Sunday, January 31, 2010

Selfish Giving and the Implications for Altruism

Perhaps you've seen Disney's commercials on TV offering a day to one of its parks in return for a day of volunteering. Sounds good. I even sent the link to my friend on Facebook. But it wasn't until my cousin sent me an article from a sociology blog and struck up a discussion that I actually started thinking about the implications of this "selfish giving" on altruism and development.

In the article, the author basically critiques development approaches that tie consumerist behavior to giving - cause-marketing strategies like the Red Campaign and Shopping For A Cure. She talks about mandated volunteering (an oxymoron if there ever was one, she notes) like racking up community service hours to satisfy graduation requirements or being sentenced in court to community service. Her own research tells her these people aren't any more likely to see this as a way to enrich their lives. Her argument is essentially: "That such (social positive) activities are increasingly tied to commodity exchanges cheapens and demeans not only those activities but also leaves our society much less enriched since those behaviors are not seen as life-long pursuits."

For me this raises two questions: Does altruism exist and, more interestingly, does it even matter for development? I think the former question is a bit easier. I would be lying to you if I said I wanted to get into development purely for altruistic motives. Simplistically put, I want to be successful, I have an interest and concern for poverty, so that's why I am getting into it. I am expecting things in return - a living, fulfillment in life, etc. But I think this interest and concern for poverty probably is some form of altruism (Self-promotion is another interest of mine...). I also think altruism is much easier to identify on a smaller scale - "random acts of kindness" are one example. In China I had one lady help me with my bags off the train, book a bus ticket, and show me around town, just because she wanted to help.

But do we even need altruism for development? Can't we just use incentives, like salaries, Disney tickets, or even just the experience? I'm a just-get-the-job-done kind of utilitarian, so my gut instinct was no, we don't need altruism. After all, some of the ex-McKinsey and investment bankers who volunteer with TechnoServe come for a resume builder, to make contacts for a job opportunity, or for a new experience. Not everyone who comes to TechnoServe wants to save the poor from the clutches of poverty, but they are very talented people and in the end create big impacts. We need these people in the fight. Thus, perhaps incentivization of volunteering is the way to go - we don't need altruism.

But then I thought about the situation more. I tend to think of the poverty problem as a bunch of smaller, inter-related problems. As such, right now I think that perhaps in the short term, altruism might be less important. TechnoServe can bring in consultants, regardless of their feelings about poverty, and help get the poultry industry launched, for example. Smaller battles can probably be won without altruism. But the bigger war probably requires altruism. When you're trying to develop an entire country, you need committed people to stick it out to the end.

When you add business to the mix, I think the picture becomes clearer. I've seen a ridiculous amount of money-making opportunities while I've been abroad, from bars to hostels to farming. But anything I formed would be a social business. I want to create change in people, not just make money. Similarly, my friend Gustav here in Maputo is starting a social venture capital fund - every project he invests in must have a social impact. I think this is the kind of thinking - evidence of altruism - that is necessary in the long term.

So should you volunteer and go to Disney? I'm torn. Perhaps this is one of the short-term opportunities that I'm referring to. But if, like she says, the message we're sending people about giving and expecting to receive has negative repercussions down the line, maybe it's not the best way to go. Or is it too idealistic or esoteric to think about possible long-term repercussions on the mentality of a rich population when you have over 30,000 children dying every day from preventable disease and starvation? Should we just try to get these problems under control now, mentality be damned? Or is the development picture bigger than that and should we really be concerned about the possible dearth or death of altruism?


  1. ill take a stab at this, and i will address both the micro and the macro picture with similar explanations. To spoil it though, my main argument is that there is always a motivating factor for everything we do, and it is usually driven by a cost-benefit approach.

    this campaign was not just marketed in orlando. so when most people come to disney, they stay in a hotel. they buy food. they pay ridiculous prices for merchandise. disney's attendance numbers have been so dismally low anymore, that it is literally to their benefit to give away tickets to generate some residual income. however, giving them away is a waste of an opportunity to 'donate' product and write it off in taxes. it also waters down the brand image and puts a downward pressure on ticket prices as they would seem increasingly worthless (since you could just get a free one). asking someone to volunteer for a day overcomes both of these problems, as well as giving you a little image boost. so here we see an 'altruistic act' explained away by pure dollars and cents.

    aid dollars:
    now on to giving aid on a big picture scale. if you have a decent grasp of contemporary world history, and track usaid dollars to any given continent over the last 30 years, the politicization of that money is so transparent it's laughable. ive tracked dollars in the middle east and all of asia (via crs lib. of cong. reports), and suffice it to say it's clear when any one country gains or loses favor with the u.s.

    india is a great example. during the 90s the country received a pittance (esp after the whole nuclear deal). but as soon as 9/11 hits and it's unclear if the U.S. will be able to gain uzbekistan as a strategic foothold, india receives waaaaay more money and is classified as a frontline state whose social stability needs to be secured through u.s. aid dollars. then when we get uzbekistan it dips a little, and falls slightly every year thereafter (does their social security mean less now? oh that's right, we solved poverty and are now allowed to go home). in all fairness, india is fortunate to still receive a fair amount of aid dollars in relation to other countries.

    africa (treating it as a continent) does receive the largest percent of usaid dollars, but its only because its been politically attractive to 'fight aids in africa' in the 90's or more recently, its because africa is a known fomenter and safe harbor for radicals. the ideological backing of al qaeda has either roots or extended layovers in africa. in today's climate where waging assymetrical warfare is more possible than ever, the u.s. cannot afford to have pockets and cesspools of severely unstable conditions where radicals can grow and/or operate. therefore we spend money there, so we can at least say we are doing sometime to stave off another 9/11. this isnt altruism, and there is always a justification for any action.

    so are we to believe that altruism exists? eh. to believe in it is to believe that their is a true 'good', which is in the normative realm. at least until i am out of grad school, i have to agree with machiavelli that politics exist in an amoral sphere, and most things boil down to politics if you look close enough.

  2. If you're looking for social ventures, I think something like this would be great for Mozambique, especially along the Estrada Nacional and in cities. I saw it on CNBC a while back before going to Mozambique, and it would be a wonderful business. Profitable, impact jobs, and impact sanitation. I'll never forget seeing some young dude peeing on the back tailgate of a tchapa.

  3. oh yeah, I firmly believe altruism exists. Now it's prevalence is to be debated. More thoughts to come later. I have to go do some reading on medical imaging.

  4. @Thomas: thanks for the send. Really cool company, and I'd agree - I can't tell you the number of times I've had to sneak into bathrooms or just pee in a back alley after a fruitless search. Their slogan is pretty good: "Shit Business is Serious Business"

    @Jes: I appreciate all the thoughts. I definitely see where you're coming from, being someone who uses the cost-benefit approach almost ad nauseum, especially these days of travel. When one former USAID official told me how she quit because things were never done for the right reason - banana trees planted somewhere that would be politically advantageous - that really says something.

    Your examples really say a lot about development and motives within government and corporations. Do you think the political motives translate to the individual level, for people who don't have huge constituencies and jobs on the line? Certainly, when you're dealing with India, Uzbekistan, Africa, whoever, you're thinking about what's best for the US and what's going to get you re-elected. But on an individual level, is it possible that no one does anything with unselfish concern for others?

    I hope not. My cousin suggested the example of Patriot Guard Riders ( There are countless people working on all kinds of social problems, and I would find it hard to believe that they all have selfish motives. Take people working with people with disabilities as direct care workers. They earn $9-$12 per hour with limited benefits, and go their entire lives receiving little (any?) recognition for the work they do, which is difficult to say the least. You could probably say that, well, they aren't qualified for a better job or they are getting fulfillment out it, but do you really have to hate what you're doing for it to be altruistic? Some people, I think, are just pre-programmed to be altruistic. Some people just want to do good in the world.

  5. i think altruism does exist on an individual level. i truly believe there are people that strive to be better and do good every single day. where i err on the side of caution is that people's concept of 'good' is highly variable, and its likely that someone out there today is walking taller because they planted a useless row of banana trees in the desert and know they did good. this is why i tend to shy away from altruism because it usually comes with attached values (of which there is still no universal set).

    to expand on your thought of whether self-fulfillment nullifies altruistic intent, well thats debatable. but it doesnt nullify benevolent intent, and knowing that there are people who do want to do good, whether or not they gain anything from it, well... that's good enough for me. you?

    p.s. your blog is SO fun! i miss you and wish you many clean toilets on your continuing journey :D

  6. Well, this reminds me of an episode in Friends when Phoebe tried to prove there is altruism by doing something good for Joey for no reason. Then she found she felt good about it which nullifies her definition of "pure unselfishness".