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Christmas Charities Got Your Goat?

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The pitch is everything. The graphics seal the deal. Almost. For 120 measly bucks--$10 if a "share" is all one can afford-- the charitable donor can give a "versatile gift" of a hardy goat to some poor kid in a third world country, help to end world hunger, and contribute fertilizer to improve crop yields in the bargain. I can erase images of Darfur from my mind, relegate the rape of the Congo by multi-national forces back to the John Le Carré novel where it belongs, and go purchase those diamond earrings that I deserve but have been too embarrassed to buy, what with blood diamonds lighting up the screen in my friendly neighborhood multi-plex. But there is a niggling little reality that wrecks my conscience-cleansing plan. Fate collided with reality in central Africa a few weeks ago, and I just HAPPENED to be at a goat market, where I could get a goat for $10 US, less if I bargained a bit. Not wanting to be accusatory about livestock inflation, I did a quick internet check of goat prices in the third world and discovered they top out at $12 a goat. Uh Oh. This would be more difficult than I had planned. I would have to research my year-end giving and actually think about where my money is going before I could rest easy. Chucking the charming graphic out the window with the Christmas cards, I said good-bye to the rendering of the thatched native hut with goat, steer, chicken, rabbit, and sheep devouring the grass while the cute cow in the logo jumps over the moon. Four and twenty blackbirds baked in the pie, while the wise men are too busy feeding their families to make an appearance this year. The pie. The infernal pie chart of donor NGO's in the third world is a nursery rhyme used to lull the little old lady in Hoboken into writing that year-end check that goes nowhere. Consultants are paid mightily to get that pie to work out just so. "When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?" Depends. Open the pie and it can be what you want it to be. In Michael Maren's book, "The Road to Hell," he casts a damning eye on the true practices of foreign aid and international charity. A donor looks at a simple pie chart graphic which purports to show "where the money goes." The bottom line is that the donor wants to see the biggest piece of the pie going to program services-which the uneducated sponsor will assume means buying goats in the case of our mythical pie. But pie charts can be misleading. Even if the biggest piece of the pie shows money going to "program expenses," the fine print in 990 tax forms and sales pitches can show that "program expenses" include salaries, expense accounts, travel, rent, vehicles, and even fundraising costs. The sponsor assumes, wrongly, that his/her donation is going directly to the pastoral scene depicted on the charming graphic that goes along with the pie chart pitch. Lots of blackbirds escaping from this pie. Too late to catch them. A passionate cry from India made the environmental blogs this season. The writer, Maneka Gandi, pleads with the first world to stop sending goats. Gandi describes charities that entice well-meaning donors with pictures of goats wearing Christmas hats when the whole idea is "madness," considering that these animals contribute mightily to the problems of drought in third world countries. Gandi goes on to describe the consequences of mis-guided livestock donations. "Goats have a devastating effect because each goat eats all the grass and shrubbery on two hectares of land a year," Gandi says. "A goat destroys the fertility of land and any milk or dung it may give is very little compared to the havoc it wreaks. Within two years, the people who have goats have an even poorer lifestyle - there are village quarrels on community grazing; the children are taken out of school to graze the goats, (and) water becomes even scarcer." Abandoning the theme of goats for a moment, Gandi also describes another livestock scam involving donkeys. In ten years the organization in question has kept 70 donkeys in their enclosure and treated another 50. "They come from Europe at least once a month, three days at a time, and stay in five star hotels to check whether their Indian doctors are working," Gandi says. "The king was in his counting house counting out his money, The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey The villager was in the garden hanging out the clothes, When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!" The road to hell indeed! So, how does the donor find the higher road? Responsible giving is not impossible. Look to the smaller charities. If the CEO is too busy to write you a personal note and explain where your dollar is going, look elsewhere. A small charity can hand carry donations directly to villagers in the third world. It is done all the time. Don't be fooled into thinking that you have to go through a large organization. Internet clearing houses such as, while useful, don't always tell the whole story. Their information is only as good as what is supplied to them and Form 990's often lie. Ask a friend who has a history with an organization. My personal rule of thumb is that the bigger the organization is, the less likely my money will ever get to the individual in the village or the threatened animal in the bush. If you are retired and healthy, volunteer for a group that is involved in a community project in the third world. Check with your churches. Again, avoid the larger organizations that act as middle-men for "volunteers." Your time and money will be wasted. Believe it or not, it is possible to build whatever you want in the third world and make a difference. It might take some research and it might take some personal time, but the rewards will be infinite and you won't fall into the donor trap of paying a first-world salary while some kid in Africa or India goes to school under a tree and sits in the dust, since the grass has been devoured by the livestock. With apologies to the movie,BABE, there is no reason for the donor to follow like a sheep or feel like a goat: "Baa-ram-ewe, baa-ram-ewe. To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true. Sheep be true. Baa-ram-ewe."
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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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