Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

Effective Giving: Social Entrepreneurs

The holidays are finally over. Yesterday Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) brought an end to the twelve days of Christmas. We decided to really go for it this year, giving little presents to our kids most every day of the mini-season. (Bonus: the stream of stuff really helped to alleviate school vacation boredom.)  But according to family tradition, on Christmas Day we gave not to each other but to Jesus, since it was His birthday. This year we chose to fund social entrepreneurs whose organizations serve the poorest of the poor, which we explained to the kids are just the kind of presents Jesus most wants (Matt 25:31-40).

Why social entrepreneurs? In recent years foundations and philanthropists have emphasized investing in promising local startup NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in order to help them scale up. Just as business entrepreneurs have changed the marketplace through innovation, social entrepreneurs around the world have combined their creativity, commitment, and knowledge of local culture to more effectively impact those who experience poverty and injustice in their communities. Perhaps the best introduction to this phenomenon is David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, which tells the stories of social entrepreneurs who tackled issues like electrification in rural Brazil, home-based AIDS care in South Africa, and empowerment of street children in Indian megacities. Many economists claim that local organizations are often more effective and efficient than bureaucratic government programs or bloated international agencies with offices in Geneva.

However, as is the case in for-profit investing, the problem is figuring out who to fund. India alone as over a million locally founded NGOs.  Until relatively recently, we’ve given primarily to large, established, international organizations simply because I don’t know how to find smaller, local NGOs that I’m confident are effective. But this year we found that the three organizations we’ve been most excited about supporting are all in the social entrepreneur category.  My next couple blog posts will profile them. I hope they serve as a mini-How to Change the World, helping us give more effectively in this new year.  How about you? Do you prefer giving to the Fortune 500 of poverty relief, or smaller start-ups? Why?

How Much Should Christians Give?

Many of the great movements for justice in Christian history have been driven by clear, unequivocal moral stands.  Think of William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade.  Think of Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle.  Slavery is wrong.  Racism is wrong. Although they were prophetic minorities in their time, they had the advantage of a forceful, unambiguous ethical position.

However, when it comes to economic discipleship in the 21st century, things are perhaps not so straightforward.  This community of bloggers believes that God is calling wealthy people (i.e. people with access to a computer) to live simply for the sake of giving justly to the poor.  We stand for lifestyles of generous giving powered by a rejection of consumerism and relentless upward mobility.

But what does this mean?  What exactly qualifies as a “simple” lifestyle?  What degree of giving could legitimately called “just?”  How much would we have to share in order to be “generous?”  When it comes to hard numbers, what precisely is God calling us to do?  In short, how much should Christians give?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, and in my next few posts, I’d like to invite you to explore these issues with me.  I’ll be writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, carefully considering the guidance we find in the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as a way of getting into this important topic, let’s take a quick glance at the larger philosophical conversation.  Over the last 40 years, there has been an earnest and sometimes heated debate among ethicists about what the rich owe the poor as a matter of justice.  (For a wide-ranging, intellectually challenging discussion that touches on many of the broader issues involved, see this exchange following one of Ed’s book reviews.)  But in order to prevent this a blog post from becoming a philosophical tome, I just want to focus on how one important thinker has answered the question “How much should we give?”

Peter Singer is widely credited with having kicked off the debate about what justice demands the rich give to the poor.  Over the last 40 years, his basic stance has not changed:  we should spend our money wherever it will do the most good, and since saving human life is of much greater value than movies or vacations or eating out, giving to the desperately poor should take precedence over such relative luxuries.  However, when it comes to quantifying this general principle, Singer’s stance has varied greatly:

  • In his seminal 1972 article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer rigorously followed through on the implications of his demanding utilitarianism.  He claimed that the rich ought to give away their money and possessions to the point where they consumed almost as few resources as the poor themselves.  In other words, as long as half the world subsists on less than $2 a day, we should live on about $3 a day and give away the rest.
  • In a 1999 New York Times op-ed, he relaxed his position a bit, arguing that any income above what is necessary for our “essential needs” be given away.  Singer suggested anything over $30,000 per household, regardless of total income, should be given for economic development.
  • In his 2002 book One World, Singer conceded that his previous radical demands, while accurate from his perspective, may overwhelm people to the point where they give nothing.  But if he told people to give less, more may actually do it—and the aggregate total for the poor will be greater.   Various economists have calculated that if all wealthy people gave 1% of their income to economic development, extreme poverty could be ended.  So in the end, Singer suggested that we annually give 1% of our income as a minimum standard for doing our “fair share.”
  • In a 2006 article and 2009 book The Life You Can Save Singer sticks with the 1% figure for most of us but says that those who make more than about $100k should give 5% and up as income increases.

I find this quick overview of Singer illuminating because in the career of one scholar we have nearly the entire spectrum of answers to the question of how much we should give:  we should give even to the point of identifying with the poor (extremely demanding), we should only spend on necessities (very challenging), and we should at least do our fair share (pretty easy).  It shows how complex the issue really is.

I think this survey is useful for another reason too: it encourages us to decide for ourselves where we stand.  Often Christian giving to the poor is not a planned, intentional part of our lives—it is common to think about it only when major disasters make the news, a special offering is taken, or a homeless person invades our space.  Singer’s  proposals challenge us to embrace a quantifiable standard for our giving—and then act on it.  So what about you? If you had to add a bullet point to the list above summarizing your ethical standard for giving, what would it be? One of Singer’s options, or something else?

In my next post, I’ll consider tithing, the most common answer offered by church leaders to the question of how much Christians should give.

Profile: Tools of the Mind

This entry profiles the 4th of the 4 organizations to be considered in the Just Giving Challenge pooled donation.  Christina Jenq is a doctoral student in economics at the University of Chicago and attends Cityview Presbyterian Church. The views expressed in this entry do not necessarily reflect the views of University of Chicago faculty or Cityview Presbyterian Church.

On Human Capital

I believe that U.S. income inequality (as a proxy for the inequality of well-being in America) has its roots in the inequality of human capital development at young ages.

You may have noticed that I used the word human capital rather than education. What is human capital?

In economics,  “capital” is usually modeled as any stock of goods that can be used repeatedly in future periods to contribute to generating income future periods of time (in other words, it is durable). It is often categorized into physical capital (i.e. machines, computers, real estate) and human capital, which is anything a human possesses that can contribute to producing income repeatedly in future periods. Examples of human capital include computer programming skills, business skills, physical health, your social network, etc. Each of these examples can often be proxied by educational attainment.

Many nonprofits, including the ones promoted by this blog’s authors, are in the business of providing free or subsidized capital, whether physical or human, to the poor. For example, Samasource, which Ed Chang profiled, subsidizes training in programming skills (among other functions) for vulnerable workers in developing countries; and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) runs many projects that subsidize both physical and human capital.

In developed countries like the U.S., physical capital such as machines and electronic gadgets is in enough supply such that human capital has now become relatively scarcer.  This implies that investing in human capital will generally be a more effective means of fighting poverty in the U.S. than investing in physical capital; for example, I think that poor urban U.S. neighborhoods don’t need more laptops and cellphones (especially since they’ve become so cheap!), but more skills, education, and health. In fact, the test results coming out of international educational assessments tell a story of the U.S. falling far behind other developed and developing countries in critical thinking skills in language and math.

The Argument for Early Intervention

And if investing in forms of human capital like education and health is more effective, then what’s the best way of investing in human capital?  Experimental research from psychology, economics, and child development has pointed to the effectiveness of early childhood intervention relative to later intervention through the mechanism of nurturing socio-emotional skills.  (See this study, this study, and this study.)

Economics Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago argues that these results are consistent with a framework in which skills beget other skills, so that there is a “snowballing” effect in which the encouragement of learning skills early in life will have a greater lifetime impact than the encouragement of skills later on in life.  These skills are not just test-taking skills. There is a growing body of research showing that “non-cognitive” skills like perseverance and sociability are more predictive of health and income in adult life than IQ.  A website publicizing Heckman’s research features this chart:

from Heckmanequation.org

from Heckmanequation.org


Quite simply, the earlier one invests, the greater the impact per dollar.[1]

Therefore I believe one of the best ways to bring justice to America’s poor while fulfilling the biblical call to look out for the widows and orphans of society is to provide quality, cost-effective early childhood programs that nurture both learning and social skills to disadvantaged children at no or little cost to their families. Not only will this help children, it will also help their often over burdened parents.

Introducing Tools of the Mind

While there are several high quality early childhood programs that are both cost-effective with proven results (i.e. Nurse Family Partnership), I would like to profile a lesser-known early childhood program that has not yet generated too much publicity in the nonprofit donor world. (It has generated quite a lot of buzz in the educational world though.) It’s an innovative preschool program called Tools of the Mind  (read about it here and here) with an unconventional philosophy of teaching. Through a curriculum of individualized “dramatic play” and socially mediated learning, it focuses on developing what psychologists call “executive function” (defined as self control, working memory, and mental flexibility) to best prepare children for future learning. The research on their program (done in low-income school districts) has yielded results promising enough to be published in the prestigious journal Science.

I like Tools of the Mind not only because of its innovative approach to preschool education, but also because the program was developed with under-funded public school classrooms and disadvantaged minority children in mind. Their model is to send trainers and coaches to classrooms to train existing teachers in a public school system in the Tools of the Mind methods (No need to stir up anger with unionized teachers and such!) Further, they’ve developed curricula for Hispanic children, a fast-growing demographic, and consider themselves especially capable at working with special education children with a variety of learning disabilities. They’ve also developed a parenting curriculum to supplement the school curriculum.

And it’s cost-effective; while Montessori style methods cost about $7,000-$10,000 per child Tools of the Mind costs about $7000-$10,000 per classroom of 15 children.

I’ve met the co-founder Deborah Leong personally and seen enough examples of their classroom teaching methods to be convinced that this is a unique program with a fresh approach and perspective.  I hope you would take a closer look at this program, and please feel free to comment on this blog or contact me at christina [dot] jenq [at] gmail [dot] com if you have more questions.


[1] This does not mean that job and skill-training programs targeted towards older adolescents and adults have little impact and should not be funded; rather, the argument is that perhaps society needs to spend more money towards early childhood programs than it already does if one were to take into account the gains from quality early childhood programs.

Profile: Mennonite Central Committee

This Advent, we are profiling four organizations that we think deserve serious consideration for your holiday giving.   Surprisingly, it’s not all that easy to find a worthy cause.  I think all of us who have ever made a charitable donation have wondered if our money is being used effectively.  From the dollar we give to the homeless guy to the online contributions we send to big relief organizations after disaster, how do we know if the sacrifice of our hard-earned money really helps those who need it most?

This difficulty is compounded if we want to direct resources toward the nearly half the planet who live on less than $2 a day.  Most of us live too far from this reality to really tell if the money we give to some organization is impactful.

That’s why for nearly ten years, every time I meet an economic development professional who actually works on the field, I ask them about which organizations they most recommend.  Within the realm of Christian non-profits, the name that most frequently comes up is Mennonite Central Committee.  I know that my inquiries are purely anecdotal and from a fairly small sample size, but I’ve been impressed at the level of universal admiration I’ve heard from practitioners of other organizations.

MCC works in the all the usual fields of development: education, emergency relief, AIDS, clean water, fair trade, etc.  But they are best known for their excellence in rural, agricultural development, with their workers typically living in the countryside alongside local farmers.  Personally, I like their approach to spirituality. They are a very explicitly Christian organization, and seek to share their faith through their work, but it seems to me that they emphasize more the demonstration of their faith, as opposed to the “preach and go” style of many Christian groups.  They also emphasize peacemaking—a reflection of their Mennonite pacifism.

Among the general public, MCC is less well known—but that’s partly because they spend far less money on advertising and promotion than nearly all the other big organizations.   Again, this is a reflection of their Mennonite ethos.  I’ve rarely found an organizational commitment to simple living that matches MCC’s.  I like that also because I know that more of my money is making an impact.

MCC is one of the four organizations we are considering supporting as part of our  Just Giving Challenge.  The week before Christmas, the readers of this blog will vote on which one they liked best, and our donation will go there!

If you want to know more about the MCC, check out their 2010 annual report video here.

Update on the ‘Just Giving’ Challenge

Did you know that if everyone in America took our Just Giving Challenge this Christmas, we could collectively end extreme poverty for three years?  That’s right, Americans spend approximately 450 billion dollars each year on Christmas presents and celebrations for their friends and family.  If we would just match that amount with intelligent, intentional giving, we could eliminate all extreme poverty in the entire world (at least according to Jeffrey Sachs’ renowned  The End of Poverty, chapter 15).

So how’s it going? On Black Friday we issued the following Just Giving Challenge: for the first 100 people who give as much to the poor this Christmas as to their family and  friends, we’ll donate $100 to a worthy cause.

So far 21 people have taken the challenge.

21.

That’s not going to end world poverty any time soon.

And yet, I sincerely sense that together we are doing something deeply significant.  We may not change the entire world, but we will definitely be a part of changing the world for a whole lot of people.  So far the 21 of us will make our Christmas matching gifts, plus this blog’s contribution of $2,100.  Even at a conservative estimate, that’s enough money to drill clean water wells for hundreds of people, to prevent thousands of people from getting malaria this year, or to vaccinate tens of thousands of kids from deadly diseases.

Do I hope a lot more people sign up for the Just Giving Challenge? Of course I do. If you haven’t, you could sign up right now.  But even if it’s just us 21, I think it’s a powerful testament to the change that just a few people, making medium-level sacrifices, can bring to God’s world.  Thanks to everyone who’s making a difference this Christmas, whether with us or in some other way!

And for another shot of hopefulness, check out this very inspiring video from the good folks at Advent Conspiracy.

Remembering the Poor: Film Edition

Central do Brasil (Central Station)Sin NombreOsamaBorn Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

I’m writing this from my home in Costa Rica after spending the last ten days in Chicago and Grand Rapids.  After two and a half years in Central America, visiting the US can be quite a jolt.  One of the things that hit me hardest on this trip was way in which most college-educated people in the US are nearly totally insulated from poverty.  It’s almost as though the quiet suburbs, trendy neighborhoods, and antiseptic offices of the professional class have been hermetically sealed off from the poor across town and across the world.  Despite globalization, most of us still live our lives in “gated communities” that keep the disturbing faces of the poor safely out of range.

I am convinced that this sociological reality is one of the most important factors that make biblical giving to the poor so difficult.  If a hungry family watched us eat through the windows of our favorite restaurant, how many of us would turn away?  If a woman brought her daughter dying of diarrhea to our doorstep, we would not refuse the few cents it took to save her.  But because these tragedies take place a car ride or a plane ride away from our daily lives, they become literally forgettable.

Many of us reading this blog do care about the suffering of others, and we want to make a difference, but we find daily life squeezing out our good intentions.  So what can we do? Well, for a start we can do the same thing that Paul did as he kicked off his missionary career: “remember the poor.” (Gal 2:10)  Paul’s commitment to remember the poor resulted in his massive collection for those suffering in Jerusalem, and left a strong mark on the New Testament.  (See, for example, I Cor 16:1-4, II Cor 8 & 9, Romans 15:26-29.)

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of “remembering the poor” as a spiritual discipline—just like praying or reading the Bible.   Of course, there are lots of ways to remember the poor, but let me just suggest one that you could act on even this week—watch a movie.  For me, films have often not only served as windows into the world outside my middle class bubble but they have steeled my resolve to keep giving and stay involved.  So, here are a few recommendations that

1) are not well known

2) are highly rated by critics, and

3) deal with poverty in a nuanced, non-sentimentalized way:

 

  • Central Station. How the lives of a Brazilian street child and an office worker become intertwined.

Central do Brasil (Central Station)

  • Sin Nombre. A harrowing account of gang violence along the Central American immigrant trail to the US.

Sin Nombre

  • Dirty Pretty Things. A brilliant look at the life of African and Turkish immigrants in London.

Dirty Pretty Things

  • Osama. Growing up as an Afghani girl under the Taliban.

Osama

  • Born into Brothels. Hopefully portrays the artistic potential of prostitutes’ children in Calcutta.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

  • Tsotsi. An intensely personal account of inequality in South Africa.

Tsotsi

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these films or others you’d recommend as a way to “remember the poor.”