Are charity appeals for developing countries missing the point?

3 April 2012


A report from the Charities Aid Foundation in 2011 found that many of the larger charities had been particularly badly hit by this recession. It is hardly surprising then that we see so many hard-hitting charity appeals in order to raise money for projects in the developing world. As a result, we’re donating money to charities thinking that we’re buying food, medicines and clothes for individuals in desperate situations. But I feel these appeals are missing the point. Clearly addressing these issues are important but if we really want to make a real and long-lasting difference in the developing world, we need to be raising money for two other things which are considerably less glamorous: fridges and roads.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a new idea at all. Indeed, I first came across the idea that charities should pay more attention to road construction in an episode of The West Wing.

Giving money to help buy food, provide vaccinations, or indeed to build schools and hospitals merely scratches at the surface of what needs doing. There’s little point in sending food aid to a country if it merely sits in a remote central depot and a) goes off very quickly or b) there’s no way of ensuring that the general population can gain access to it. For that reason it’s even more important for efforts to be concentrated on improving roads and refrigeration units. Likewise, little good will be achieved by sending in money to build schools and hospitals if the road system is so poor that hardly anyone can access the new facilities.

However, from what I’ve seen (which admittedly might not be representative of what’s out there), you see very few prominent charity appeals asking us to donate money for infrastructure building projects. Instead, they focus on more ‘glamorous’ things such as providing farm animals, building houses, and buying clothes to name but a few.

Clearly there’s a role for campaigns relating to these issues but is it right that charity appeals focus nearly exclusively on them? Are the most pressing issues being neglected? Fortunately, according to a close friend of mine who helps write appeals for one of the major international charities, some organsiations have a more nuanced approach. For this charity at least, money goes according to where those on the ground believe it's needed, and not necessarily on the things that the general public hear about in appeals and might base their donations on.

Charities inevitably campaign on what they know will grab our attention (it’s not unreasonable for them to do so). If we were really interested in roads and fridges then charities would surely play on this. But why are we so averse to coughing up for such things? Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that we know that the money would land up going to multinationals who would be most likely to win road construction projects. Even though it might be the most beneficial way of helping a poorly developed country, perhaps we’re still unwilling to fund such a move simply because we don’t want to further line the pockets of big firms.

More generally perhaps, maybe it says much about us as members of society. With the odd praiseworthy exception, we only give to charities only to make ourselves feel better, not because helping others most effectively is our primary concern. But then again, does that matter…?

Vivek Seth

UCL - The School of Public Policy

Picture by Jan Hoffmann [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], original on Wikimedia Commons