Love and Math

The presentation to the mission committee offered a compelling case for funding clean water wells in Haiti and in Malawi.  It seemed the committee was ready to allocate a significant part of its budget to this worthy endeavor.  Then two members raised their hands. “What about the homeless shelter around the block that is so full every night?” one said. “What about our strapped prison-to-community transition program?” said the other.  “Those needs are pressing too… and they are right here in our backyard.”

Mission committees often wrestle with the question of global vs. local giving. It is a question worthy of our wrestling, really, for it invites out into the open our fundamental calculus in giving. Consider just two answers to this question, centuries apart in time and values.

Writing in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson cast the question as one of love. Do you love those closest to you? If not, then “thy love afar is spite at home:”

If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.

Writing in 2014, Adriano Mannino set aside love in favor of logic. An advocate of “effective altruism,” he offered a simple cost-benefit analysis:

[M]oney has diminishing marginal utility. Globally, about one billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day (purchasing power parity), and about 20,000 children die from the consequences every day. It is therefore very probable that we can help people to a much greater extent if we invest our charitable resources in developing countries. And this hypothesis is indeed borne out by the more specific cost-effectiveness analyses: In developing countries, it is possible to save a life for about $3,400 – while it’s simply impossible to save a life for that little money in rich countries. Health care economics shows that saving lives is 100 times more expensive locally.

So: If we decide to donate, say, an overall amount of $340,000 to charity, our choice is between saving one life or 100 lives. Imagine a firefighter standing in front of a burning house and facing the choice between saving a room containing 100 people or a room containing one person. What should he do? Sit down and do nothing; run to save the 100; run to save the one?  Whenever we spend money, we inevitably are this firefighter.


What calculus does your mission committee use to determine local vs. global giving?

What calculus should it use?

Do you recognize yourself in Emerson’s abolitionist?

Do you identify with Mannino’s firefighter? 

What does love—or math—have to do with mission work?

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