January 2, 2015 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Small groups of volunteers can help in ways big government can’t

“What can we do to help?” Americans have been asking this question in one form or another from our very founding. For much of our history, the answer has come in the form of individual efforts, not government programs.

Fortunately, even in the age of big government, Americans still feel the urge to help. They ask what they can do. They volunteer.

They do it, of course, in times of tragedy. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, Americans nationwide opened their homes to families who had lost everything. Hundreds of thousands went to the Gulf Coast to clean up and rebuild.

It’s not just when a crisis strikes that Americans help. They do it in ways that may seem small — volunteering at soup kitchens, donating food and clothing, pitching in to assist a neighbor in trouble — but that make a big difference in the lives of the people they help.

I’ve been concentrating on examples here at home, on ways in which we reach out to those living in the United States, but we also help those outside of our borders. Consider the group called Spirit of America.

Founded by entrepreneur Jim Hake, Spirit of America has been described by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal (former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan) as a “philanthropic rapid response team.” Its mission is simple: Find out what our troops and diplomats say they need to assist in building bridges to local populations, and then supply it.

Tools. Blankets. Clean water. Job training. The needs are as varied as the locations, but they all have one thing in common: helping people.

Take Spirit of America’s work in Syria. The New York Times recently focused on its efforts to supply independent media there with solar-powered radios ($25 each), and activist Raed Fares and Radio Fresh with warning sirens ($700 each) so that innocent civilians can be warned of attacks by the Assad regime and by extremists.

“The price tag wasn’t why the State Department wanted Spirit of America involved,” the newspaper writes. “The organization could do a project more quickly and on a smaller scale than the government could.”

What could be more American? Here we have government basically acknowledging that a group founded by a private citizen can do a better job.

Or consider Spirit of America’s work in Vietnam, where many poor and disadvantaged children drop out of school before sixth grade. A quality education is hard to find there. This summer, Spirit of America spoke with the staff of a new school near what used to be the demilitarized zone between north and south:

“As we talked through the best way to meet the needs of the children, it became clear that their greatest need was books. Purchasing English-written children’s books within Vietnam is nearly impossible. The freight cost of shipping books from overseas was a prohibitive, time-consuming challenge for the school’s staff.

“However, with the support of our donors, Spirit of America was able to purchase nearly 100 literary classics for the students. The books, written by authors including Jack London, Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume, arrived just in time for the students to discover them on the first day of the new school year.”

There are many other examples from around the world, from supplying cookware to Filipino youths, to improving health care in the eastern European country of Georgia for critically wounded veterans of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Mr. Hake told The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, “Some will still ask, why can’t government do it all? That is the wrong question. We should be asking: How do we win?”

Exactly. Mr. Hake’s group is well-named because this kind of can-do attitude — this practical optimism, if you will — helps define the American spirit.

We don’t wait on government. We see what needs to be done — and we do it.

 - Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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Related Issues: Foreign Aid and Development

Originally appeared in The Washington Times