The Canonisation of Inefficiency – Why we need to do better than Mother Teresa and the Vatican

The Canonisation of Inefficiency – Why we need to do better than Mother Teresa and the Vatican

Mother Teresa's face is one of the most recognizable in the world. Many of us grew up with the ubiquitous image of the "Angel of Mercy," never questioning that what she was doing was good for so many people. She is still revered by millions today.

The strong criticism that has been lobbed at this seemingly unassailable icon since the mid-1990s therefore came as a shock to many. So much so, in fact, that even respected media platforms and figures such as Britain's Channel 4, Forbes India, Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali have largely failed to shake the public perception of Mother Teresa as a saint. The Vatican, for one, certainly isn't listening: Mother Teresa will be canonized on September 4.

Granted, the Vatican arguably has a stake in her continuing popularity, but what about the general public? How is it possible that the well-founded and well-documented criticism has had seemingly no effect on Mother Teresa's public image as a helper of the poor? And what, if anything, can we learn from this for our own giving habits?


Depending on where you stand, you may or may not agree with Mother Teresa's position on abortion or divorce; you may or may not have a problem with her support of Haiti's dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier; you may or may not like the fact that she accepted over $1 million from known fraudster Charles Keating and never returned the money to his victims (not even after being made aware of how he accumulated the money in the first place).

Yet all this is eclipsed by one undeniable fact: millions of dollars in donations remain unaccounted for. The only thing we know about them is that they didn't benefit those they were supposed to benefit: the poorest of the poor. According to German magazine Stern, only seven percent of the money Mother Teresa received from millions of well-meaning, kind-hearted people actually went to helping the poor.

We also know that the Missionaries of Charity reached comparatively few people – only a few hundred people in the best of cases. We know that the medical care people received at their hospices was substandard and way below what the available funds could have provided, that Mother Teresa's belief that there was beauty in poverty and suffering might have kept her from making any distinction between curable and incurable patients, leading to the death of many whose lives could have been saved. We know that the living conditions of people in her homes were horrific, that pain relief was poor or non-existent, and that in some countries, her houses were exclusively used for the purpose of converting people to Catholicism and didn't have any residents at all.

So why are we so reluctant to let go of our idea of Mother Teresa as a saint? Why are we blindly canonizing inefficiency?

An Urge to Help

There are two things we human beings are very good at: striving to help others, and fooling ourselves. Both enter into a potentially problematic amalgam when it comes to charitable giving.

Studies show that being kind makes us feel better about ourselves, and we can be pretty generous. Arguably, our innate predisposition to do something for those who are less fortunate than we are, present across all ages, historical periods, cultures, societies and beliefs, is one of humanity's best traits and may well be our saving grace.

However, in our desire to help, we sometimes fail to look beyond the face of the campaign or the organization in question. We tend to make decisions solely with our hearts, leaving our minds by the wayside. Maybe we feel that it's not fair to question those who work for a better world. In particular if an organization is supported by a celebrity or headed by an icon such as Mother Teresa, we often neglect to look deeper into what actually happens with our donations.

This isn't helped by what is known as the Sunk Cost Fallacy: Humans tend to be biased towards throwing good money after bad. We don't want to feel like we've wasted the money we've already given, so instead of taking a closer look, we shy away from the hard questions and just keep giving. This has the added benefit of saving ourselves from the disillusionment of finding out that maybe the organization we've been supporting isn't quite as good as it seems to be.

But is this really the best we can do? Shouldn't there be a way to make sure our positive intentions actually get transferred into positive action, that our gifts are managed well and actually benefit as many people as possible?

A Better Way

Organizations like The Life You Can Save, GiveWell and others promote the use of evidence to evaluate and rate non-profits – the use of reason and scientific methods over blindly trusting in the glossy façade of an ostensibly charitable organization. Together, leaders in the field have pioneered a rational way of analyzing the efficiency of charitable organizations, of finding out whether they do what they say they'll do, and how effective they are in doing that – in short, of measuring their real impact.

This gives us the unique opportunity to find out whether we're irrationally following a famous face or whether our choices are backed up by the evidence. It allows us to follow our minds as much as our hearts and thus make better decisions, as fellow blogger Gleb Tsipursky explains.

To help you decide which charities to entrust your gifts to, The Life You Can Save has selected a range of organizations that are both transparent and highly effective in delivering aid.

Some people may think that this sounds too much like cold, hard calculation rather than the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good, but in fact it's the best of both worlds. Maximizing the impact of our gifts allows us to feel good about ourselves precisely because we’re working to achieve measurably better outcomes for those who need our help the most: the extreme poor across the globe.

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About the author:

Elisabeth Meister

Elisabeth Meister is a Sydney-based freelance translator with an MA in History and Linguistics and years of experience in intercultural communication. She loves travelling, chocolate, theatre and books, though not necessarily in that order. Peter Singer's works have had a great influence on her life, and she's excited to be on board as a blogger for The Life You Can Save.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.