Guatemala City, Guatemala (CNN) -- In a country where 20% of people live on less than a dollar a day, Richard Grinnell is doing his level best to help the impoverished people of Guatemala.
Grinnell runs an American charity here called Helps International, which arranges medical procedures done by American doctors and provides stoves to the poorest of the poor.
So when he heard that 15 small American charities that have nothing to do with foreign aid claimed to have sent $40 million worth of medicines to Guatemala in a single year, he was surprised, to say the least.
Grinnell said his charity runs 15,000 clinics throughout Guatemala at a cost of about $300,000 a year.
"Any charity that spends even a million dollars a year would be huge," he said.
Documents obtained by CNN show that Charity Services International, a private South Carolina company, claimed to have shipped nearly $40 million in medicines and other donations on behalf of 15 small charities to Guatemala in 2010. Those same charities also reported sending another $10 million to Guatemala the next year.
According to its tax filings, one of those American charities, The Breast Cancer Society of Mesa, Arizona, claimed to have shipped $22 million of donations by itself in 2010.
But a joint investigation by CNN, the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting could find no trace of even a fraction of those donations.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occurrence. Most charities exist within a bubble of moral high ground, immune to questioning and fed by our desires to do good and feel good.
We don't actually know what happens to the money we "donate" to people and/or organizations. How often do you actually see for yourself what happens with that money? Almost never. When you give money to a charity you also give away your sense of responsibility, it's like giving that money away is equivalent to actually doing something good for someone else in your mind - you tell yourself that when you meet your maker in the hereafter you will proudly declare that you gave money to charities on a regular basis. In reality that is just the easiest path for any person to take, the path where you claim to be passing on your responsibility to whomsoever you bequeath that money to, that they will now do all these good deeds on your behalf. What's really odd about this though process is that you will actually feel good about yourself after doing this, like you have made a positive difference when in reality you have no clue what kind of effect your actions had.
For all you know, you could be funding the mob through one of their legitimate cover businesses, or you could be funding some greedy person's private jet. You just don't know. You can't know - unless you actually go and investigate for yourself, which, let's face it, few have the time and resources required to do.
The other aspect of this conundrum is that you feel like you are contributing in some way to improving the world when you donate to a charity, which may or may not be true, when in actual fact the reality of the situation is that none of your actions are considering or addressing the cause of the problems - the very existence of charities is questionable as there are very few of them that will actually consider how best to address the cause of the problems as opposed to trying to treat the symptoms day in and day out.
Consider poverty - a charity that provides food and some health care to impoverished people is not addressing the cause of the poverty, it is simply applying palliative care. Those people living in poverty require a solution that will permanently improve their quality of life to a standard that any person would find acceptable and forever more remove the possibility of lapsing back into poverty. While food and medicine can make life slightly less unbearable, it does not provide a real, permanent solution.
Why are there no charities receiving funding and attention for their work on developing real, practical solutions to issues like poverty? Yea sure, there are ad campaigns with famous people and what not - but that in itself is no solution. We have to provide an alternative to the crappy choices that lie in front of us, or else we will simply choose the same again, it seems.