“Charity starts at home” is a popular saying that pervades giving culture in the UK. According to a 2012 report by CAF, most of the money donated by individuals in the UK goes to domestic causes, with only 10% going to overseas causes last year. Similarly, the Nuffield Foundation reported that spending on international development causes represented 9% of the spending of all UK independent foundations in 2009-10.
I can understand why the saying is so popular. It is underpinned by the idea of community: caring for those around you to ensure that nobody gets left behind and to foster a sense of belonging, giving something back to those who may have supported you in the past. There is a greater sense of obligation to those who are nearby, and it may feel easier to identify with others from our own area or country. There is also a strong argument to be made for the fact that it is easier to understand one’s local context, and therefore to implement projects that will work well.
There is, however, a downside to giving preference to local causes, which I think is nicely summed up by a graph:
This graph shows us how wealth is distributed globally, in terms of income. Even if you only earned £150 a week, well below the UK poverty line for a single parent (ie. very poor by UK standards), you’d be financially better off than some 89% of the world. 1.4 billion people live on less than a pound a day, adjusted for purchasing power parity.
Now let’s take a look at where the rich and the poor live:
This highlights a clear problem with the idea of prioritising one’s local community or country – we may intend for nobody to get left behind, but in reality, the poor in the DRC, for instance, don’t have any wealthy philanthropic neighbours to help them out.
This extreme wealth inequality is important for donors, because it plays a significant role in determining how much impact they can have with their donations. Money goes much further in poor countries: labour and production costs are lower, and most importantly, there are many extremely cost effective solutions which have yet to be funded. In richer countries, most of the best buys (in terms of dramatically improving people’s lives for a small price) have long been snapped up. The NHS will spend £20,000 on a year of healthy life- but in developing countries people die of diseases which could be prevented or treated for a few pounds (eg. £3 for a bednet to prevent malaria). While there are significant challenges to ensuring overseas aid is effective, with corruption being a prime example, there are causes which have been rigorously evaluated and shown to successfully deliver life-changing work for small prices.
This is not to undervalue the suffering of people living in the UK, but rather to highlight that if we broaden our horizons, we can achieve a much greater impact.
I am sympathetic to the idea of community. But when it comes to prioritising local and domestic giving, I think the cost is too high for those who inevitably get left behind, and where you are born should not determine whether you have access to support when you need it. What do you think?