The art of giving charitably

If there was one worldly thing I had to associate with the word ‘repulsive’ it would be present gift lists. Many of my otherwise delightful coupled-up friends have nearly seen my non-attendance at their nuptials by sending me an exclusive access code to their top department store digital wish list. Invariably, by the time I get around to accessing said outlet, the only remaining item to be bought is a Nutribullet bundle. Once the temporary amusement that this perfect couple has accidentally included a vibrating, all purpose sex toy on their list has been dispelled, nausea at fuelling their freshly-squeezed diet sets in.

I get why you’d make a gift list: you can consider yourself magnanimous in taking the stress out of the thinking and purchasing for the rich childless aunt you rarely see; you avoid having four tea pot and cup sets. But surely that’s part of the point of present buying: not only at weddings but also for birthdays and national days of celebration. No matter how busy you are, a gift should be representative of a thought and personalised process rather than just another capitalist transaction. After all, if you can’t find a themed tea pot that reflects a joke or memory you share with the happy couple, then you probably shouldn’t be going to their big day. This extends to Secret Santa suggestions. At the behest of my mortified boyfriend, I recently had to remove a comment on social media in response to his group of friend’s annual £5 swapathon in which I refused to participate if we offered a list of suggestions of what we would like to receive  – I mean, it’s not as though your specification will ensure you get a life-changing offering.

A few years ago, I was given a pair of (virtual) charity donkeys for Christmas. Having never written a letter to Father Christmas, I’m used to getting whatever random junk my brother cares to re-gift, or personalised hand-baked offerings from my Mum and while I’m not hard to buy for (and easily pleased) I thought this present reflected a soupçon of ‘can’t be assed’ (get it?). Of course, I was thrilled that my relatives had chosen to redirect the usual gift vouchers into a philanthropic donation, I was just dubious as to whether their money would actually make a difference.

For those who want to ‘give a little back’ or who are just stuck for present ideas, you can now purchase 10 chicks for £10 from Age Concern, a pile of poo from Oxfam Unwrapped for the same fee or even help deliver a baby for £27.50 from Unicef because, you know, noone wants to witness all that mess in person. Sarcasm aside, surely any means of augmenting charitable donations and their contribution to overseas development aid (ODA) should be encouraged (notwithstanding the critique levelled at ODA to developing world infrastructure and local level accountability)? Certainly, increased public and individual level contributions to non-governmental organisations is an important buy-in for the third sector and one they wish to safeguard and expand upon.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

However, encouraging this form of ‘boxed-in’ philanthropy is problematic. These hypothecated funds associated with specific gifts function as a low-scale equivalent of vertical aid programmes and the 1990s explosion of specific funds such as the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, UNAIDS and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (which prioritise funding, research and development of specific diseases rather than a more explicitly multi-sectoral, cross-disease burden approach) with associated risks of in-silo working which could, as outlined in this article, leave people behind. Realistically, if your great-aunt annually donates a pair of donkeys on your behalf, you are going to help alleviate a pocket of transportation and access challenges in mountainous Nepal, but will there be enough resources (monetary, skills- and personnel-based) to provide shelter or produce food for these animals?

Luckily, it is unlikely that such ‘thoughtful’ or ‘inspired’ donations go directly to the donkey supermarket, but more probably become absorbed in the donor organisation’s integrated ‘vertical-horizontal’ and collective efforts in locales and populations of focus. But perpetuating a layperson vision of humanitarian aid as a compartmentalised activity grossly undermines the complexity of such altruism; the compounding factors of power and politics, and the bias of perceived and expressed need. Which prompted me to consider: how can we ensure that our money does more good than harm? How can we ensure that its potential is maximised? One such answer was presented by watching Peter Singer’s TED talk about Effective Altruism (EA). Since he delivered this speech in 2013, EA has developed as a worldwide social movement.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Most of us will probably have heard of EA, but what exactly is it, and why do I think it might represent a more appropriate and reasoned art of charitable giving? Its official catch line is ‘doing good better’ and fundamentally seeks to answer – through actions and discussion – where and how a small set of individuals can make the biggest difference. It combines both the heart and the head through employing global empathy, critical thinking and open-mindedness to try to choose the path that will make the most difference to global wellbeing. A practical example is as follows: the cost of a guide dog for the blind is $42,000. As an alternative, the cost of performing surgery to correct trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, often costs as little as $40 in developing countries. This surgery is 80% effective. Therefore, sight can be restored to 840 people for the cost of one guide dog, and the guide dog does not restore sight.

There are many ways for both haters of present gift lists, and considered philanthropists, to participate in the EA movement, including through the charity GiveWell,  or the career-focused 80,000 hours which considers how you can make a social impact through your work. Some might argue that wedding gift wish lists practice their own version of effective gifting, but furnishing a newly-weds first home does not really come into the same arena as development assistance, or donkey transportation for that matter. So next time you make a charitable gift, stop and think whether you are just buying into an easy, ready-made option, or whether you are putting the most effort and productivity into your pound.


Image Credit: Randy Stewart, Flickr

Book of the Month: Adventures in Human Being

A little under a month ago I headed up to a blustery Cambridge for the Winter Literary Festival. Dragging myself away from the option of a decadent Sunday lie-in and fry-up required considerable effort, but this was out-weighed by the prospect of hearing the author of MdM’s book of the month – Gavin Francis – in conversation with Suzanna O’Sullivan. 


Image credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Francis shared with us who his work ‘Adventures in Human Being‘ capitalises on our lifetime’s association with our bodies, and tries to enter into his often uncharted territory though his own experiences as doctor, clinician and writer. By way of whetting our appetites, he shared with us a reflective narrative on the eye organ, which typified the structure of this book which maps regions of the body through history, debate and narrative.

Converging the eye with a process of world exploration, Francis explained that his approach seeks  to ‘explore the body as if it were a landscape, as a travel writer would‘. They eye offers a snapshot of the transformative perspectives we  can write-on our own bodies if we enter into an understanding with it.

Image credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Image credit: A. Bow-Bertrand

Dedicated to ‘life’s enthusiasts’, this book is MdM’s choice of the month for its ability to shape how we view both ourselves and the spaces we inhabit in a compelling, novel and strikingly accessible manner.

Pakistan: behind the headlines

Earlier this December I headed to Asia House on New Cavendish Street, to see ‘Pakistan: Behind the Headlines‘, an exhibition of photographs commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Located in the basement were two rooms lined with A3 and larger prints of previously little documented areas of humanitarian crisis.


The artist behind these pieces, Sa’adia Khan met me to talk through her role, insight and  personal highlights of working with MSF and showcasing part of her native country (a full interview with Khan will be published in the New Year). The commission is designed to explore the realities of the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and of Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and prioritise a humanising lens as well as coverage of the very real narratives of terrorism and conflict in this region.

FATA is normally inaccessible to many Pakistanis, including journalists as it is a remote region bordering Afghanistan. However, the current inhabitants of this locale continue to suffer at the hands of sectarian violence and militancy with access to healthcare chequered by resource as well as physical barriers in the form of checkpoints and identity surveillance.
IMG_0143MSF have been working in FATA since 2004, supporting a children’s hospital, administrative centre and running an emergency obstetrics clinic in the region which has enabled many pre-term mothers to safely deliver healthy babies into a far from stable environment. Working with professionals in the region, MSF prioritised these people and through this commission are ensuring that these people are heard and seen. I ask Khan how it feels to have her work exhibited for the first time outside of Pakistan, and by way of answer she leads me to the below image:IMG_0141

IMG_0140The largest print of the collection, its prominence is supported by a deeply problematic and complex story. The far settlement is the Durrani Camp for displaced people in FATA, which is home to two thousand men, women and children. It is nestled in the shadows of mountains to one side with a graveyard to the front  centre of the shot. Those who call this camp home have often lived here for up to seven years since they were left destitute following militant rampages, while others were forcibly displaced by such activity. For some, this is the only home they have ever known.IMG_0138




Khan talks exhibition goers through the Durrani Camp image.

Conditions in the camp are very basic, which is located a few miles from the MSF supported hospital which is also the only provider of free at the point of use and easily accessible healthcare in the region. The situation within the camp is too politically charged for MSF to be based within its environs, but Khan and her team wanted to experience and relate the lives of those within it. The reality? No electricity, limited natural light, and common disease burden characteristics of respiratory infections, asthma and conditions associated with bitter, often sub-zero temperatures.IMG_0126

IMG_0124Most moving perhaps in Khan’s description of her work is her constant return to the fear and trauma that play across the faces of her photograph’s subjects and that she encountered in her actual, physical experiences with these displaced people.IMG_0123The below series picture the experiences of Muhammed Ali Shah, 12 from Upper Kurram Agency who was making his way to school with friends when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. Noone has laid claim to planting this device nor cited a motivation, but such tragedy and violent aggression is latent in the FATA region. While Shah has survived, and was able to receive emergency treatment from two affiliated MSF clinics, his life has been irreversibly changed. Khan recalls how Shah shared with her his love of cricket and how he hopes to be a teacher in the future. The Etch a Sketch pictured below became critically important to Shah during his recovery progress, with Khan keen to capture his quiet moments in which the self-confessed best handwriter in his class re-learns the skill.IMG_0121


IMG_0117 IMG_0112 IMG_0109 IMG_0103



IMG_0096Khan’s favourite piece is that shown immediately below. The tree acts as a visual boundary between light and dark, obscurity and visibility, female and male. She highlights the role of the young boys (the sons of the women wearing burkhas) as chaperones for their family, and the humbling disparity of her own provision with multiple layers and sturdy boots against the Pakistani winter compared to their thin cottons and shoes.IMG_0091 IMG_0089

IMG_0088 IMG_0083For all the shared fear, cold and continued violence, Khan has powerfully showcased the Pakistani’s living in FATA as they really are – vulnerable and in need of all the world’s eyes and activity to help them to see a different future world.

Attending to our digital addiction

PhD student Katherine Wood of UCL’s Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology has used measures of how long users wait for a website to load up to quantify the otherwise difficult to determine attention span of human users. Since 2008, when the majority of internet connections were dial-up, our attention span has decreased from an average of 12 seconds to just 4 seconds (the equivalent to that of a bumble bee).Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 17.36.25We increasingly switch between forms of technological device and are subject to a fast-paced transfer and excess of information. Whenever we complete a switch or digital task our brain reacts to a biological release of dopamine causing us to experience emotions of reward and pleasure. For instance, we feel good when we empty our junk email folder or refresh our inbox and receive a new message. The world is experiencing a growing population of connectivity-addicts.

Such frenetic activity across devices within the digital sphere creates a sense of false productivity and makes us scanners rather than readers of literature and digital material (we are generalists not specialists). This, in itself, does not necessarily carry negative implications for health because we become increasingly good at coding information. Such rapid deciphering has been linked to augmenting our protection against dementia as we keep the brain alive through these constant levels of stimulation. However, we still need to mitigate the potentially damaging effects of false productivity.

Image credit: A Bow-Bertrand

Katherine Wood presenting at Countdown2030, UCL. Image credit: A Bow-Bertrand

Wood advises actively working to lengthen your attention span to at least to 27 seconds (or that of a dog which is the most ‘attentive’ member of the animal kingdom). Her proposed strategies unsurprisingly include the so-called ‘digital detox’, or a period of time in which a user refrains from using electronic connecting tools and devices in order to improve productivity in the social, face-to-face world. She describes this as practicing good attentional hygiene by allowing the brain to sit with itself without constantly reaching for a technological device. While daydreaming does not consciously occupy our attention, a lot of activity takes place subconsciously and is both restorative and productive.

So too, writers and digital producers (generating content for users) can utilise this cognisance of the modern attention span by making material ‘scannable’ rather than readable. This can be achieved by using:

  1. lists,
  2. subheadings and
  3. key words.

If our attention span has decreased to 4 seconds, then how do we maintain meaningful and developed interpersonal relationships? This is complicated because not all of our social interactions are face-to-face and we increasingly make links through social media but the quality of these is open to debate. In the age of Big Data and hyper-connectivity, we must all forcibly detach from our devices and the access they permit. This is crucial to managing productivity in both personal and professional fields and for prioritising mental self-care.


Image Credit: Daan Berg, Flickr