Saturday, December 16, 2006

Gifts at Christmas - Part 2

Camp Connell, Ca -- Part of every Sunday School curriculum teaches about the need to help the poor.
Traditionally, most people think of a tithe, or Biblical one-tenth, as a fair share standard, a standard which almost none of us live up to. (Some do, but not many.)
A tithe is also a culturally accepted standard, not just a preacher's tool to separate the money from parish members. Most of us think it is a good idea, but we simply can't afford it this year.
Many of us like the idea that those blessed with abundance (as in, the rich) are expected to give more.
One of the few good things I can note about the year 2006 is that a few very rich folks have done just that, and made the rest of us think about what we give, and why. For that we can thank the Gates and Buffett families.
And that giving might hold a clue to solving world poverty, if we will all cooperate.

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer asked the following question today in a lengthy New York Times Magazine article about charity and its role in alleviating poverty:

"What is a human life worth? You may not want to put a price tag on a it. But if we really had to, most of us would agree that the value of a human life would be in the millions.
"Consistent with the foundations of our democracy and our frequently professed belief in the inherent dignity of human beings, we would also agree that all humans are created equal, at least to the extent of denying that differences of sex, ethnicity, nationality and place of residence change the value of a human life."
"With Christmas approaching, and Americans writing checks to their favorite charities, it's a good time to ask how these two beliefs — that a human life, if it can be priced at all, is worth millions, and that the factors I have mentioned do not alter the value of a human life — square with our actions. Perhaps this year such questions lurk beneath the surface of more family discussions than usual, for it has been an extraordinary year for philanthropy, especially philanthropy to fight global poverty."

America's actions as a nation, and many Americans' individual actions, seem to show we actually do value the lives of some folks more than others. (I think immediately of our money spent on Iraq, and Darfur. Singer offers statistical proof.)

Singer goes on to detail the impact of the massive donations by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, and to talk about what their example might do.
Meanwhile, back to the "other" rich among us:
" the real world, it should be seen as a serious moral failure when those with ample income do not do their fair share toward relieving global poverty. It isn't so easy, however, to decide on the proper approach to take to those who limit their contribution to their fair share when they could easily do more and when, because others are not playing their part, a further donation would assist many in desperate need."

Singer applies philosophy and moral standards to the discussion, and comes up with some suggestions that might make a few rich folk squirm.

If you think it would not apply to you, make sure you check out his formulas for giving.

And then back up one blog in this series and read about the family in Transylvania that actually was living on $300 a year.

Maybe you and I are rich and just don't realize it.

Maybe we should each buy a cow, or goat, or pig, or tree for someone who needs it.

Read the excellent article by Singer online at the New York Times Magazine by cutting and pasting this link:


Gifts at Christmas -- Holy Cow!

Camp Connell -- The toughest questions we face in life seem to be the ones we often don't want to answer.
For examples: do I make a contribution to a needy person or charity because I feel sorry for the poor, want to offer them a hand up, it makes me feel good, or because it is my duty? Or do I do nothing because I had good intentions but didn't bother to take the time? Does my contribution do any good?
National Public Radio recently touched on the idea of gift-giving at Christmas and the choices people make in a well-done audio report in which a reporter in Transylvania -- really -- chased down a cow donated by a woman through a poverty-fighting organization.
And the New York Times Magazine turned Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer loose for a very very long article on one way to solve world poverty in our time -- acknowledging the value of a human life. More on his long and philosophical article in the next blog.

But first, consider the cow in Transylvania.
A woman in Minnesota wanted to give her grown children something for Christmas, but they had everything they need. So she donated $250 to buy a cow to be given to a family living in poverty somewhere in the world, in their name. It turned out to be a couple in Transylvania.
The radio reporter, a little dubious at the start, make a little joke about the impersonal nature of such charitable gifts.
Turns out that one cow produced so much milk that the couple was able to sell the excess. The result was a doubling of their annual income (of $300) and improving their diet.
The cow was such a good producer they even had milk to give away to poorer neighbors.
And when the cow gave birth to a calf, as promised when they accepted the gift of charity from an unknown in Minnesota, they gave it away to a neighbor to help them out. They don't really seem to know where the cow came from, except from some "generous American" willing to help them.

That $250 gift helped the family in Transylvania begin to work its way out of terrible poverty, encouraged them to share their good fortune, and made a lady in Minnesota happy.
It made me happy too because I know a lot about Heifer International, the charity that made it all possible. Heifer has a close California connection (a facility in Turlock, of all places). We also have friends who worked for Heifer and picked it years ago as one of the charities we know and trust to do good work with our pittance. (Cows are a bit costly, but a hive of bees is always a good bargain donation.)
But by the end of the radio interview with the folks who got the cow, you could detect a change in the reporter'stone. She acknowledged, in what sounded a bit like a sheepish voice, that she was reconsidering giving Starbucks gift cards this year. Maybe she could do better.
Maybe we all can.
You can check it out at

Next: a philospher looks at rich givers