Just one gift

December 8, 2014

By Christa

In 2013, U.S. consumers spent about $730 on average during the holiday season, totaling about $602 billion after the holidays were over. To put that number in perspective, the annual GDP of the country of Colombia in 2013 was $602 billion, according to the IMF. The annual GDP of Tanzania, a country with a population comparable to that of Colombia (about 50 million) was about $85 billion.

For another level of perspective, in 2012 the World Health Organization estimated that it would take about $535 billion to provide access to clean water and adequate sanitation across the globe. Just one year of our holiday spending would cover this cost.

So we spend a lot on Christmas. I’m part of this. I love giving gifts, eating fun holiday food, decorating my house, traveling to see friends and family. And some of these traditions build memories and nurture relationships. It’s not easy to find a balance between enjoyment and expectations, and the world’s great need.

But what if people bought fewer gifts? Or, more precisely, one less gift? If I, for example, decided this year not to purchase one $25 Lego set for my niece – what is the potential of my $25 gift? Or, for that matter, ten or a hundred or a thousand foregone gifts of $25?

As a point of entry, let’s start with five anti-poverty interventions in developing countries that Bruce Wydick deemed most effective after talking to 16 development economists from across the country (To be clear, I don’t necessarily think these causes are the best or only places to give money, and I’m aware of the controversies associated with some of them – I use them for illustrative purposes only).

  • Clean water in rural villages: The Water Project has estimated that $23 is enough to give one person access to clean and safe water – the cost of one Lego set. Per person charges are tricky in terms of accuracy because of the variations in the costs of building wells in different places, so let’s look at the cost per well instead. The same organization suggests that the average well-construction project in Africa ranges from $12,000 to $15,000. 500 or 600 people donating the money from one Christmas gift could pay for a well that might serve several hundred or more villagers.
  • De-worming treatments for children: Regular deworming treatments can improve nutrition, educational outcomes, and quality of life. The “Deworm the World” Initiative estimates that the costs of offering deworming treatments to children is about 50 cents per child. 50 children dewormed for a year, for the price of one gift.
  • Mosquito Nets: Malaria is a one of the top most deadly diseases in the developing world – and mosquito nets are one effective tool in disease prevention. The UN Foundation’s Nothing but Nets initiative suggests that $10 pays for a mosquito net and related education to use the nets effectively. Malaria No More’s Power of One campaign promises that $1 will provide a malaria test and treatment for one person in Zambia.
  • Sponsoring Children: Child sponsorship has changed over the years, expanding from assisting single families helping whole communities. Sponsorships with Children International are $28 per month, while those with World Vision run to $35.
  • Efficient wood-burning stoves: Wood-stove cooking and heating is central to the lives of 3 billion people, but the time needed to gather wood and the toxic effects of indoor air pollution are costly effects. Cleaner, more efficient stoves ranging in cost from $15 to $150 are available – the cost of one or a few Christmas gifts.

There are so many places to give. These possibilities are just examples. What could we do together?

One more thought experiment. 77% of the U.S. adult population identifies as Christian. Approximately three-quarters of the 300 million people in the U.S. are over 18 – 225,000,000 people. 77% of that number is 173,250,000. If all of the Christians in the U.S. decided to reduce their gift purchases by one, and instead donated that $25, we could give more than $4.3 billion just this Christmas to alleviating poverty around the world.

That’s power in numbers.

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