Thursday, February 5, 2009

The White Man's Burden

Or "Why did World Vision Stop Returning My Calls?"

My mind is troubled today and this is why. I've got some questions for a charity I've been supporting for 8 years and they don't answer me. The answers are vitally important to my clear conscience in continuing to support the charity and I don't know what to do.

The questions are, when they give food assistance, do they give donated genetically modified plant seeds, like GM corn, rice, and wheat?

When they give food assistance, do they give powdered milk donated out of the US commodities system?

When they vaccinate the children, do they use donated vaccines that have been withdrawn from the US because of safety issues?

See, the US has a problem of over-production of certain foods, like corn, soy, and milk. Nobody wants the farms to go out of business due to failure to sell their product and inability to repay the loans they've taken out so the US government has a commodities program where they buy up the excess that won't sell in order to keep the farms going in case there is a bad year and their product is needed. So the government commodities program has a huge glut of corn, soy, and dairy products that they sell to the poor out of food distribution centers and give to charity in other countries.

Here's the problem: With the corn, it's all been mixed together. About 30% of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified. So if clever poor get whole grain corn as a food donation (which lasts longer than milled corn without nutrient loss or spoilage) then they may plant it instead of eating it all. That has happened, and the corn they've planted has wind-pollinated other fields of corn. Monsanto has managed to get most countries to sign on to intellectual property laws that entitle them to take posession of any plant that has genetically altered genes for which they hold the patent. Anyone caught in posession of those plants must either let Monsanto destroy their entire crop, as happened to Percy Schmeiser when his family's strain of canola got wind-pollinated by Monsanto's GM canola (100% of canola is GM these days because of how far the wind carries the pollen) or they must pay a fee to Monsanto every time they plant the seed they've saved from the previous season to use their patented genes (which they don't want in the first place!).

Also as more suspicion about the safety of consuming GM foods grows in light of manipulation of studies on safety, as happened to Arpad Puztai, more countries are being pushed by educated consumers to not import foods containing GM ingredients, so now the farmers of countries where GM contamination has happened are less able to sell their crops on the world market.

The milk is a concern because, for one thing, powdered milk doesn't contain the nutrients of fresh milk, nor the digestive enyzmes and protective probiotics of raw milk that a baby would get from nursing from its mother. But once powdered milk becomes available all kinds of problems ensue - mothers aren't told to boil the water and use contaminated water, especially in disaster areas, and the babies die of diarrhea. Not just babies, diarrhea is one of the worst problems of disaster areas that are trying to get back on their feet, due to lack of clean drinking water. But because we have so much of it, it is often pushed on charities so the government can get "credit" for giving disaster aid.

The last concern arose after I read Robert F. Kennedy's statement before Congress on the use of mercury-containing preservatives in vaccines. Their decision was to let the manufacturers continue to use the vaccines for over a year while they looked for an alternative preservative, and then did not stop them from continuing to sell the vaccines overseas. It got me reading up on vaccine safety and I found some groups saying that different batches of vaccine had much higher rates of adverse effects than others. I started worrying that the contaminated vaccines and the ones containing mercury were being donated overseas instead of thrown out - for tax-credit, refunds, whatever benefit the companies might get from giving them to charity. I have no proof this is happening, but wanted to ask World Vision about the source of their vaccines and whether they tried to only use vaccines that met US safety requirements.

Nobody will answer me. I managed to get on the phone with an Executive Director, who said they were good questions, and he asked me to put them in writing and email them to him so he could forward them to the people within the organization who would know the answers. Then he stopped returning my phone calls and emails and I'm not even sure if he has his job anymore as I can't reach him. He was supposed to be a speaker at an event I organized and he didn't show up nor return my emails and phone call about that. I fear I've gotten him fired.

I don't mis-trust the motives of World Vision, but do worry that they've fallen into the trap of taking the "easy" way instead of continuing to act on conscience. I hate to think ill of them as they seem to want to do good for the poor, but sometimes when organizations get too big they get too bureaucratic to function well anymore. Assuming the worst, I would want to stop contributing to that sort of error and unintended spread of misery. I recently heard of a book, "White Man's Burden" that is supposed to talk about this issue, of us Westerners trying to help but from a top-down "let me tell you what's good for you" kind of way that makes the problems worse. I'm going to read it.


Karma said...

Very valid questions, indeed. You may want to try asking them of a couple of different entities. Try and contact the UN or the WHO. You could even contact some of the embassies of the African nations to whom we ship these commodities. You might even want to email a couple of the larger "celebrity founded" charities and ask these questions of their boards. (i. e. Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono) They certainly cannot be any less communicative than World Vision has become. Who knows, it may just start them asking questions. A couple of other questions about the commodities and vaccines... Bovine Growth Hormone? Aluminum content? Until then, I guess the best we can do it pray for the safety and the health of those people who, out of necessity and in good faith, receive these foods and medicines.

ReBorn Again said...

I wanted to add to this that I've read "White Man's Burden" now and was thoroughly disappointed. The introduction contained most of the useful information. It was written by a guy who worked in the World Bank and he doesn't have enough separation from it to REALLY criticize what they've been doing.