Day Traders of Charity

A new online charity called Watsi allows users to read personal tales of medical woe in emerging markets and contribute up to the total amount needed to pay for a particular patient’s treatment. But Watsi resembles a day-trading site: investors buy and sell stocks relentlessly, without helping to build the underlying businesses.

LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA – An online charity organization is taking Silicon Valley by storm. Called Watsi, the charity allows users to read personal tales of medical woe in emerging markets and contribute up to the total amount needed to pay for a particular patient’s treatment. Many might say, “How nice!” But I say, “Hold the applause.”

The problem is not that Watsi is a bad service. The problem is that it is good at what it does. All the money raised goes directly to the individual whose care you are paying for. (You can contribute separately if you want to support Watsi’s operations.) There are strict processes and protections in place to ensure that the care goes only to the “deserving poor” (not their words, but that is the idea), rather than to just anyone. There are safeguards to prevent expensive care from being given to someone who does not really need it. And everything is visible; all of Watsi’s financial records are accessible on a Google Transparency Document.

Yes, the Internet allows people to connect – one to one – across cultures and distance. And it is good that people feel empathy, or at least sympathy, for those who are less fortunate. But the ability to solve immediate problems encourages a passive, money-heals-all approach. You see someone lying in a virtual ditch, you help him or her, and call it a good day. In this respect, Watsi resembles a day-trading site, where investors buy and sell stocks relentlessly, without helping to build the underlying businesses.

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