The Problem with Giving

In a comment to my post on microlending, Jessica asked what I thought about an organization that does what might be called microgiving, giving people animals that grow to be more valuable than they were when given. I'm all for charity in general, but there are several reasons why this would probably work better if the animals were replaced with loans. Loans are better than giving, despite the cliche about not borrowing and lending.

Local knowledge is better than a plan to save the world. Animals aren't the best use of money in all places at all times for all people. The theory behind microlending, largely proven in practice, is that people know what their local community needs, and they just need some capital to provide it. Maybe their local community needs animals. But maybe it doesn't. I remember a story - I don't know the source or if it's true - about a charity that gave cars to poor people, who then sold the cars and bought bus tickets. This ties into the next issue:

Shared responsibility is better than individual responsibility. If I give you a dollar, you are only responsible to yourself in how you spend that dollar. You may want to spend that dollar in the most beneficial way possible, but you may not know what that is, and even if you know, you might not be listening to yourself. You could easily be tempted to spend it on a short-term gain at the expense of a long-term investment. If I loan you a dollar, we have a shared responsibility for how that dollar is spent. We are both responsible to ourselves, but also to each other. Shared responsibility is multiplied, not just added. And when an organization stays around for a while, this responsibility gets multiplied even further over time. Which ties into the next issue:

Individuals are less likely to reinvest than organizations. Reinvestment is good. If I give you money, your wealth has grown. But you won't likely give money to someone else. If I loan you money, your wealth grows, and then you give the money back to me, and I can give it to someone else. And over time, I can give money to more and more people. Reinvestment build infrastructure which improves community. And now that I think about it, this is a problem with Kiva, the direct-microlending organization I wrote about earlier, because the individuals doing lending through Kiva are less likely to loan again than Kiva would be if it were handling the loans.

Another issue is the relationship created by giving vs. lending. We give down, to people who have less than us. We lend to peers and make them our partners in investment. This is a bit counter-intuitive, but I think it's true. Personally, I don't like to borrow money from people, but I like even less to take money from people. And then, of course, there's the cynical view that poor people are just lazy, which microlending preempts and microgiving doesn't.

So in general I think microlending is better than microgiving. That said, if you want to donate directly to people, go ahead. It couldn't hurt. I think microlending is a smarter way to redistribute wealth. But the world, in my opinion, is not currently lacking in smarts so much as compassion. I should also point out briefly that most of the principles I've described here don't hold true on a larger scale. I favor macro-giving over macro-lending, but I'll go into that some other time.

i don't want to argue with the unique benefits of microlending or the astounding results of groups like grameen and accion. i do, though, think the needs for those living in poverty could best be met by a combination of microlending and giving.
you made a good point about local expertise being critical. i agree. the heifer group i mentioned doesn't give everyone a cow. sometimes it's a llama, sometimes bees, sometimes tree saplings, depending on the climate and community needs. that's the idea, anyway. why am i pushing for giving away livestock? because the tremendous resources of wealthy countries and large organizations can pay the expenses of moving the animals, feeding them, providing training for the new owners (which heifer does). this allows the recipients to eat that much sooner, but still sustain the longterm benefits, too.

Be number 2:

knows half of 8 is