When I was a little kid (well, a young kid, since I was never that little), mealtimes were inevitably ended with the admonition from my mom that I should clean my plate of whatever items (usually vegetables) I had avoided during the meal, that there were starving children in the world who would give almost anything to have my unwanted food. I used to ponder these guilt-inducing comments until I would realize that a.) there was no way that I could deliver the vegetables to my young Chinese counterparts and, b.) if there was a way, then the starving kids of China were welcome to whatever they wanted from my plate, but would they even want them? This rationale never sat very well with my mom, but it usually deflected the issue of my unwanted food until I could get away from the table.
My mom never exactly conveyed to me the idea that those hungry children were my responsibility, but I grew up worrying about them nonetheless, especially since I could’t send my broccoli to them. (And really, could an Asian or Indian child really get excited about Brussels sprouts or beets?) These days, I don’t leave much on my plate, and I’ve become a devotee of most vegetables. But I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a “good steward” in life, so I still think a lot about those starving kids in China or wherever else in the world there is famine or poverty that threatens the well-being of children.
Whatever the real answers might have been back then in the 50’s, the answers are much different today. In today’s context, we are capable of putting resources to work with pretty good precision in most corners of the world. Cyber connectivity allows a ready awareness of where the needs are at any given moment (witness the post-tsunami response in Japan). Internet technology makes for easy and instantaneous transfer of information and funding (recall the revolution in Egypt). Airline access allows physical transport of goods within hours (just ask FedEx). So the clever dodges that I employed as a kid are now non-existent for any of us. The only remaining obstacle is my will, our will.
The reality today is that there are no hurdles to be overcome in cleaning my plate on behalf of others. The U.S. philanthropic community may only show its largesse internationally to the tune of about 3% of all giving, but it’s not due to logistics, distances or even the tastes of hungry children in developing countries. It has only to do with decisions about how and where we spend our money, and why. International organizations with tremendously positive records of high impact in the countries they serve make it very easy to actually pinpoint where a “cleaned plate” is going; in the case of an organization like Kiva, one can actually name the individual recipient. It doesn’t get much more personal than that!
When our own children were young, my wife and I never used the old bromide about sending uneaten food to starving kids overseas, even though by then I had a response to the old excuses that used to work for me. Instead, we tried to help them know how to actually share some of what they had, and in places other than the U.S. Armed with that, they at least had the chance to become good stewards for others, though we admonished them to eat their greens nonetheless….