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In the giving season, a special act of charity

Shift in thought

As nations stepped up to pledge money for hurricane-hit Caribbean islands, one donation stood out. Haiti, despite its own devastation and poverty, promised aid to its neighbors.

Actor and composer of Puerto Rican descent Lin Manuel Miranda distributes food to victims of Hurricane Maria in La Placita de Güisin, in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, Nov. 7.
AP Photo
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

End-of-year holidays such as Christmas have long been marked as a time for generous giving. The kick-off event has lately become “Giving Tuesday,” an initiative started in 2012 to counter the commercialism of Cyber Monday and Black Friday. And during this “giving season,” at least one act of charity usually stands out. This year’s winner may be Haiti.

Despite being devastated by a 2010 earthquake, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere made a big donation last week. It promised to give $250,000 to other Caribbean islands hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The amount may seem small, especially given the billions needed to restore those islands, including Puerto Rico. And many wealthier countries are promising millions in grants and loans. The amounts were pledged last week at a special donors conference sponsored by the Caribbean Community, an organization of 15 nations and dependencies.

But as a percentage of Haiti’s wealth, the donation is almost sacrificial. And it ranks up there with the biblical tale of the poor widow who gave away a high proportion of her income.

Compassion is often easier for those humbled by the loss of material well-being, whether it comes by poverty or disaster. Such givers may be better able to recognize others in need and be more willing to come out of themselves to help. Their special kind of empathy can be as healing as the gift itself.

In the United States, individuals give more to charity than do philanthropies and private companies. While wealthier individuals give more money in absolute terms, often it is the poor, or those making less than $45,000, who give the most as a proportion of income. And these so-called sacrificial donors are most often found in the poorest regions, such as the South, and give 12 percent of their income.

A good example of this phenomenon comes from Puerto Rico, one of the poorest parts of the US. A survey of the territory’s residents in 2014 found a very high propensity for giving. Three out of 4 households on the island reported making charitable donations. In the rest of the US, just over half of households give to charity.

Haiti’s pledge to its neighbors has yet to receive much acknowledgment. Yet it didn’t expect much. Its own experiences have left a humility that seeks to give without receiving credit.

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