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How much is that Water Buffalo in the window?
January 18, 2007 8:40 AM   Subscribe

This is one of the most wonderful uses of the web I've seen to help others: Blogger One & friend question the fine print (scroll down) of charity web site. Blogger Two reads Blogger One's post and contacts him. The three people team up and do what most people who don't read fine print assume the charity was doing with their donations and video results. {via Kottke}
posted by dobbs (61 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
well, my opinion of Heifer just took a nose dive. Isn't the entire jist of their charity "hey we give needy farm families livestock"? What a bummer to find out it's really "we may give needy farm families the fractional cash equivalent of livestock, depending on how needy they are."

Good on these guys.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:56 AM on January 18, 2007


This is a wonderful gift, and it certainly made me tear up, but I'm conflicted watching the film.

I have some questions, but they are not an attempt to crap on this project or this thread, honest.

What kind of immediate costs does this family face with this buffalo before it starts bringing value to them? Does it graze on any kind of scrubby pasture that is available, or does it need hay? Can the family build a plow and harness with materials on hand, or do they have to buy them, or were they given those items as well? Is a buffalo useful in January in Northern China, or will it first start to work turning the land in the spring? Would it have been better to give them the buffalo a few months later?
posted by rosemere at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2007


Ok, good on those guys, but Heifer do give out livestock. It just says the donations go towards their mission, and not necessarily an exact payment for a single buffalo, so your $250 might actually end up going towards operational costs, but those costs are essential to keeping the project going. OK, so it's nowhere near as romantic, but doesn't it seem a little selfish to be insisting that your $250 contribution is used in the way that gives you the maximum of warm fuzzies, not the way that will help them do the most good?
posted by Jon Mitchell at 9:09 AM on January 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


I double-checked the FAQ and it does mention that the fields won't be turned until March or April. So maybe the animal costs very little to feed now and they can save for the associated equipment costs by then.
posted by rosemere at 9:10 AM on January 18, 2007


Jon Mitchell said:
doesn't it seem a little selfish to be insisting that your $250 contribution is used in the way that gives you the maximum of warm fuzzies, not the way that will help them do the most good?

Not when the donation request is purposefully misleading. The Red Cross got in trouble for misleading people in regards to donating blood following the Sept. 11 attacks.

There is no reason they can't put an option button for general donations, with a little explanation as to why this might be the best option to support the program.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2007


rosemere, from the "Blogger Two" link:
I went and asked some local farmers in Chuxiong, China (where I currently live) what they thought about receiving a water buffalo as a gift, and they said it would be “zui hao de liwu”, or “the best gift.”
The farmers' own words are sufficient to dispel any doubts I might have.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2007


I think it's an awesome gift, but I'm just wondering about issues like the cost and time associated with caring for an animal that may not be able to work for them for another couple of months.

The costs may be minimal, and I'd certainly rather see the family get the buffalo early than never get it at all, but I did wonder if the timing of the gift was as good for the family as it was for the givers.
posted by rosemere at 9:22 AM on January 18, 2007


Wow. I am all misty after watching that movie. I know it's nowhere near the same level, but it reminds me of when I lived in the Philippines as a kid and we would sometimes buy all the local kids sodas at the sari sari store. They were so excited and happy and it was just a soda. It had a huge impact on me as a kid in regards to commercialism and poverty.
posted by thekilgore at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2007


Thanks very much dobbs, great story and doubly so because we got to see as well as read about it. I don't know anything about Heifer and these events don't cause me to have an opinion about their practices one way or another. I just like hearing of random good deeds. Yay for niceness waterbuffaloes guerillas.
posted by peacay at 9:28 AM on January 18, 2007


Spring is just around the corner. In the interim, it can be trained to scare off the collection officer from the bank.
posted by hal9k at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm a water buffalo, and I demand my rights!

[/just kidding]
posted by Outlawyr at 9:35 AM on January 18, 2007


People, please: why do you have to pick everything apart so?! The answer to all your nitpicky quibbles is in the faces of the grandmother and great-grandmother--they are overwhelmed and overjoyed to receive this gift. That's it! End of story!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:41 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Buffalo water buffalo water Buffalo buffalo.
posted by Partial Law at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


A water buffalo like that, well, you don't eat him all at once.
posted by hal9k at 9:45 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


That was very moving. Thank you for sharing it.

All charity through organizations comes down to trust. (Trust that your money actually helps, and that the organization does not eat up too much in "administrative costs".

Kudos to two individuals taking it upon themselves to perform an act of charity, rather than "outsourcing" it to an organization.
posted by spock at 9:46 AM on January 18, 2007


Man, after that I want to send some serious cash to that guy to buy water buffalo or goats or whatever and make sure people get them. That was an amazing story and video. Wow.

On an aside, again I am forced to realize how lucky to live the way I do.
posted by aacheson at 9:50 AM on January 18, 2007


Great story!

Also, don't count heifer among the poor charities. They seem to be pretty legitimate.
posted by lyam at 9:50 AM on January 18, 2007


The grandmas had me at hello.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2007


It's easier to give one water buffalo (with attendant trip, guide, translator, etc. - no, I have not read all the FAs) to one family and make a really misty-eyed documentary than it is to establish a managerial and procedural machine for giving many water buffaloes, sheep, chickens, etc. to many families in many developing countries.

If you limited the donated funds given to Heifer.org to the specific purpose of giving animals to families, who would pay for the administration and management of the services?

If you want to make a difference in the world at large, you work with large governmental and non-governmental organizations, shift policy and create systematic change. This is the kind of stuff Heifer.org's founders do/did.

If you want to change one family's life and make it more interesting, and possibly more profitable, you give one water buffalo to one family and film it and make lots of 1st world viewers cry.

While I agree that what these guys did was a good thing, and publicizing it and filming also a good thing, I don't agree that the detractions implied in the OP and comments against Heifer.org are good or fair. The fact that we must donate also to support the administration of Heifer.org doesn't bother me and I don't think it is really bothersome.

Large charities need management/administration to run them. Look at United Way, for instance, or any charity organization or charity clearinghouse.

I don't think this individual work these bloggers did detracts from the good that Heifer.org and other organizations do. For my money/opinion, I'll give to Heifer again when I'm looking for a good organization to give my charity to (right now I donate monthly to a single artist instead via the Fund for Women Artists).
posted by kalessin at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2007 [8 favorites]


Ah cool, just noticed it's Phil Greenspun from photo.net. He's a great guy. Thanks for the post.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:53 AM on January 18, 2007


Oh, and...season 1, episode 4 of the Ricky Gervais podcast. In that case they're talking about goats, but it's one of the funniest things I've ever heard.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:55 AM on January 18, 2007


This makes me think that there must be someway to leverage the internet and bored ex-pats in poverty stricken countries to cut out some of the overhead associated with charity.
posted by empath at 9:59 AM on January 18, 2007


Oxfam Unwrapped does something similar, but I can't tell if a donation through them results in an actual animal (or whatever item chosen) delivered. It certainly seems that way.
posted by mullacc at 10:06 AM on January 18, 2007


doesn't it seem a little selfish to be insisting that your $250 contribution is used in the way that gives you the maximum of warm fuzzies, not the way that will help them do the most good?

That was my first thought too, but on further thought, I think it's clear from this story that warm fuzzies actually do the most good, by attracting donors who, rightly or wrongly, wouldn't give otherwise. And now I feel a little hypocritical for focusing on the selfishness of others rather than the more important good they actually did. I didn't give anyone a water buffalo, after all.
posted by scottreynen at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2007


kalessin, I kind of agree with you, but I also think that the internet makes possible a new kind of charity. One that is more direct, with no middle man. And that's pretty sweet.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:11 AM on January 18, 2007


jimmythefish -- With Karl picturing them opening a wrapped goat on Christmas? "Oh, great. Anootha' mouth ta feed."
posted by notmydesk at 10:15 AM on January 18, 2007


I also think that the internet makes possible a new kind of charity. One that is more direct, with no middle man. And that's pretty sweet.

Kiva

Minimal middle man.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


This makes me think that there must be someway to leverage the internet and bored ex-pats in poverty stricken countries to cut out some of the overhead associated with charity.

Initially, yes, but then this is how all charities start out. As soon as the charity starts expanding, it requires a degree of standardisation. Charity can have a negative side to it, too. This water buffalo might cause jealousy and resentment amongst neighbours, for example. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out, it's sad and heartbreaking but also quite necessary in poor, subsistence regions for people to remain in labour-intensive, low-production positions. The tragedies of the green revolution have been caused by well-meaning intentions. I'm not saying that this specific case isn't great to see, but efforts at improving the lives of poor, rural people isn't as simple as merely giving them stuff.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:17 AM on January 18, 2007


jimmythefish -- With Karl picturing them opening a wrapped goat on Christmas? "Oh, great. Anootha' mouth ta feed."

That goat was 'appy over 'ere, and now it's on barren land!
posted by jimmythefish at 10:18 AM on January 18, 2007


Heh heh. Good old Karl. You can find all four season of their old XFM shows on bittorrent, in case you haven't heard them.
posted by notmydesk at 10:21 AM on January 18, 2007


Isn't it enough that we're already sending all our money to China via Wal-Mart? Now we have to send them water buffalo too?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:25 AM on January 18, 2007


If you want to make a difference in the world at large, you work with large governmental and non-governmental organizations . . .

and later in the same comment

right now I donate monthly to a single artist instead via the Fund for Women Artists (emphasis mine).

kalessin: Do you not see some inconsistency of thought or action there? Are you advocating doing as you say, or as you do?
posted by spock at 10:27 AM on January 18, 2007


I thought everybody had a water buffalo.

Damn that lying cucumber!
posted by figment of my conation at 10:36 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, I think we've all learned something here today.
posted by spock at 10:40 AM on January 18, 2007


Wow. That was a really nice story and video. Overly schmaltzy, though.

*wipes tears on sleeve*
posted by YoBananaBoy at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2007


which reminds me. I got a well in Africa for Christmas.
posted by parmanparman at 10:48 AM on January 18, 2007


I have been reading about Heifer and it does seem like a great charity. They don't just give animals, they teach people how to farm better and more sustainably, how to care for their animals, get the most out of their animals, pass new babies from their animal to others, and build a network of villagers around the animal. They give a lot of support. There's an interesting report on them on their website. It really does seem like a good thing. I just gave them a donation. And even though it isn't an actual goat I'm giving, it still makes me feel good.
posted by aacheson at 10:57 AM on January 18, 2007


Good job, people. I love seeing a real difference made in real lives. Now, let's repeat that little trick about 150 million times.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:01 AM on January 18, 2007


I enjoyed the video but flinched at the point he narrates to the weeping grandmother, "this is a gift ...from the United States" - somehow if it were true charity I'd respect it better if there wasn't some inferred propaganda ring to it.

In all cases like this I really wish the recipients weren't videotaped. I know there's less glory in the final product but it leaves me feeling very conflicted.
posted by Peter H at 11:25 AM on January 18, 2007


Great post.

Echoing aacheson's comment; often when I'm forced to reflect on how lucky I am, I become paralyzed by the disparity between me and people like the Su family. Somehow this film made it seem more possible for me to do something that will have a significant and positive effect.

I also think that the internet makes possible a new kind of charity. One that is more direct, with no middle man. And that's pretty sweet.

Kiva

Minimal middle man.


Donors Choose is another direct-type charities.
posted by slmorri at 11:32 AM on January 18, 2007


mrgrimm writes "Kiva

"Minimal middle man."


This is an awesome idea. If the loans charged interest it would be even more awesome; a real way to couple the capital of small investors to the world of microfinance. The Grameen bank charges 20% declining basis on their business loans; I think this works out to like 10% APR; not a bad investment, given 99% repayment. In fact, with those kinds of repayment rates, the organizing institution (Kiva, for instance) could probably take a couple points off the top and guarantee the loans. An investment opportunity with 8% APR return guaranteed? Not too shabby. I'd go for that over a CD (they're topping out at what? 6%?).
posted by mr_roboto at 12:08 PM on January 18, 2007


I think a large part of charity is working with other people to achieve a common goal. As was already stated, change requires organization and organization costs money. When Heifer gives an animal, they also give support and work to create better communities. To just give an animal, while great, misses the point: Poverty is a symptom of larger problems. Groups like Heifer are designed to deal with poverty as a whole and should be supported.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:44 PM on January 18, 2007


Best of the web. Thanks dobbs
posted by Cranberry at 1:31 PM on January 18, 2007


I've been a fan of Heifer for a while now, my current charity of choice. Looking at the report linked to above by lyam I'm puzzled again. Did Heifer really turn nearly eight million dollars of profit last year? Is that even remotely normal?
posted by Shutter at 1:46 PM on January 18, 2007


Oh, wait, I spoke to soon. That page was for the Heifer Foundation rather than Heifer International, the later seems to be the actual charity and scores a bit better. Then again, the actual charity seems to have made nearly 10 million dollars of profit last year. I remain confused.
posted by Shutter at 1:57 PM on January 18, 2007


The thing about Heiffer and like charities is that if they gave only exactly what people requested, they would have too many bunnies and not enough water buffalo. We work with them through our church as part of our participation in the ONE campaign, and 99% of the donations we get from parishoners are 20.00 or less. I'd rather Heifer did the work figuring out who needed what and passed out animals/training based on that.

That said, I got a theoretical beehive for Christmas this year.
posted by Biblio at 1:58 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Shutter, from your link: one of the Heifer FOUNDATION'S goals is building an endowment to generate ongoing support for the work of Heifer International. So, yes, they're trying to make a lot of money and stash it away.
posted by mkb at 2:47 PM on January 18, 2007


I've made a contribution in Metafilter's name to The Human Fund. Happy Festivus!
posted by waldo at 3:23 PM on January 18, 2007


I was in a Rotaract club a few years back. Just before I joined they bought a heifer, and they had specific information on the family and so forth. I don't know why or when things changed, but we had regular updates and postcard exchanges with the younger daughter of the family (in Thailand).

Did Heifer really turn nearly eight million dollars of profit last year?

A non-profit does not have profit, by definition. For NPOs, it's called Excess (sometimes other names). The money doesn't go anywhere.

Anyway, this was a wonderful story, although I was struck by the tragic backstory -- apparently drinking pesticides is a leading form of suicide in rural China. My misgivings were more of the Jared Diamond variety. Give every farmer a water buffalo, theoretically, and you'll end up with overfarmed land, polluted rivers, as well as starving water buffalo or families starving to feed their buffalo, and so forth. Water-buffalo-enhanced farmers will be able to take over land farmed by buffalo-less farmers, who will then ... what? And so forth.

Also, note the one child family. The son was surely older than that 1980 policy, and could easily have had siblings off the farmstead. But this shows how attractive multiple children must be to families who can't afford water buffalo, and the effects of that limit on families must be enormous.
posted by dhartung at 7:40 PM on January 18, 2007


Gah! I'm cryin like a baby.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:34 PM on January 18, 2007


This has been a hell of a thread. People who are afraid of their own emotional responses and blame it on the production (schmaltzy?) And a multitude of people who, from their sanctimonious keyboards declare "misgivings" about how the poor family will feed the creature or the timing of the gift or how the land will be over-farmed. Over-farmed? You sit in a country where six-figure mega-horsepower air-conditioned farm implements till and harvest and you are concerned about Chinese family overfarming their land with a single water buffalo? Rafter meet eye. We've got people worried about the propaganda of saying it is from the "United States"? It is amazing how so many people can take a wonderful act and try to find something wrong with it. Why? Does that make you feel better about yourself somehow? It reminds me of the accounts of Jesus healing people and the Pharisees denouncing him for doing it on the sabbath. Anybody recall his reply?
posted by spock at 10:46 PM on January 18, 2007


Re Oxfam:

(5th faq from the bottom)

"Am I really buying a camel?
First off, let's be clear: Neither you nor your gift recipient will receive a camel (other than the handsome photo on the gift card). When you buy a camel from Oxfam America Unwrapped, you are actually giving much more. The impact of your donation will have far-reaching effects. In each case, your donation will be used where it is most needed. For more information, click on the "How it Works" tab (at the top of the page)."

It seems like a great hook. Still, any charity that doesn't suck donations into outrageous compensation packages does good.
posted by Egg Go Boom at 6:23 AM on January 19, 2007


Oops, link: Oxfam America
posted by Egg Go Boom at 6:24 AM on January 19, 2007


It reminds me of the accounts of Jesus healing people ... Anybody recall his reply?

I believe it was, "now don't quote me on this but..."
posted by Peter H at 9:15 AM on January 19, 2007


Anybody recall his reply?

"I know, and I'll see you in MetaTalk."

Rafter meet eye.

Keep in mind that China has been in continuous agricultural production for at least six millennia, and the US Midwest for about 150 years. If China farmed the way we do, they would have become desert before the Sermon on the Mount.

I don't think it's inappropriate for me to look at the situation analytically. Think globally, act locally isn't just a catch-phrase. Jesus also said, dude, that you can give a man a fish, or you can teach him to fish. Which has more lasting value? If anything, in a land with a billion people, sustainable practices are of life-and-death importance. That isn't saying what these guys did was wrong, but it is asking what larger problem we are trying to solve and if so how we plan to get there. We don't want to be pissing into the wind.
posted by dhartung at 12:03 PM on January 19, 2007


dhartung writes "Jesus also said, dude, that you can give a man a fish, or you can teach him to fish."

Dude. I think that was Ben Franklin. Or maybe Lao-Tzu.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:28 PM on January 19, 2007


I am reminded of another famous quote:

It is better to keep silent and appear the fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!
posted by spock at 8:56 PM on January 19, 2007


Egg Go Boom writes "First off, let's be clear: Neither you nor your gift recipient will receive a camel "

Thanks for the link the the Oxfam US site. It's interesting that the US site goes to great lengths to make sure you understand exactly how the money will be used while the UK site is still pretty vague. I went through all the FAQs on the UK site and there wasn't anything nearly as explicit as that US FAQ.

But I still think I'm gonna give my friend a "camel" for his wedding.
posted by mullacc at 3:00 AM on January 21, 2007


kalessin wrote: Large charities need management/administration to run them.

roll truck roll replied: I kind of agree with you, but I also think that the internet makes possible a new kind of charity. One that is more direct, with no middle man.

That sounds nice, but it's actually incredibly wasteful. If my donation isn't funneled through a 501(c)(3) "middle man", then it's probably not tax-deductible. My marginal tax rate is higher than the administrative overhead of any legitimate charity.

In addition to avoiding taxes, exempt charities also help me avoid scams. Filtering legitimate recipients from the inevitable scammers would require a huge amount of research. I prefer to let the IRS do most of that work. They're pretty good at uncovering fraud.
posted by ryanrs at 10:22 PM on January 21, 2007


A bit late, but spock, no I don't see inconsistency. Fund for Women Artists is a 501.3c route for giving money to an artist - but I don't expect that 100% of my donation is seen by the artist in question - I expect Fund for Women Artists to take a cut for their administrative costs, by which mechanism, I both support the artist, and the means for her and other women artists to receive charitable donations.
posted by kalessin at 4:35 AM on January 22, 2007


Very moving. Thank you, dobbs. I apareciated this post, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes, and lifted my heart.
posted by mongonikol at 7:57 AM on January 23, 2007


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