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A discussion on charity in relation to Wealth Equality
June 17, 2015
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A discussion on charity in relation to Wealth Equality

The controversy of Charity

‘Charity’ is a word that tends to polarise opinion. One view states that it represents an expression of compassion for your fellow man through a selfless action whereby you give up your money to someone more in need of it than yourself. By giving up something you do not need you are directly helping someone in desperate need.

Another view states that the act of charity entails a superior group or individual expressing their superiority through a form of help that is inherently patronising and condescending. Thus charity serves to crystallize an inherently unequal form of social relations. The 2014 Band Aid 30 campaign illustrates this point well – presenting a distorted picture of ‘Africa’ as full of helpless and dying individuals who are in need of being saved by western aid. Of course this paternalistic attitude echoes a history of western imperialism, which saw Africa as a ‘Dark Continent’ full of uncivilised savages. Our duty as paternalistic imperialists was to help the helpless – the ‘white man’s burden’. This patronising racism has remained with us and informs much of the public discourse around charity (and much else besides) in the West today.

More than this however, there are arguments that state that charity can do more harm than good. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invests $1.4bn in fossil fuel companies – companies for whom human rights abuses and environmental disasters are an inseparable part of their day to day work. Not only that but the burning of fossil fuels directly leads to climate change which disproportionately effects the world’s poor in the Global South (e.g. by creating severe and unstable weather conditions which lead to drought and soil erosion as well as the increased likeliness of floods and the raising of sea levels). The news in 2013 that Comic Relief had investments in arms, tobacco and chemical firms further highlights the contradictory nature of these charitable organisations.

Perhaps most importantly however, charities perform roles that deal with the symptoms whilst ignoring the massive structural inequalities that cause them (by ‘structural’ I mean the arrangement of and relations between parts of a more complex whole e.g. the series of relations which comprise the economy). Charities in effect depoliticize inequalities, making poverty appear to be a natural fact instead of a social injustice. Hélder Cámara, a Brazilian Archbishop, powerfully expresses this viewpoint when he said: ‘“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”. (The current Pope’s statement that “human rights are violated…by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities” provides an interesting suggestion that we are seeing a shift to a more politically radical Catholicism). Arundhati Roy adds to this argument, stating that political resistance has been co-opted and blunted by charity and development organisations. In effect, these organisations serve to deflect legitimate political anger from the political and economic elites, thus leaving the structural inequalities at the root of these injustices untouched.

Of course one might question the effectiveness of political resistance when weighed against the seemingly real and immediate benefits of a warm blanket or a loaf of bread. However, the effectiveness of the NHS, as opposed to charity or contribution based healthcare provision, is indisputable. This was an institution whose existence could only have been brought about through massive political organization leveled against structural inequalities in the aftermath of WWII. Clement Attlee – the Prime Minister who created the NHS – stated: “Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim”. The very nature of universal taxation means that it transfers wealth from one side of society en masse and puts it towards a greater public good. The NHS is living proof of political activism leading to structural changes in society that has had an immensely greater effect on the health of the population than anything that came before.

An overly cynical viewpoint? The case for Charity

This argument however carries three major weaknesses. Firstly, it is overly cynical and conceals the undeniable good that some charities do. Secondly, it assumes that all charities are by their very nature apolitical and oriented away from the structural inequalities in society. Thirdly it has the ability to create spaces and points of access for those who are excluded from the political process.

On the first point – despite the proliferation of unhelpful and potentially harmful charitable organisations, there are certainly a fair few charities who do undeniably good work. Sightsavers provide such an example; they help cure and prevent blindness in countries sorely lacking in available healthcare, and do so in astonishing numbers. Their efficiency is also remarkable (94.5% of donations is spent directly on their work – as opposed to running costs and advertisments).

On the second point it can be argued that certain organisations attempt to target structural inequalities at their root, or at least provide a basis of resistance for those who want to. Shelter is one such organisation that makes explicit the need for housing and help for those who struggle because of structural inequalities. Whilst they help people with acute problems, they also target the root of those problems by lobbying the government for things like more affordable housing (roughly a third of their expenditure goes on campaigns and education).

Finally, charities provide help and support for those who are excluded from the political process. This links very closely to our Votes for Everyone campaign in which Wealth Equality created a vote swap scheme to incorporate those who cannot vote (immigrants, prisoners, 16-18 year olds) into the political process. But thinking beyond the confines of formal politics, there are millions of people world wide who simply don’t have the time, resources, health, energy or freedom to organise themselves against an unequal social and economic structure. How can you give that much time and effort away when every minute of your life is spent thinking about your next meal? By helping alleviate some of the acute symptoms of poverty, charities can provide individuals with a basis on top of which real political action can be built.

Conclusion – a more political charity

Charity then has an enormous capacity to be truly beneficial. This is especially the case when charities act in such a way so as to orient themselves against the structural inequalities that are at the root of the problems of poverty. They must not depoliticise issues of social justice but rather work within a framework of resistance. If that is not possible then it must be shown that they at least provide a basis on top of which political action can be built.

Unfortunately there is no simple method of telling which charities are most in line with these ideals. Thorough research into the suitability for charitable giving will always be required.

As a caveat, charitable organisations must be constantly aware and self reflective in what they do. They should always question whether their work is aligned towards or against the social and economic structures that are at the root of the problems they aim to solve. Charity, whilst often effective and unfortunately necessary, is never an appropriate substitute for political organisation.

Aidan Harper

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