The Right Way to Give

By Noelle Sullivan, PhD

With famine threatening Africa, charities need our support. But think before you act.

A potentially catastrophic global crisis looms. Famine threatens Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria – countries mired in conflict. Humanitarian agencies that ordinarily respond are strapped for cash to fund critical relief efforts, possibly due to failures of previous humanitarian efforts to demonstrate that donations went where intended.

Many have turned to their purchasing power in support of causes, from buying red noses at Walgreens to end child poverty, to Toms shoes so children in poor countries get a pair, too. However, as faculty in global health studies and anthropology at Northwestern University, I've seen firsthand the effects of well-intentioned purchasing choices and material donations. Those purchased products for a cause, and our donated goods – clothes, toys, shoes, kitchen items – have unintended consequences, in part because from afar, we don't know what is actually useful, and because there's something alluring to purchasing something for ourselves and knowing it helps someone else. The fact is, these purchases and material donations often do more harm than good.

From US News and World Report