12/21/2011 12:52 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Should Holiday Charity End at Home?

While I support charity starting at home, for those who can afford it, my suggestion this holiday season is to split donations into two: one for your favourite local charity or food bank and another for NGOs or UN agencies addressing humanitarian disasters overseas.


Whenever I hear the phrase "Charity Begins at Home" -- as celebrity chef Bruno Serato implored millions of viewers in Canada and the U.S. during the recent CNN Heroes awards ceremony -- I cannot help but somewhat cringe.

As someone who's for many years implored Canadians to support the intervention efforts of the UN in several major emergencies, even the hint of millions of donors averting their gaze from far away famines and floods is truly frightening.

This year, as Canadians take the time to identify their seasonal giving priorities, choices on which benefactors to prioritize will be more difficult for several reasons.

First, with household debt in Canada now surpassing that of the United States and United Kingdom, emerging evidence suggests many households are struggling under growing mountains of debt, making the decision to lay out money for charitable causes even tougher.

Second, the past two years have been unkind to the aid industry due to bad publicity. Most recently, Canadians learned that the Canadian Cancer Society has reportedly squandered millions of dollars in donations on fundraising, rather than crucial cancer research.

Relief efforts in Haiti -- heavily supported by North Americans to the tune of about $1.4 billion and remarkable for the huge amount of individual donations given in response to appeals -- have apparently slowed due to bad governance, lack of coordination, security and other issues in the beleaguered Caribbean country.

So bad, in fact, that Refugees International has called the response "emergency paralysis."

From cab drivers to soccer moms, the question too often posed to me -- an aid worker with a decade of experience around the globe -- is often the same: "Do you think our donations are making a difference?"

Third, competition among Canadian NGOs for a rapidly shrinking wallet is becoming more intense. The battle for donations has moved from remote call centres to urban centres in Canada. In recent weeks I have spotted young kids from organizations as diverse as UNICEF Canada and the Red Cross on the streets of my village, asking passers-by to sign up for monthly debit donations.

In response to the growing competition for donations, NGOs and some UN agencies have moved into what I call the "IKEA approach" to money appeals: printing glossy catalogues with products ranging from nutrition bars and mosquito nets to scooters and water pumps. Each product has a price tag and the donated amount will presumably translate into a purchase order for that item in a developing country.

There's no doubt that local causes should be high up on the list of our charitable giving. If the Occupy movements in Canada and elsewhere taught us anything it's that a huge segment of our society has fallen into an abyss far out of the sight line of decision makers and corporate boardrooms.

In Serato's case, CNN honoured the effervescent Italian-American for eloquently addressing the nutritional needs -- through his NGO, Caterina's Club -- of young kids by serving free pasta dinners to children living in the shadows of Disneyland, many of whom are impoverished and live in hotels. "We should not have children in America with empty stomachs," Serato said.

At the same time, Serato spoke of America's empty stomachs, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are clinging to life in the Horn of Africa, victims of a famine triggered by a so-called perfect storm of climate, civil strife, and rising food prices.

World Food Programme (WFP) Chief Josette Sheeran recently told the CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos that with almost 10 million people in need of urgent food assistance, the crisis now ranks as her agency's "most dangerous and complex operation."

Agencies such as WFP, which feeds about 90 million people annually, is struggling for money in the Horn of Africa: Out of an estimated US$2.4 billion in humanitarian requirements for Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, about 25 per cent still needs to be funded.

There are no lack of countries or emergencies where the needs are enormous. Take the impoverished, landlocked country of Burundi, which is just emerging from years of conflict. WFP, the UK aid agency, Department for International Development ( DFID) and others are shuttering their doors due to budget constraints.

For its part, Ottawa has come up with an enticing way to pack more punch into donations made by Canadians for far-off disasters -- by matching dollar for dollar individual donations for crises as diverse as the Horn of Africa, the Haiti earthquake, and Cyclone Nargis in Burma.

So local or foreign causes? This is a personal decision many Canadians will be forced to make this holiday season as they pick up their phones or browse their snail mail and email.

While I find it difficult to argue with Serato's statement about charity starting at home, I also remind potential donors that we live in a world interconnected as never before. A small tsunami wave of unrest, whether caused by civil strife or a spike in the price of rice in the Horn of Africa or Pakistan, could lap up on our shores within days.

For those who can afford it, my suggestion this holiday season is to split donations into two: one for your favourite local charity or food bank and another for NGOs or UN agencies addressing humanitarian disasters overseas.

Thinking of giving? Do some homework and ask tough questions about how, where and when your money will be spent. Insist on email updates, ask where to log on for situation reports, and try to view online videos of the relief efforts.

Finally, online sites such as Charity Navigator give donors an unvarnished and easy-to-decipher assessment of major charities. In the not-too-distant future, innovative technology will come to the aid of donors, allowing them to give and track the impact of their donations.

Sites such as One Giving will enable do-gooders to give to a selected charity and actually track the impact online. So while enjoying this holiday season, try to make a positive impact in the lives of needy people -- whether down the block or on the other side of the world.