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Previously in Web Citations:

Get a Life

Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.


Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.

Shake Your Musicmaker

Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.


Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.

Revenge of the Wizards

Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.

Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!

Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.

More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.

Conscientious Clicks
March 15, 2000

I discovered the rush of one-click charity last December, when a college friend e-mailed a URL to her usual list of pals. The link led to thehungersite.com, which donates to the UN World Food Program in proportion to the number of times people click on a button. Sponsors provide funding in exchange for banner ads that users see after they click the donation button -- each sponsor donates a quarter-cup's worth of food per click. Though it lists hunger statistics and provides links to other charity sites, The Hunger Site itself performs only fundraising. Moved by the site's ease of use and the volume of donations it generates (sometimes more than a million cups a day), I zapped the URL to a few other friends and forgot about it.

But another friend soured my contentment. He pointed out that food donations may feel satisfying, but they can aggravate the suffering of those they're intended to help -- as donations mount they can complicate problems of public health, agriculture, and political freedom in countries vulnerable to famine. I defended the site instinctively. It's strictly legitimate, of course, and I'd rather add to rice piles in hopes that one more grain will help for one more minute than do nothing at all. Nevertheless, a link to The Hunger Site lands in one's e-mail inbox devoid of context. It's simple to use and just as simple to forget. But hunger demands complex, often difficult, choices, which in turn require education.

Taking a very different approach from that of The Hunger Site, Nomad Net presents a kind of counter-point to the ease of one-click charity. Created by Michael Maren, a journalist and the author of The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (Free Press, 1997), Nomad Net points to articles that expose abuses in relief programs, with an emphasis on Somalia (where Maren has worked) and the horn of Africa. The site chronicles how donated food becomes a tradable good in Africa, funding guns and pitting governments against each other. Whereas The Hunger Site allies itself with the UN, Nomad Net compiles reporting from sources such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist, along with dispatches from Somalia.

If The Hunger Site is a well-intentioned digital fundraiser, Nomad Net is a kind of online muckraker. Yet these sites share a simple logic -- that the Web can engage people in an issue freely and fast. And that logic suggests an opportunity. Shouldn't the Web foster a third approach, one that could spur informed giving, so that people can donate not only faster but more intelligently? Such an approach could combine The Hunger Site's rapid-fire fundraising with Nomad Net's intensive information gathering. It could help non-experts assess the causes they embrace.

Famines often occur for complicated reasons -- for example, when politicians impede the flow of resources. A full flow of information would help donors understand what famine fighters really confront. "Charitable organizations and the people who work for them face dilemmas every day," says Maren. "How much do we give to the [wicked] so that some might be left over for the victims?" Charities that make intelligent and honest choices in that crucible could benefit from open and fast online communication.

Of course, a new instrument would require collaboration between fundraisers and journalistic watchdogs. While Maren provides (disparaging) links to Save the Children and NetAid, only a bold fundraiser will link to critical research. A spokesperson for The Hunger Site says that they expressly do not wade into polemic -- they keep their appeal uncomplicated. We've seen this pattern in older media: Sally Struthers wasn't pitching Save the Children to relief experts.

The Web can alter old arrangements. A site that pegs reliable information to the moment of pledging could reward charities that deal frankly with limitations and conflicts. It would make funding a first step in education, helping hurried drones become thoughtful donors. That would make famine relief tougher but more rewarding. And it would ennoble more e-mail.

--Alec Appelbaum

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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Alec Appelbaum is a staff editor at SmartMoney.com. He lives in New York City.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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