycoons who rob billions and give back millions.

I am not saying that charity is not vitally important, I’m just saying it is no substitute for justice. But justice would require that we change the system itself. As Dr. King said so many times, it is not enough to bandage someone who has been beaten and robbed along the Jericho road, at some point the good Samaritan must change the system that is producing the misery.

I will give Peter Buffet the last word:

Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

It’s an old story; we really need a new one.

Thanks to Pam Wagner for the link.