When Charitable Giving Isn’t Charitable

During the holiday season, it is popular to give charitable gifts in someone else’s name, particularly if the recipient has made it clear they don’t want material presents. This is also the time when charities solicit year-end tax-deductible donations. Heifer International, MercyCorps, Oxfam, World Vision and similar charities are popular because they pitch that you can combat hunger in desperate areas, such as Afghanistan or Sudan, by donating money which they will use to ship live animals such as cows, goats, donkeys, or chickens to families living in those regions for them to raise for milk and meat.

But such programs aren’t charitable for the animals, and in many cases, for the families either; if a family is struggling to provide for themselves, how can they ensure adequate nutrition, conditions, and care for their animals? It is a near-sighted attempt to solve the vastly complex problem of global hunger that poses substantial risk for the animals, the environment, and the people for which these programs advertise that they help; the World Land Trust calls animal-donation programs “environmentally unsound and economically disastrous.”

First, the animals have to survive the initial transport. Animals are bred and raised in large-scale farms throughout the world operated by the charities, and then shipped out. Baby chicks and other young animals are shipped overseas as airmail or cargo. In addition to the long hours or days of flight, these animals may be in planes at various terminals for hours without food or water. Countless animals arrive sick and dead. Northwest Airlines reports that up to 30% of chicks arrive dead in just in domestic flights; one can only surmise the number is much higher after international flights. Chicks are characterized as “easy to transport,” because they are small, inhumanely packed in boxes, airmailed at the cheapest rate, and shipped in huge numbers.


Baby chicks being shipped by mail

Non-native animals introduced to fragile habitats, where the animals have larger or different appetites from indigenous species, will overtax the vegetation or simply starve. Grazing animals cause topsoil runoff and land degradation, which can contribute to drought conditions. Arid conditions cannot support animals like cows, descended from forest-dwelling species, who require large amounts of water. Increasing the reliance on animals raised as livestock for sustenance can have disastrous results, as the recent famine in the Horn of Africa has shown.

People living in impoverished communities hardly have enough food, water, and land for themselves, let alone for animals. Having another mouth to feed adds to a family’s burden, and the animals often suffer from horrible neglect, malnutrition, dehydration, and lack of shelter from the burning midday sun or night-time freezing temperatures. Animals already in impoverished areas are sick and dying for lack of veterinary care and treatment. There is a desperate need for more veterinary services, not for more animals to tend, feed and care for. Some recipients of animals never asked for one and complain about the economic and environmental havoc such an animal creates. Much of the grain intended for families end up having to support the animals. After a couple years on such a program, some families report back having been even poorer than when they started.


Goats, a popular animal for donation, tend to overgraze and destroy fragile native vegetation (Heifer International promo photo)

Animal-based agriculture taxes and misuses land and resources already stretched thin, promotes high-fat Western diets over indigenous diets heavy in grains and vegetables, and jeopardizes human and animal health by inviting diseases like Avian flu. Delivering animals used for dairy enterprises into rural areas that have no refrigeration, electricity, or passable roads to get milk to markets, to serve populations that are lactose-intolerant are misguided at best. Taking animals from their mothers, shipping them thousands of miles into inhospitable regions with no animal-welfare standards, restricting and exploiting them for dairy products, forcing extended suffering due to illness and injury, and ultimately slaughtering them (often times with rusty or dull knives) does not fit in the spirit of compassion and charity of the holiday season.


Dairy cow in a region where up to 90% of the population are lactose intolerant (Heifer International promo photo)

Global hunger is a problem that cannot be solved by well-intentioned donations of animals which often end up doing more harm than good. This holiday season, if you truly want to help the people in countries suffering from drought, natural disasters, poverty, and war, please instead consider supporting sustainable, animal-friendly relief organizations that work to end hunger, help communities set up local sustainable food projects, re-establish arable land, and provide direct aid. Food For Life Global provides food distribution of plant-based meals all across the world, The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation strategically plants orchards where the harvest will best serve communities for generations, VEGFAM funds self-supporting, sustainable food projects and the provision of safe drinking water as well as emergency relief, Sustainable Harvest International addresses the tropical deforestation crisis in Central America by providing farmers with sustainable alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture, and Feed My Starving Children ships out hand-packed meals developed specifically for malnourished children. Also Kiva creates entrepreneurial opportunities through micro-lending to help people world-wide work their way out of poverty.

This year, make the gift of giving charitable for people, the environment, and the animals.

This post was originally published in I ♥ AR on December 21, 2011 and is reproduced with permission.