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Truth in Labeling, Charity Style

Jay Bryant (archive)

January 4, 2005 |  Print |  Send

The charitable organization Doctors Without Borders (also known as MSF, the initials for its French name) has done something very courageous, politically incorrect, and guaranteed to get it in trouble with other charitable organizations around the world, some of whom are already screaming bloody murder.

They've issued a press release today asking donors to stop sending them money for Asian tsunami victims. They've already collected all they need to do the job they can do.

Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971 by a small group of French doctors who figured they could accomplish something worthwhile by providing medical services to needy people around the world. They go into disease-ridden swamps and slums around the world, bringing medicine, performing surgery, rehabilitating hospitals, saving lives. They also work in war zones, from Angola to Chechnya and Bosnia to Sri Lanka.

I can't attest to their effectiveness everywhere, but I know they did some outstanding work during the rebellion in Sierra Leone in the late 1990's. They kept the Freetown hospital open and worked diligently in the bush, too, including providing relief to hundreds of victims of the mutilation terror of the RUF rebels, whose policy of intimidation was based on chopping off the hands and feet of women and children. The RUF at one point kidnapped two Doctors Without Borders workers.

Now they're on the scene in Banda Aceh, providing the services they can provide, from binding up wounds to bringing in life saving clean water. What they won't do, however, is use the Tsunami disaster to build up their treasury for general purposes. They've got a program for tsunami victims, and they will do it, and then they will move on.

Most humanitarian groups take advantage of disasters to fill their coffers with unrestricted donations, sent in by caring people who want to help the victims they've been seeing on television and reading about in the newspapers. The leftovers from these donations provide much of the funding for the ongoing bureaucracies that keep the organization running day in and day out.

Mind you, I'm not saying these organizations don't do a lot of very good work. And I'm also sophisticated enough to understand those ongoing bureaucracies do indeed need to keep running, in order to be in place when the next disaster strikes.

All that is true. Maybe some of the bureaucracies are overlarge, and from time to time some genuinely questionable things go on, such as happened last year with regard to the United Way organization here in the Washington, DC area. But all in all, private charitable organizations are one of the wonders of the world – a 19th century American idea that has spread around the globe. Without these organizations and what they do, there would be only government programs, and given that choice, I'll take the NGO's every time.

But if you put out an appeal to send money (cash, they say, the urgent need is cash) to help victims of a particular natural or man-made disaster, then by gosh, the principle of honest labeling means the money ought to go for that, not to stockpile resources for some other project on down the line. That money should be raised to the maximum extent possible in other ways, particularly from large institutional donors, who can well appreciate the need for permanent infrastructure.

The organizations angry at Doctors Without Borders worry that people will get the idea that none of them needs any more money to help the tsunami victims. Better to lie a little, they reason, than ruin the whole program. It's an attitude that reminds me of Jocelyn Elder, Bill Clinton's onetime Surgeon General, who once refused to announce that a certain supply of condoms were defective, lest condom users in general lose confidence in the product. Or the radical environmentalists who refused to back a program to end the endangered species status of the snail darter by breeding millions of them in fish hatcheries. Couldn't have people think a problem had been solved, now could we? That little endangered minnow is worth its weight in goldfish when it comes to stopping dam construction and other evil development projects.

The ends justify the means and all that. Being truthful is a losing proposition, sometimes.

MSF Director General Pierre Salignon doesn't see things that way. "This might seem to run counter to the mood of general mobilization, but it's a question of honesty toward our donors," he said.

Hear, hear! Even the best of causes ought to be able to stand squarely in front of the people and speak the truth about what they're up to.


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