Religion & Beliefs

The Problem with Charity

When Zimbabwe recently cracked down on CARE—a leading humanitarian organization focused on global poverty which has spent more than $100 million in Zimbabwe in the last 16 years—I started thinking about how some charities do amazing work, but somehow don’t … Read More

By / June 16, 2008

When Zimbabwe recently cracked down on CARE—a leading humanitarian organization focused on global poverty which has spent more than $100 million in Zimbabwe in the last 16 years—I started thinking about how some charities do amazing work, but somehow don’t leave the people they serve any better off. This month, CARE would have fed more than 110,000 people who will now go hungry because President Robert Mugabe has limited the charity's access. It's upsetting that 110,000 people depend on CARE every month, and leads me to wonder whether charities like CARE and Feed the Children could be doing more to fight hunger and poverty long term, instead of always focusing on the immediate.

This is a tricky question. If someone is starving in front of you, it’s unimaginable to say to her, “Well, I’m going to give my money to an advocacy group that is helping to eliminate hunger long term.” But if that person is dependent on handouts from you and others, there’s little chance the problem will ever be solved.

Judaism places a high priority on giving time, money and resources to those in need. Over and over again, the Torah commands us to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us. We are to provide food and clothing for those who need them, heal the sick, and bury the dead. But of course, it’s not that simple. Thousands of charities compete for our support every day, dealing with everything from hunger relief in Africa and animal cruelty in the States to global warming.

Maimonides is famous for his ladder of tzedakah, or hierarchy of giving. The highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to give an interest free loan, or to enter into a business partnership. To help someone get back on her feet and provide for herself is considered higher than providing immediate relief to a problem. In some cases, immediate relief is all that is needed. In the aftermath of major natural disasters, immediate support in the form of food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical supplies is absolutely necessary, and may be all that can be reasonably done. But when we’re dealing with a long term problem with no end in sight, it may be better to think big picture and give to charities that are working on the roots of our problems, not the buds.