Engaging in social media can be dangerous.  Between my Twitter account (you can follow me and my friends @hungerbites), our social networking site (join us on The Table), and various blogs, I find myself conflicted… perhaps a friend from the blogosphere can help.

It started when my friend Mark posed a question on The Table.  He wrote:

“Organizations like Amnesty InternationalOxfamand so many others are focusing on the same [hunger and poverty] issues, and with the leading of people like Jeffrey Sachs and Esther Duflo, and major think tanks like those atYaleColumbia and MIT and so many others also working on these issues, plus Protestant and Catholic Christians involved, why has so little progress been made?”

The upshot of his question is, why, if we can all agree that hunger and poverty are evils, and if we have put so much intellectual energy into addressing them, have we not made the progress we need?  Why are hunger and poverty a perennial problem?

Bill Easterly points to one problem–too often the self interests of a given NGO (or even a division within the same NGO!) take the place of the needs of those they are supposedly in the business of supporting.  He offers the example of the health care aid that is given to Ethiopia.  Citing Owen Barder,

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in Ethiopia about 65% of the population (52 million people) live in areas at risk of malaria. Malaria is the leading cause of health problems, responsible for about 27% of deaths; and malaria epidemics are increasing. TheHIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults is 2.1% (2007) – that’s about 1.6 million people living with HIV.

“Of $5.15 per head provided in aid for health to Ethiopia in 2007, about $3.18 per head was earmarked for HIV  while about $0.26 cents per head was allocated to malaria control.  Given the relatively low burden of HIV, earmarking 60% of health aid for HIV is excessive relative to other needs for health spending.

“Of course it is right that we should try to make sure that everybody with HIV has access to medicines to keep them healthy, and … to prevent spread of the disease. But we should also make sure that people have bednets and drugs to stop malaria, provide childhood vaccination to prevent easily preventable diseases, ensure access to contraception and safe abortions, and, above all, enough funding to provide basic health services that would save thousands of lives and suffering.  Yet we are not willing to provide enough money to do all of this.  It is in this context that it is damaging to earmark 60% of health aid to HIV.”

This for me raises the important question of how we accompany those who are poor and vulnerable.  How do we seek their interests rather than our own?  How do we truly work with and on behalf of those who are marginalized?  Working for a non-profit agency myself, it means I have to constantly watch my motivations for a given strategy or initiative or program.  (I found a blog recently that speaks directly to this issue. They pose as a real aid agency with the tag line “A charitable organization committed to working anywhere where generalized poverty and misery will ensure significant levels of comfort for our staff.”  The satire is biting, but the point is well made.)

We have to be honest about who benefits from our decisions.  And I think this translates into everyday life as well.  Who benefits from the decisions I make regarding consumption?  Who benefits from a given policy or politician I support?  And so on…

All of this points to a larger problem with human ability to empathize and seek the good of another.  But that is a question too big for this post. Until I have the courage to address it, maybe you can provide me with your thoughts on the subject.

-David Creech