Dependency has become a bad word in the charity business. Fighting poverty is good, but meeting the needs of people in poverty can produce dependency, which is not regarded as a good thing.
But before we “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, consider our children. A newborn baby is completely helpless and completely dependent on its parents. We do not say to the parents,” Do not feed your child: you may produce dependency”. In this case, dependency is good and it’s natural.
At the other end of the scale, if a poverty relief programme simply gives out to needy families, who could actually take charge of their lives to meet those needs themselves, then that program is producing a dependency. At best this programme will be inefficient and at worst it can actually do more harm than good to the recipients.
Consider the giving of alms to beggars on the street in a country such as India. This practice actually encourages more beggars as begging becomes a viable economic activity. In this situation, although charity may meet an immediate need, it can do more harm than good. In reality, giving to beggars is more about making the giver feel good than caring for the real needs of the person before them.
However things are not quite that simple. If a man, for mental or physical reasons, cannot produce income in any other possible way, and there is nobody else who can help, then begging may be the only alternative to starvation and death. This man is already “dependent” on others, whether we like it or not.
A simple rule
If a charitable programme continues to meet the same needs of the same people year after year, and if the recipients of the programme could actually meet those needs themselves with initiative or with a little guidance, then that programme is producing dependency and is inefficient, or at worst is actually harmful to the recipients.
Transfer of resources
At best, a program producing dependency, is simply a transfer of resources (usually money) from the rich to poor. There are people whose income is up to 1,000,000 times that of a person living in extreme poverty. If that money can be transferred, either by taxation or voluntary giving, from the rich and poor, then this must be a good thing. But it needs to be done wisely, not encouraging dependency.
If we are to fight against poverty, and injustice, we need to produce charitable programs which either:
- Help people, trapped by extreme poverty, to find a way out of that poverty.
- Campaign against injustice and apathy which produce poverty.
It is the difference between spending money and investing money. Simply relieving poverty is like spending, fighting poverty is an investment for the future of not only poor people, but the future of society as a whole.
I am avoiding a dogmatic statement such as, “a program producing dependency is always a bad thing and can actually harm the recipients of the program”. In practice a programme can produce some good benefits, be neutral, be inefficient or it can be harmful.
Consider these Situations
Consider the following situations, and make a judgement as to whether the programme produces dependency and if so whether that dependency is good, neutral or harmful.
- A government scheme producing a monthly allowance for severely disabled people who find it difficult to earn money themselves.
- A programme which helps people with restricted sight to find meaningful employment.
- A programme which runs a health clinic in a remote area sponsored by an international charity.
- A charity dedicated towards helping people to get out of debt by giving advice and by negotiating with the creditors.
- An international charity helping to meet the running costs of an orphanage in a developing country. Consider the fact that the children are by nature dependent. Also consider whether or not these needs could be met by the government, or the society of that country.
- A programme which disperses food packages weekly to families living in a slum around a major city in a developing country.
- A programme which saves lives by distributing food supplements in an area hit by a sudden famine, earthquake or flood.
- A programme which gives grants of a cow to a poor family as an income generation scheme helping the family to produce an income. We need to consider what happens if the cow dies and what happens when a calf is produced. Does the family consider the cows belong to them, or to the charity which gave the cow?
My personal experience is that most people are very generous and genuinely want to help when they see a need. But in the same way that government agencies and charities need wisdom in combating poverty, we as givers need wisdom in how and where to give.
No charity has a perfect record. We have all made mistakes. The charity I am associated with, Karuna Action, is trying hard to learn the lessons and seeks to support programmes which are sustainable and do not encourage harmful dependency.
What do you think?
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- Extreme Wealth and Extreme Poverty (georgedowdell.org)