Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?
David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
I regard the above quandary as philosophical chaff. Not the kind you separate from the wheat, but the stuff a fighter pilot throws behind his ship to confuse and distract the enemy.
If you go to the soup kitchen, do you expect to see a guy there happily doing the chores because he enjoys helping others — or a dour-faced pissed off person who hates helping others, but does it just because that’s what he’s supposed to do. I’d expect the former.
The right definition of altruism is first-order altruism: if you enjoy helping others.
OTOH, the white saviour industrial complex is not helping anybody but themselves. “I work at a non-profit! We do something patronising & impractical & don’t I sound like a good person?!” may be a sign of selfishness, but that’s kind of obvious, right? Anyone can tell if someone is working at a non-profit as a status job, or is concentrating on effective execution, by the way they talk about it. Did they found this non-profit? Did they happen to mention how they speak French and have travelled all over the world at the same time? Ok, then.
As far as donating to non-profits: I freely admit that I do so to assuage my guilt for being born lucky. So what? I don’t think people receiving the aid felt patronised by that. So what’s the harm and what would be the “pure” motivation for giving anyway? If you give to an effective organisation that’s what matters.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling good (or even superior) about your choice to do so. If you fed a hundred starving people every day for a year least year, guess what, you are better than me. I look up to you and expect you to look down on me. Of course charities know that the product they’re selling to donors is good feelings, so like anyone pidiendo your plata they are going to pitch you. Well, do your homework and at least find out how much of the benefits go to White People.
Regarding the good feelings from donating money, here’s an interesting thought experiment. What if, instead of donating money to Médecins Sans Frontières, you looked up a random name in Lagos and wired them $100 US = ₦16,279 Naira. According to this estimate that would be like two weeks to a month’s salary at a good big store job, or 20 expat croissants = 50 breads.
Would you feel good about that? How good? Maybe you could repeat it 10 times, or 100, if you are well off. Is 50 breads going to change someone’s life? Is this where you buy a suit and a shave for a homeless guy and suddenly he’s a self-sufficient success? No, it’s much more like if you paid two months’ rent for someone working in the service sector in the OECD. It’s not going to be life-transforming (and when people receive life-transforming amounts of money, does it transform their lives in a good way?) but it’s quite a decently nice thing to do for someone. The life of one person is going to be quite easier for a while. Are you going to worry about favouritism with your whitey Superquid? Not really, it’s too small to make that much of a difference.
So whatever money donated to a non-profit has to be calibrated against something like that. Even if you bought a million dollar water purification system or a road or something, it’s not going to save the world. But it is a nice thing to do and maybe your kindness can be multiplied by three if you take advantage of some currency weakness. (And of course, if 100 million rich people did the same thing it would have 8 orders of magnitude greater effect/spread. But that is like creating a worldwide market versus being one customer. One customer doesn’t matter.)
It’s pretty much the same scale as the rest of life (maybe bonus 1 order of magnitude in case of vast currency differences). Picture a rich white man supporting several people (wife & kids) for 20 years on his big salary. That takes his entire dedication. And someone who can support a mistress or 5 kids in big-city lifestyle is extremely wealthy. Now consider that as a donor you’re not going to take people into your fold and make them your life, but instead are sending one-off payments (subtract 2 orders of magnitude) that hopefully don’t hamper your fun times too much (subtract 2-3 orders of magnitude). Yes, it’s nice, and yes, it’s even better if most rich people do it. But no, it’s not going to transform 100,000,000 lives — that is too many orders of magnitude above one person’s power.
Finally: I don’t pretend to understand poverty. I am a fallible human and I’m sure anyone who end-benefits from my donation doesn’t think of me or other donors as superheroes. I judge anyone who reads books/magazine articles and then tries to act like they know about “Africa” or “development” or whatever. Rich expats who live in developing countries always have a different opinion, surely more informed, but I’m not sure if the view-from-the-mansion is totally trustworthy either. Bill Easterly, a development economist, says nobody has really figured it out and the best you can do in donating money is try to make sure it  does no harm,  isn’t wasted. You are not going to socially transform jack. I think accepting my own fallibility, ignorance, and selfish impulses is a critical part of the honesty that makes me not a patronising, egotistical Saviour. Yes, I’m aggrandising myself in saying this.