Of all the media out there that cover charities, the least informative is television. There are several reasons for this. But ask yourself this question: If you wanted to broadcast a piece about an effective charity, where would it appear?
You don’t see pieces on charities on cable news, because these networks, be they Fox, MSNBC, or CNN, primarily cover politics, war, terrorism, and murders. They don’t really have the equivalent of a feature section in a newspaper. Cable documentary networks have largely devoted themselves to “reality” shows with recurring characters. While some of these are enjoyable (I’ll happily watch any episode of “American Pickers” I haven’t seen) this isn’t a format that works well for explaining how charities work.
Local news, of course, has always followed the formula “If it bleeds, it leads,” and don’t have room for much else besides fires, murders, explosions, sports, and weather. That leaves the commercial networks.*1
I haven’t seen a network news show in this century, and the networks really don’t produce documentaries anymore. So that leaves the network news magazines. Fox doesn’t have one, and “Dateline NBC” and “20/20” have largely become murder-of-the-week broadcasts. That leaves “60 Minutes,” the only network news magazine worth watching.
When “60 Minutes” was founded in the late 1960s, creator Don Hewitt’s idea was that viewers who would watch political interviews or exposes would also like pieces about culture. Hewitt has been dead for a decade, but his formula still holds. *2
I don’t watch “60 Minutes” as often as I used to (ever since they delayed broadcasts for the NFL, the Final Four, or (sigh) golf), so I don’t know how often they cover charities. But I thought Bill Whitaker did a fine piece about the Himalayan Cataract Project.
The project has an annual budget of $8 million, of which about a million comes from government (chiefly the U.S. Agency for International Development) and the rest from a variety of donors including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which contributes in the high six figures. The organization was founded by two ophthalmologists, Dr. Sanduk Ruit, who is from Nepal, and Dr. Geoff Tabin, who is affiliated with the University of Utah Medical School.
Dr. Tabin is an avid mountain climber, and met Dr. Ruit on a trek in Nepal. They both realized that they could help poor people in Nepal who couldn’t see because of cataracts through a series of inexpensive operations in what is called “small-incision cataract surgery.” They say they can perform a cataract operation for $25, because the procedure is relatively simple and the lenses in the operation are made in a factory the project owns in Nepal. The intraocular lenses from the factory in Nepal have not gone through the extensive (and expensive) process to meet FDA approval, though Dr. Tabin says he’d put them in his own mother’s eyes.
The Cataract Project started in Nepal, expanded to Burma, and they now work in various locations throughout Asia and Africa, partnering with local providers to offer training and equipment.
So what makes them a good charity? The services Dr. Tabin and Dr. Ruit provide add to the goods provided to the Third World. Aid is, of course, fungible. Give money to provide the Third World with food or nurses and you subtract from the opportunities provided to indigenous farmers or nurses. But most Third World countries don’t have good eye doctors and the project’s focus is to train local doctors and eye care teams with the simple techniques they need to provide cataract surgery for the poor.
Finally, the Himalayan Cataract Project is a semi-finalist for a new program of the MacArthur Foundation where they hold a contest where one lucky winner gets a $100 million grant. Some of the project’s competitors seem like good programs to me. Rice University, for example, wants to improve neonatal care in the Third World. HarvestPlus has a program for adding vitamins to rice, wheat, and other staple crops.
Then there’s a program that seems to me to be completely daft. Suppose you’re a refugee. What do you need? Food? Shelter? Clothes? Well, the International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop think what refugees need is…TV, sorry, “multimedia content.” The TV these two organizations think kids need is the Muppets, or “the trusted and recognized Sesame Street Muppets.”
I confess that part of me hopes that the Muppets win this competition because the MacArthur Foundation would be subject to a barrage of healthy and sustained laughter. But given the babies that could be protected or the eyes saved with MacArthur money, I hope the foundation does the right thing and give their $100 million to a charity that would do something useful with it.
As for the Himalayan Cataract Project, they seem to me a good organization that I was happy to learn about on “60 Minutes.”
*1 Well, there’s public television, but the combination of Charlie Rose and any major foundation president has been shown to produce enough natural gas to cause narcolepsy among nearly all viewers.
*2 His model was the mass-market general interest magazine, like Life or the Saturday Evening Post, which had articles on all sorts of subjects. The “60 Minutes” correspondents, most notably Mike Wallace, wore trench coats because Joel McCrea wore one in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent.