Doing well by doing good: A "contractual obligation" piece (2 of 7)

(Yes, I know before I said 6, and now it’s 7. It turns out I’d overlooked Just Me’s request. My apologies, especially since it’s a slam-dunk easy one.)

Just Me wants me to explain why private charities do a better job at getting aid to people in need than the United Nations does. This is so easy, all I can think is she is giving me a “gimme” so I can take the opportunity to kick around some of my favorite targets. Thanks, Just!

It’s pretty much a given that private charities do a better job than bureaucracies at actually helping people, but why is that? On first glance, it would seem that the bureaucrats would do a better job, because they are usually better educated, better trained, and better paid — the qualifications that most people cite when rating the qualifications of public servants, such as teachers.

But there are far more important qualifications for doing good works. And it is in those categories that the private charities pound bureaucracies into the dust.

1) Motivation. The charities, generally speaking, are more interested in doing good and helping the suffering. The bureaucrats are usually more interested in the process, not the results.

2) Accountability. Here in the US, charities that want tax-exempt status have to have “open books.” The amounts of their budget that actually ends up helping people is clearly rated. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are rarely subject to that level of scrutiny, and often are under pressure to spend every penny in their budget, for whatever reason, lest their funding in the future be cut.

3) Goals. This is the big one, the one that most people overlook. The ultimate goal of most people who work for charities is to end the problem. The bureaucrat’s goal is to preserve their position.
Let’s take a concrete example of this, and take it to the extreme. In the struggle against AIDS, but charities and bureaucracies are struggling mightily. But let’s say that a miracle cure is suddenly found, and AIDS is suddenly eliminated. How would these two groups react?

Among the charities, there would be two reactions. The first would be overwhelming relief, followed by a search for a new cause to help. The second would be the same relief, followed by a sense of accomplishment, and they would leave the charitable field and resume their own lives.

But among bureaucrats, such news would cause panic. Without AIDS, they would simply have no further purpose in their work. Their budgets would be slashed, positions eliminated, prestige blown away like dust. The motto of the public employee is “don’t kill the job,” and the ending of this great scourge would be a deathblow to their programs. There would be a massive reorganizing effort as they desperately try to find some way to justify their continued existence. They’d try to rope other diseases under their purview, expend massive efforts to “verify” that every single trace of AIDS was exterminated, pour funds into research on more effective cures should it return, amass stockpiles of the vaccine, and in general do whatever they could to keep the fight against AIDS going long after it has been won. Witness the Strategic Helium Reserve for one particularly silly example.

And that’s why there are thousands of private aid workers in the field helping the victims of the tsunami, while the United Nations officials are holding “meetings” and “conferences” in five-star hotels, trying to figure out how to best to take the credit. Once, of course, they resolve the shortages of ice cubes and caviar.


Hell, no, I don't want my money back! -- A contractual obligation piece (3 of 7)
What's the Spanish word for "hack?"


  1. BR January 20, 2005
  2. Just Me January 20, 2005
  3. Neil S January 20, 2005
  4. Jay Tea January 20, 2005
  5. Big Bang Hunter January 20, 2005
  6. Sabba Hillel January 20, 2005