Stephanie Hanes, for the Pulitzer Center
Ok, now I'm going to try to write about this question.
It would be really easy for someone to say: "Oh, you want to help? Send $29.95 to Gorongosa Park and you will!" Do they still have those very maudlin "Save an African Child For Only a Dollar a Day" ads on television? Same thing.
But it's more complex than that. There is a lot of debate about how much – or whether – non profit groups help in Africa. There is a lot of wasted money, a lot of community disruption, and often, very few long-lasting impacts. A lot of people think that giving aid creates dependency, and actually adds to Africa's problems.
I don't think it's so straight forward. I don't think all aid is bad, the same way I don't think all aid is good. Either way, the complications shouldn't be an excuse to do nothing.
(Ok, click on the link if you have any interest in my slightly long and rambling thoughts on this.)
Historically, the western world has done a lot of exploiting and destabilizing in Africa – I think there is moral responsibility (and personal incentive – see the security question!) to try and fix some of the mess.
How to help: I think the start is to learn about these issues. Learn about the factors that create poverty – extreme poverty – in the developing world. Understand how the U.S. and other rich countries participate in a system that keeps developing countries poor. Read the newspaper, follow international affairs.
If you can, go abroad. My sense is that programs such as Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity may help you more than the people you're supposed to be helping, but they will still expose you to another world. (I've never done that sort of program, so I could be wrong!)
If you want to give donations, really research the aid groups before you give – what sort of success rate have they had? How long do their projects last? How much of their budget goes to pay American and European staff members? Could what they are doing create dependency and undermine social structures?
Then, really think about it and make your own course. Yeah, this is a cop out answer because I don't know the answer.