I admire celebrities who make charitable contributions. Actually, I admire anyone who makes charitable contributions. If the rich and the famous inspire others to imitate their good deeds, so much the better for everyone.
So when a prominent person makes a large contribution to a cause, my reaction is generally favorable. Not everyone shares this view. Some are skeptical of the motives of those who are famous or wealthy and dismiss their good deeds as being self-serving, a public relations move to make them even more rich or famous.
It is possible to question anyone’s motives. No one is perfect. Was Mother Theresa interested in helping the poor or saving her own soul? I don’t know and I think it made little difference to the people she helped.
The right way to judge contributions is on the good they do and to balance that good with other competing goods. This sounds abstract, but this is how I make sense out of the latest story about celebrity charity gone wrong. Madonna and the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles spent nearly $4 million on Raising Malawi, an organization designed to build a school for impoverished children in this southern African republic. The project has been abandoned, falling short of its intended $15 million to build a school for 400 girls. There is nothing to show for the $4 million—no school, no program, no more educated girls than before.
Madonna has reportedly given $11 million to the project. She has also adopted two children from Malawi. With the program in disarray, Madonna is now part of the interim board that has taken charge.
This project, and others like it, such as Oprah Winfrey’s school in South Africa, strikes me as fundamentally wrong. I am thinking about my experience in the Peace Corps in Kenya. I was set to work under the direction of a Kenyan. I did what I could as soon as I arrived, but really didn’t settle into my task until three months later, after talking to many people, reading many reports in the Department of Cooperative Development office and visiting many sites in the district with my Onsario, my boss. To do anything sooner, I thought, would be presumptuous. Even when I did begin my serious work, I felt less than fully prepared.
Lyn worked with women, turning our house into a clubroom. She asked the women what they wanted to learn. She taught cooking and sewing and childcare. And what she didn’t know herself, she turned to others for support. In addition, after seeing the books school children used, she decided to collect folktales from the area, something never done before, so children could read about their own area and so the stories wouldn’t disappear with the death of the old grandmothers. That book has been in print since and is now read by children throughout Kenya.
That was more than four decades ago, but Lyn and have not lost touch with Kenya. Since 2000, Lyn and I have been supporting a school in Kenya. We didn’t start the school. The Maranga family, retired teachers (primary and university) who live there, established Sema Academy (semaacademy.wordpress.com). This isn’t our school, we don’t make policy, we don’t run its affairs, we don’t decide what should be taught or how much teachers are paid. We don’t choose which children receive scholarships; we don’t choose which children are admitted. All these decisions are in the hands of people in Kenya, the ones who are in place, who have a direct stake in the outcome. This is their school; the pupils are their children. Our role is to support the school, not run it.
There is something wrong with Madonna’s (and others’) approach, when outsiders presume to know what is best for people, rather than engaging in a dialogue and being supportive. This seems to be an instance in which an ego is more important than the outcome, where being recognized for one’s largesse is more significant than the gift itself. There is something very wrong setting a $15 million goal to build and run a school for 400 girls in one of the world’s poorest countries. That same $15 million, spent properly and appropriately, at $100 per pupil per year at Sema Academy, for example—well, you do the math.
But this problem isn’t confined simply to the rich and famous. The point of a gift is to make another’s life more pleasant, easier, joyful or productive. Too, often, however, a gift is given for ulterior motives. The gift-giver becomes more important than the gift and the recipient is diminished. I like the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: “People who have given us their complete confidence believe that they have a right to ours. The inference is false: a gift confers no rights.”
It is for this reason that Maimonides said that the highest form of giving is that which is given anonymously. This may set the bar too high, for there is also pleasure to be found in the bond formed between giver and recipient. But the larger point is valid. A true gift must be thoughtful and come with no strings attached. It is understandable why a gift such as Madonna’s is tainted, even though it may still do some good in the end.