If you’re of an age with The Free Agent, you’ll remember a post-“All in the Family” Sally Struthers’ commercials for Christian Children’s Fund. Accessorized by a barefoot child playing in a mud puddle, Struthers explained how a minimal monthly stipend would change not only this child’s life, but “combined with other funds” (yep, The Free Agent’s decoder ring translates that to ‘tax dollars’), the lives of everyone in the village. Cut to smiling milk-mustachioed children, sitting at rough-hewn benches waiting for school to begin.
In 2009, Jesus apparently got kicked off CCF’s board of directors. The organization renamed itself Childfund International, but the business model of heartrending child + small but regular donation persists. Today we see a Santa Claus-y looking spokesman who dares us to look into Isaak’s sad, upturned eyes, and turn away. “Every day, Isaak asks me,” The FA paraphrases, “‘Has my sponsor come? Is it my turn?’.”
It’s not only religious organizations that perpetuate this Cabbage Patch economic model, where one half of the world waits helplessly for the other half to file adoption papers. In her book The Crisis Caravan, What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid?, journalist Linda Polman confirms tragic images of starving or wounded children are also the Holy Grail of humanitarian organizations. Forget blood diamonds, thanks to the rebels in Sierra Leone’s decision to win hearts and minds by hacking off civilians’ arms, the country set a new record for humanitarian aid per capita. “Even organizations that were not there specifically to help amputees used photos of people in Murray Town [amputee] Camp in their fund-raising campaigns,” she says.
The piece de resistance for each and every tour of the camp was a little girl who had been only three months old when rebels hacked off her arm. For each foreign visitor the mother rolled up her daughter’s sleeve. Like a professional child star, the toddler would pose with her naked stump thrust forward, her little face a picture of misery. . . .
Indeed, at least one girl could be described as a professional amputee. Having caught the attention of do-gooder who brought her to America to live with him (it is unclear whether the adoption process for African children is much more sophisticated than the aforementioned Cabbage Patch Kids) a double-amputee named Fatmata was described by an aid worker as a vain girl who simply refused to wear her prosthetics (everyone in Murray Town Camp had at least two sets), preferring to beg with the help of her stumps. Polman reports Fatmata is now a vain American teenager.
The Free Agent readily concedes that the world is full of good causes, but she is convinced we mustn’t allow ourselves to be persuaded by pathos alone. The lion’s share of Polman’s book offers compelling evidence that like blood diamond money, humanitarian aid poured into a war zone perpetuates the war.
Being a little too lazy to thoroughly audit gigantic not-for-profits, The Free Agent prefers to help Third World children by buying products possibly assembled by them. When Nike and Intel spend money on the locals, because they “only do it for publicity”, they tend to get what they pay for. Sorry, Isaak, when you get a job, you and The Free Agent might enrich each other. Ask that guy who looks like Santa Claus if he needs some errands run.