3 min read
One prediction about the Gulf oil spill is easy:  As Americans learn more about the crisis, smart donors -- institutional and personal -- will loom large in any story about the best responses to the spill. Government, by contrast, will not look so good.

That’s a safe bet because every time something ugly hits America, be it natural disaster, economic crisis, or man-made catastrophe, our civil society flexes its muscles and pours in time, money, and most importantly, imagination.

Think of Hurricane Katrina. As Sandra Swirski and I recently wrote, “Looking back at Katrina, Americans find much to criticize in the response of government. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency struggled to function, corporations like Wal-Mart, FedEx, and Home Depot performed miraculous feats; charities like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief surged supplies and staff; and funders like the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Foundation for the Mid-South quickly established relief funds.” Baptist Community Ministries (BCM), the largest foundation in New Orleans, lost its own offices in the storm yet was up and running a week later, fighting back with vigor. (Adam Meyerson chronicled BCM’s early response here.)

Another obvious comparison is the response of private funders to our continuing economic crisis. One of the first efforts to document this response comes from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. In a recent study for The Philanthropic Collaborative, Holtz-Eakin looks at a sample of 2,672 foundation grants in 2008-2009 and finds that grants began to “shift, expand and follow the larger unemployment and housing needs that developed and became acute in communities across the country.” (The Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal held a conference to discuss the study; video here.)

“The ability of foundations to be swift and flexible in their response allowed them to modify their giving throughout the crisis and ensure the grants went to those most in need,” Holtz-Eakin explains. Providence Mayor David Cicilline (D) seconds that thought: “Foundations are effective because they are part of our community, know the people, can bring aid to where it's needed most and act with speed and precision. They also embody another important attribute -- they are able to provide assistance without the red tape and bureaucracy. This entrepreneurial approach is what makes them so effective and welcome in our efforts to ensure people have the means to weather this economic storm.”

Of course, it’s not entirely the fault of government and public officials that they aren’t known for deft assistance in a crisis. Government is a blunt instrument in anyone’s hands, even if some hands are less clumsy than others.

For example, when I joined the White House Domestic Policy Council, the heavy lifting on aid to Katrina’s victims was over, but my peers who had worked on it had stories of work weeks of 70, 80, and more hours. What kept them so busy? Isn’t it a simple matter of handing over money and materiel to a few states and localities?

Not even close. Numerous federal departments and agencies – and thousands of bureaucrats – must be coordinated with even more state and local bureaucracies. Existing laws governing budgets aren’t designed to have funds deflected into new channels; grant programs typically have elaborate regulations governing their flows. Church/state issues often arise. Lawyers throughout government must scrutinize every detail. Legislators at all levels demand consultation and have lots of free advice. Although some people involved were heroes and others, to put it charitably, left something to be desired, the machinery involved was vast and byzantine. Even with angels operating every gear and lever, speed and efficiency weren’t possible.

Criticisms mount of government's role in the Gulf spill (for example, here). But the most important point is philosophical: "Capacity-building" for government is not necessarily desirable. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in his encyclical on charity: "The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern."

Wherever we see neighbors in need, let's keep our expectations of government assistance low, and give more of ourselves.

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