We all have things we’re better off not knowing. I don’t want to know how my meat gets from field to supermarket. Others don’t want to know just how fair Fair Trade coffee really isn’t. And I’m betting you don’t want to know what I’m about to tell you. So stop reading. Now!
No? Okay, you asked for it.
For thirty-six years, from 1975 until 2011, I worked – albeit pro bono dammit! – with a private charity that funded the lion’s share of all the orphanages in whatever territories had been, as of the filing for its charter in 1903, under the protection of the French Republic. This included Indochina until the fall of Saigon in 1975. But to this day it covers what was, until the mid-60’s, all of French West Africa. So when I say what I’m about to, I know at least somewhat whereof I speak.
As I’ve said, my foundation was a private one. It was founded by the French rubber tycoons of the turn of the century and then the nascent pharmaceutical industry of the interbellum. It neither needs nor desires to raise money. But most charitable foundations do. So this is really only about them.
Borderline poverty is quaint. But real poverty is just ugly. Ugly doesn’t sell. Pathos combined with cute does. So the poverty industry – and that’s what it is – hires photographers who pick the kids with the roundest faces and the biggest eyes, and then they smear sugar water around the eyes and nose and mouth to attract the flies. Flies are big sellers. Emaciated bodies too. There’s a science to this. It’s all been focus grouped.
As has the better destinations for poverty tourism. The hotel has to have a minimum of three stars. And when your church – it’s usually fundamentalist, but occasionally mainstream – sends certifiably devout Steve and Cindy and their six young children to help dig a well – because Africans have yet to learn how to operate a shovel – their home has to have a swimming pool. And, if I may be forgiven the word, hell hath no fury like sweet Cindy when the power goes out and there’s been no air conditioning for well over an hour.
Some organizations – not mine, thank God! – maintain show orphanages, not all that dissimilar to Theresienstadt, where children are schooled in how to hug the white visitor. You’ve seen the pictures. The gratitude could only be genuine, and it’s truly heart-warming.
On average over sixty percent of the orphans my foundation funded were not. Nor were they abandoned by their parents. They were sent to us because we could feed them, which their parents couldn’t. And because we could provide them a rudimentary education, which their parent’s couldn’t. But these not-their-parents parents took unstinting pains to visit whenever they could, which is why we were always reluctant to move these facilities out of range of Boko Haram, or their north-of-Nigeria affiliates, who’d otherwise treat them as their private supermarket for child soldiers. In fact that’s why, in 2012, we pressured Nicolas Sarkozy to send French soldiers to Mali. To his everlasting credit when he meets his Maker, he did.
It’s impossible to garner the percentage rake-off – more charitably known as overhead – for public foundations, because each invents its own creative bookkeeping. The lion’s share goes to raising the money. Your $100 a plate dinner is mostly about you and your spouse being seen at it by other couples who are there to be seen at it by you. A goodly part of the rest is siphoned off by all those hundreds of outstretched hands between the scraps from that dinner and anyone’s mouth.
But lest you think there’s ground for outrage here, don’t. People who need to curry your favor will parrot your language just as they do your dress code. But not unlike democracy, corruption is your concept, not theirs. People in your world can afford to decline free money. People in theirs can’t. That’s one of the things that make the Third World third, and that keep it that way.
I once managed to manage a transfer from foundation to stomach with less than a 97% rake-off, and prided myself for it, because very early on in my involvement with this stuff I came to realize that it’s not about the 97, it’s about the 3. $3 was a lot of money on the streets of Saigon in 1975 to the children of mostly black American soldiers and ethnic Chinese prostitutes. The soldiers had returned to the States, and the prostitutes – the ones who weren’t just shot outright – were sent to re-education camps. Tabs were hard to keep in those circumstances, but few if any of them ever returned to reclaim their children.
Wars eventually end. The detritus takes a bit longer.
One day I met a soldier from the Darfur who assured me, “We’re not stealing their food drops. The people give it to us. They want to make us strong so we can defend them against the rebels who’ve been stealing their food drops.” Between a rock and a hard place. That’s where civil war places most of the people involved who’d rather not be.
But it’s also where civil war places would-be decent people like you and me. Organizations like B’nai Brith tell us that our contributions are earmarked for humanitarian purposes only. But this is obfuscation. Money is fungible. Whatever Hamas or Hezbollah doesn’t have to spend on schools it can spend on resistance to the Occupation. Whatever the Israeli government doesn’t have to spend on hospitals it can spend on gunships. So designating one organization but not the other as terrorist, and then criminalizing the funding of one but not the other, is a political act, one that either turns the non-partisan philanthropist into a partisan one or puts the kibosh on his philanthropy altogether.
These are not great options, especially if you and your spouse want to be seen at that $100 a plate dinner next week. But be fair. I did warn you. Still, one saving grace of human cognition is that with a little effort we can and do learn to forget the things we don’t want to know. Were this not so I’m not sure we could function in the world.