In the wake of the devastation caused by the Haitian earthquake, to say nothing of the dangerously anarchic after-effects engendered within Haiti by the crisis, severe infusions of both kindness and stupidity have leaked into the political bloodstream. On the one hand, unprecedented donations by large contributors have been sent to the small island nation, and good will can be said to reign supreme. On the other, the nation has found itself collectively face-palming at such asinine comments as the Rev. Pat Robertson’s claim that Haitians are suffering for making a pact with the devil (a moment of idiocy for which I apologize on behalf of any and all conservatives at Wesleyan), as well as the foolish claim by certain elements of the blogosphere that the term “looting” is a racist code word.
However, here at Wesleyan, a quite interesting phenomenon has occurred – the two streams of foolishness and kindness, previously kept separated, have converged into the purest expression of well-intentioned irrelevance.
I refer, naturally, to the efforts by certain members of my class to cancel the next senior cocktails event and devote the money collected to Haiti relief efforts. While this issue has already received a large measure of coverage by an enterprising anonymous compatriot of mine on Wesleying, a few quick comments on the larger economic context of the proposal are appropriate, as well as an extrapolation of the problems with the voting procedure.
Unfortunately, the charitable sentiments of the senior class aside, this idea is a textbook example of Wesleyan’s saccharine prevailing view that one should “be nice first and ask questions later.” Ordinarily, I avoid mention of most instances where my peers act on this unfortunate urge, but given that this one dovetails with what I see as a true example of procedural malpractice, it deserves mention. In short, the proposal by the senior class to cancel an instance of senior cocktails in the name of donating $15,000 dollars to Haiti will be economically irrelevant at best, relied on a completely invalid voting system, and as a whole, its effects do not justify the expenditure involved.
Firstly, consider the economic effects. The senior class proposes to donate, at most, $15,000. By contrast, even the smallest corporate donations to Haiti, according to Reuters, have been over $100,000. Furthermore, the Federal Government alone is spending $100 million, while the United Nations is endeavoring to raise $500 million. This means that, at best, the Wesleyan donation would only be 15 percent as effective as its nearest corporate competitor – a competitor who is also likely to be ineffective, given the fact that their donations range from 0.10 to 0.25 of a percent of the Federal Government’s expenditure. In short, any potential effect the proposed donation could have has been crowded out by the vast funds of the Federal government, rendering it all but entirely useless.
Moreover, as Reuters blogger Felix Salmon also documents, “Haiti, if it wasn’t a failed state before the earthquake, is almost certainly a failed state now — and one of the lessons we’ve learned from trying to rebuild failed states elsewhere in the world is that throwing money at the issue is very likely to backfire.”
Salmon’s case is only helped when you also consider African scholar Dambisa Moyo’s recent scholarship which shows that, far from being a panacea, foreign aid is often a death knell for states which need badly to reform, and instead rely on their foreign benefactors to the exclusion of functionality. As such, far from helping the matter, Wesleyan’s donation might even make it worse, especially when you consider that so many charities (Yele, Doctors Without Borders, to name two) are either corrupt or operating at such a high level of funding already that they could persist for the next decade.
At that point, Wesleyan’s donation could either facilitate the corruption already present, or end up unused at the bottom of some organization’s coffers.
So economically, while private charity is never bad in the abstract, this particular expenditure could yield so little potential utility for those benefitting from it relative to the utility sacrificed by those making it that it is dubiously justifiable.
Still, one could justify making the contribution, if the decision were made by the relevant actors. However, as the already existing Wesleying post documents, it was not. Rather, the senior class took the crudest route possible by holding a majority vote in which any senior could vote, irrespective of whether he/she had actually paid for senior cocktail tickets.
Had this been the only procedural problem, it still would have had the undesirable effect of giving people with no stake in the decision economic control over other peoples’ money.
However, not even that happened, as those who lost out in the vote were given the option to withdraw their money. At this point, the symbolic value of the donation goes up in smoke, since, if enough seniors decide to cancel their contribution, the vaunted $15,000 mark might not even be met, leading to a situation where the senior class overpromised and underperformed, making us look stingy when the goal was to be generous.
Finally, as if all of this wasn’t enough to justify throwing out the results and starting the process over, witness the small amount of time and scant amount of information given to the relevant decision-makers. Not only was the senior class only given two days to vote on the proposal, but its details were left so vague that not even a proposed recipient for the donation has been named. This lack of detail led to the classic reaction by Wesleyan’s self-appointed champions of downtrodden peoples/kicked puppies, which was to badger their dissenters with poisonous false dichotomies and shameless guilt trips as a means of getting the donation approved. It is easy to frame the issue as one of inebriation versus salvation, but this tragedy is a sobering event and deserves a sober response.