Toxic Charity: A Reflection

Everything depends upon the lens through which we view reality” (82).           


In Toxic Charity, author Robert Lupton views reality through a “lens” most of society would find quite uncomfortable.  He provides an uncommon perspective on churches and charitable organizations in explaining how these entities actually hurt those they are attempting to help.  Lupton effectively explores this paradox through the use of his personal experiences administering aid and development in Nicaragua as well as both urban and suburban Atlanta.  Though, to my disappointment, this book only briefly touches on the plight of aid in Africa, Toxic Charity certainly changed the way I view charity and how charitable works and donations should be administered.


I admire Lupton’s candor in providing the reader with his view of charity in today’s world.  More specifically, how the majority of charity is derived from the provider’s search for intrinsic value, a “feel good” factor for themselves, rather than focusing on the needs and priorities of the aid recipients.  Lupton provides a perfect illustration of this principle in describing a particular church in Mexico that was repainted six times in one summer by six different mission groups (14).  What if the travel expenses incurred and other funds raised by these six mission groups were instead invested in areas of actual need for this village, such as infrastructure improvements?  Consistent examples of these misguided, albeit genuine, attempts to help lead Lupton to label mission trips as merely “religious tourism” (14).  Difficult not to agree. 


I also found Lupton’s exploration of the psychology of charity recipients to be quite interesting.  As Lupton emphasizes, the actual impact of the aid on the aid’s recipients is often lost in the quest to give and to reap the benefits of giving.  The psychological impact is an afterthought.  Lupton often references the psyche of these charity recipients in his illustration of the detriments of one-way giving.  He warns of a rapid progression from the appreciation of charity to anticipation, from the expectation of charity to a feeling of entitlement, and finally, the curse of dependency (130).  To simply give to others what they could have achieved themselves robs them of their independence and initiative.  Eventually, individuals lose sight of the merit and necessity of their own hard work.  From the perspective of a large group, this path can kill the entrepreneurial spirit of a village and, with it, the ability of the town to advance and provide for its people.

However, I do not universally agree with Lupton and his examples of the psychological exploitation of charity recipients.  One case, in particular, drew my annoyance.  Virgil, a father, a husband, a charity recipient, and a neighbor of Lupton’s in Atlanta, bitterly describes the “price he has paid” as a result of church volunteers building and landscaping a new home for his family (149).  He goes so far as to unveil a deep resentment toward volunteers in general because Virgil feels his pride has taken a hit as he believes he is looked down upon because he is poor (149).  To quote a frequent saying by PC sophomore Kyle Alexander, “get over yourself, dude.”  Please do not mistake my stance as insensitivity for the less fortunate.  Though I will never experience situation such as Virgil’s, one day I will have a family of my own.  I simply cannot fathom an instance where I allow my “manly pride” to take precedence over improving the lives and futures of my wife and kids.  Virgil was not robbed of his own initiative or forced to beg for a new house.  No, in my opinion, Virgil’s perceived hubris over any semblance of gratitude or appreciation serves as a minor discredit to an otherwise strong case made by Lupton. 


To Lupton’s merit, he does not merely critique churches and charities; rather he provides a structure and suggestions for improvements to more effectively help these groups and organizations achieve their intended purpose:  aiding the less fortunate.  After completing Toxic Charity, I fully believe that performing charitable work the right way is of utmost importance going forward.  In order to do so, I believe Lupton’s distinction between “betterment” and “development” should be universally understood by all administering charitable aid.  “Betterment,” Lupton explains, provides immediate relief (166).  In emergency and disaster situations, “betterment” serves a worthwhile purpose.  However, in many cases, development is what is needed.  Development employs a long-term approach and looks to enable and empower people to do for themselves (167).  Development is sustainable.  Prolonged betterment breeds dependency. 


I believe an adjusted emphasis towards development, and away from “betterment,” must be the future of most charitable organizations.  Enabling others to do for themselves, rather than simply doing for others, enriches the lives of the providers, and improves the lives of the impoverished.


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