“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
An honest look at volunteerism.
This past year, 62.6 million Americans did some form of volunteer work.
The 7.8 billion hours they spent helping those in need, translates into around 184 billion dollars worth of labor, or $23.59 an hour. These numbers are only in reference to charitable work done within the U.S. and doesn't include the work of organizations like the Peace Corps and Red Cross abroad. All things considered, the nonprofit sector makes up a two trillion dollar chunk of our economy, employing one in ten Americans. When looking at these figures, it may feel a bit strange to question whether or not volunteerism actually works. With that much money involved, how could it not? Still, despite the steady rise in our capacity to help, the world keeps churning out wars, genocides, and natural disasters at a seemingly unmatchable rate. In many of these regions, no matter how many volunteers go, the problems are never solved, just mitigated, a constant ebb and flow between destitute and a more manageable form of poverty.
Why does it feel as though we have more volunteers than ever, but the world isn't getting any better?
It's worth mentioning that our material comforts–the ones that make it possible for us to consider building schools in Uganda or digging irrigation ditches in India–were funded, and therefore made possible, by the same capitalistic policies that turned many parts of the world into the kinds of places that we send volunteers. Our contributions to global warming and our stubborn refusal to do anything about it, have already begun to have noticeable effects on the planet. Hurricanes, like the ones that struck Puerto Rico, are getting stronger. And while global warming isn't solely our responsibility, greed, both foreign and domestic, is the culprit behind our collective inaction. On top of this, the U.S. sells weapons to so many different countries, that if you were to point to a war-torn region on a map, it's almost a statistical certainty that American guns helped make it that way. In the same vein, nonprofit work is a livelihood for 10% of the country, and by virtue of existing in the same system as ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin, runs into its own sort of capitalistic paradox.
Peace Corps in South Africa
It's an incorrect assumption to think that just because charities don't sell anything, the nonprofit industry isn't manufacturing a product. It is.
Charities sell problems, along with the promise of solving them, to their donors. In turn, they use their donations to fund missions and pay employees. Even if an organization is run largely by volunteers, there are still huge costs associated with lodging and feeding those people. Unfortunately, there's a fundamental flaw in this business model. As a charitable organization fixes an issue, demand for their product goes down. For example, if a company sprouted up and its mission was to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia, after a certain point, helping people would become detrimental to the company's financial wellbeing.
The American Red Cross
While microeconomics play a central role in charity's relative ineffectiveness, they're only part of the story.
A lot of this can be more accurately attributed to the way in which we treat volunteerism in our society. For many, volunteering has become more about the perceived psychological benefits of helping others than the actual work involved. It's easy to brush this sort of selfish altruism off by saying the "ends justify the means," but there's something deeply false about it. Many also see volunteerism as a means of padding their resume or college application, instead of something done out of basic human decency. Maybe this point of view is puerile. Maybe people need to see concrete payback for their hard work, but it feels icky, especially considering the ways in which other countries consider charitable giving a civic duty.