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May 20, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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A Dollar a Day…

Charity, we are told, is a virtue. Today, in a world where we are well aware of the problems faced in the poorest parts of the world, this virtue becomes a little trickier to put into practice. Helping someone in your immediate community is an entirely different exercise to handing money over to someone else in the hope that someone in Uganda might benefit from it. It often seems like some charities are more oriented to satisfying our guilt than others. Are we bound, if we can, to donate to charities? Is it possible to say ‘no’ and still maintain something resembling the moral high ground? Are some charities more deserving than others?

At my high school we were forbidden from doing the 40 Hour Famine. If you are unfamiliar with the idea, famine events involve fasting in some way for a certain period of time in order to raise funds for a charitable cause. In most cases, this is World Vision, and in most countries they only go for 30 hours. We do 40 in New Zealand because we’re hard. As an alternative, my school ran a bizarre runathon, where groups of press-ganged 13-year-olds ran around the Basin Reserve in full view of State Highway 1 to solve world hunger. This act of defiance on the part of the school makes an awful lot of sense because, when you consider it, the act of ‘starving’ yourself for two days seems not only ridiculous but plainly offensive.

Advertisements for the event have started airing again recently. The people on the television are super-duper-keen to start not eating. This is slightly galling when we are routinely told that huge swathes of New Zealand children are routinely going hungry anyway. I have a lot of feelings about the 40 Hour Famine, and almost none of them are good.

Then again, picking on teenagers who probably have their hearts in the right place seems a little mean. The Famine probably isn’t vitally important for World Vision, which is something of a charitable colossus. The idea, one imagines, is to cultivate a generation of people who understand the importance of helping those in need. Charitable giving is, after all, something we should encourage. Isn’t it?

Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer certainly thinks so, at least in principle, saying that, “…if you are living comfortably while others are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are doing nothing about it, there is something wrong with your behaviour.”

That is not something you can argue against. Not really. If you disagree with Singer on this, it probably means you are either a philosopher or you leave comments on YouTube. The question we should ask ourselves, however, is whether or not the $20 a month you were pressed into pledging to UNICEF by those very happy young people in the teal anoraks is enough to pay off Singer’s karmic debt. My gut reaction is to say that no, it isn’t.

Charity has always involved a sort of tense relationship between the organisation itself and those it solicits donations from. The charity, whether it wants to or not, occupies a space that projects a moral imperative that can make people behave quite strangely. A fun pastime is to situate yourself near someone on the street asking for money and observe the uneasy dance that many people seem to do when they move past them. I know that when I am confronted with a grim-faced lady wielding a bucket, I either make a donation or my thoughts go into a sort of moral overdrive, generally along the lines of one of the following:

1) I quite literally have no money. This makes me want to stop and show them my bank statement and make this perfectly clear to them, lest they think me unkind.

2) I don’t like the cause. In this case I want to stop and tell them that I am not giving them money because I do not approve of their organisation, and make it absolutely clear that I am actually a generous and kind and empathic and generally wonderful person.

3) I just don’t want to. Usually this is because it is cold, or I am unhappy about something. When I see people doing ‘the right thing’ when I am in a bad mood I want to nail the bucket to their forehead.

There are approximately 25,000 charities registered in New Zealand. A ‘charity’ is widely defined for a variety of reasons, and the largest of these don’t actually deal with those in need. The University of Auckland, is, for instance, the largest ‘charity’ in the country in terms of assets and income combined. What is clear, however, is that we place an importance on groups working for others. A local charity that works for the benefit of an immediate community is more open to scrutiny and we can gauge the effects ourselves. The more insidious types of giving, as far as I can see, are the ones where your money is spirited away to a global HQ. You can’t say with any certainty what they will do with it, and the best you can do is hope that someone, somewhere, will benefit from it.

The thing about charitable giving is that you are addressing a problem by giving money to a third party that only really answers to you and other people like you—the person wealthy enough to give them the cash. Which means, I would say, that very few of us are actually all that invested in fixing the problem. It seems at times as if people give money as a way of divorcing themselves from things they find uncomfortable: the problem might not go away, but you did your bit. Even though the intentions behind any given donation might be perfectly saintly, we aren’t necessarily interested in knowing exactly what the money goes into. Many of the larger multinational AIDS NGOs have enormous media budgets, for instance. This is, in itself, a larger cause for concern.

The need to appeal to people in the developed world for charity is flawed in an absurd number of ways. Prime among these is the way in which the activities of these groups is driven by what those in wealthy donor countries consider to be important. When you make a donation that purports to help soothe Glamorous Issue A in African Country X, you aren’t necessarily making an informed decision. The activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of approximately US$37 billion has been quite fairly criticised for its handling of its AIDS programmes. The fixation on AIDS, which is the most glamorous of all diseases, led to the Foundation pouring millions into treatment and research. This has led to something of a brain drain, as the best resources, doctors and other healthcare workers have been pulled away from the treatment and prevention of other killers. The result in some communities that the Foundation has been active in has been AIDS clinics that are well-resourced, with staff that are well-paid, and a weakened local healthcare system that can’t handle those other, less-famous diseases that take many more lives.

Nobody would argue that HIV and AIDS do not deserve attention. What is plain, though, is that charity can harm those it seeks to help, because it is fuelled by the view of the world held by those who have resources.

I can’t offer an alternative, though. If you feel strongly about the global poor and you aren’t the reigning Queen of All Civilisation, then you don’t have a huge number of options. I still think that most charitable giving by the grand majority of the population is the equivalent of a moral palate-cleanser. But hey; it might make someone’s life somewhere a tiny bit better. What is important, though, is to understand that the only mandate any charitable organisation has to help those in need is cash. This means that, apparently, the solution to any number of things is driven by the wallets of people on the other side of the world. It’s tricky, because most of us do recognise that we probably can help in some small way. It’s galling that what should be a simple moral imperative is so muddied and unclear.

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