A lifetime spent tackling problems that don't exist can leave one wanting more. Perhaps, as Silicon Valley stalwarts realize attaining and facilitating bourgeois comfort isn't the noblest cause, they'll need more vanity projects like Charity: Water, an opportunity to show the internet just how generous they really are. African kids are perfect for Instagramming.
In this week's New York Times Magazine, Max Chafkin chronicles an expedition of mostly white entrepreneurs—among them a Facebook exec, Tony Hawk, the guy who created Spotify, and other likeminded luminaries—as they charter an entire 737 from Dubai to Ethiopia and watch their names get slapped onto water pumps to provide clean, safe water for impoverished communities there. At home, they've made it easier for us to buy things, stream things, or follow Ke$ha. And across an ocean, they've found it easier than ever to feel worthwhile. The whole production is engineered by Scott Harrison, a former club promoter who one day found Jesus:
It was on a New Year’s Eve trip to Punta del Este, the Uruguayan resort, that Harrison realized he felt empty. Soon after his return, he began reading the Bible for the first time since high school and found himself hung up on a verse in James that defines religion as a commitment “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This upset him. “I was kind of 0 for 2,” he says. “I had done nothing in a decade of night life for the poor.”
Since his mid-hangover conversion, Harrison has assembled a flock of software titans rather than sinners, giving the haute tech crowd brand new occasions to dress up and fundraise in the name of potability. Charity: Water is surely one of the coolest causes young, well-to-do coastals can associate themselves with—and if they spend $5,000, they can go straight to the app-less void of the developing world and watch the donated money be spent. There are also fringe benefits: "Members get a chance to hobnob with people in Harrison’s inner circle of well-known techies," notes Chafkin, "which includes the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and the former Facebook president Sean Parker." But front and center for Silicon Valley's poverty campers is this Epcot Center version of global suffering—some will even get to press a button when it comes time to dig wells:
“Is it ready to blow?” Harrison called out, and then sent Nathan Hubbard, the C.E.O. of Ticketmaster, to do the honors. Hubbard pushed the button, the ground thumped and rocks and dust sputtered out of the hole. The well was a few inches deeper, and workers went in with jackhammers to prepare for the next round of blasting. It was, self-consciously, a show.
"The workers." Mr. Hubbard is not one of these workers. Like North Korean dignitaries touring a new factory, Chafkin explains, the Charity: Water squad goes from site to site observing. Call it philanthropy by proxy, a way to disrupt virtue itself:
Our first stop the following day was a worksite, where we were greeted by hundreds of children who’d taken the morning off from school to celebrate our arrival. They danced, clapped, chanted and held up those “Water Is Life” signs while our group snapped pictures.
Between picture snapping, you can pretend to suffer, if only for a moment:
“O.K., guys,” Harrison said, holding up a large plastic gas can. “I want everyone to try this for a second.” A group of villagers started filling the bright yellow vessels with water, then handed them out to us. We struggled to carry them out of the canyon, simulating the journey that 8- and 9-year-old girls made every day. It was too hard. Most people gave up after a few steps, put down their cans and started taking pictures.
Charity: Water is all about visuals. Donors receive elaborate certificates with the GPS coordinates of the well they indirectly funded, or their name printed on the side of a well—a form of recognition Harrison delightfully refers to as "proof." Whether that proof is for the American travelers or their social media contacts back home, bombarded with beaming Instagram uploads and tweets, is unclear. But the point remains the same: Look at us, we did this thing. And what fun we had, too: “It’s like sleep-away camp for geeks,” explains one camper.
The act of giving becomes a brand indistinguishable from Twitter's "favorite" star or the Facebook thumbs-up. That the entirety of this trip is superficial, about as harrowing an encounter with poverty as a wave pool is to riptide, doesn't seem to faze any participants:
“I think people in the tech community are attracted to fastidiously designed and maintained brands,” Tom Conrad, the executive vice president of Pandora, said as our Land Cruiser drove between villages. “Perhaps that’s superficial,” he conceded, “but good design correlates with thoughtfulness throughout the endeavor.”
Correlates, sure—roughly. Charity: Water, the organization behind the trip, is by most measures a "good charity," in terms of not committing fraud. Its IRS documents come back clean when checked by NGO watchdogs, even though it's mostly a fundraising and travel agency, which according to IRS documents (embedded below, data from 2012 or 2013 hasn't been submitted) subcontracts all of the actual digging of wells to other organizations. And of course, there cannot be any doubt that giving money to give more people access to clean water is a categorically "good thing," in that the world is some abstract degree better off with the money than without. And those who seek to part wealthy people from their money in the name of genuine charity long ago perfected the use of vanity, self-regard, ostentatious generosity, and the desire to be seen as noble as levers with which to achieve their ends.
But to call it anything more than a tax deductible transaction—the Africans get some clean water, the Americans get iPhone-filtered photos of Africans—is crass. True charity doesn't need its own hashtag. In the parlance of these people looking for meaning where they haven't been able to invest in any back home, it's Uber for altruism.