Saturday, 24 June 2017

The charity conundrum

I puzzled for a while now about how differently I react to requests for charity. Money that is to you and me. It's probably fair to say that I have always given generously and on a regular basis to organisations such as Unicef and others. In fact, about 15 years ago I promised to myself always to give about 2 percent of my after tax income to charitable causes. So far, I kept that promise, with Unicef the most prominent benificiary over the years. One of the most satisfying instances of giving for me was with the Guardian scheme in Katine, Uganda, where every pound was matched by Barclays Bank for five years (check it out HERE, it was an amazing project!). The money was spent on training programmes for schools, midwives and health visitors in several villages in and around Katine and the Guardian and the charity reported annually about progress and difficulties. I enjoyed giving to it since I felt it could make a difference and I had a sense that there are real people at the end of this programme. Also, I thought the money would not be spent on temporary disaster relief but on permenantly building up the community resilience to problems. Sadly the programme ended after five years, perhaps a sign of how effective it has been in improving people's lives there.

This mix of motifs and incentives also lies at the heart of what puzzles me about charitable giving. What attracted me to the Katine programme was clearly the ability to see firsthand that there were actual people at the receiving end, that the money was used to provide them with help to help themselves, and that there was significant oversight and reporting on progress made.

Cut to a street in Liverpool or London in 2017 where I am being approached by someone who asks for a pound. No matter how desperate, homeless or not, I simply would not get my wallet out (before you set off in indignation let me add, I used to give on the street as well). Worse, when being confronted by images of poverty in the UK, homelessness and the like, I feel no pull on the heart strings.


Copyright: Peter Shelomovskiy

Which one would you give to? Copyright: Telegraph


So why is this? There is nothing more concrete and immediate than a person standing in front of you asking for money. I know where the money would go and how it would be used if I was to give any. Why don't I feel the same generosity when I am confronted by the signs of UK poverty as it is when I see it in far away countries?

I think it has something to do with the differentials in opportunities between both contexts. I recognise that people can get into all sorts of difficult situations where they need help, either from their own family and friends or from the local community. However, there is a crucial difference between the two environments. In the UK, whatever you think about injustices built into the system there are enormous opportunities for education, training and work with a basic safety net that includes homeless shelters. This highlights, rightly or wrongly, the role of personal responsibility in creating your own destiny. It emphasises how much we are all in the driving seat when it comes to forging our own future.

This heightened role of personal responsibility carries risks of failure for those who struggle to reconcile personal obligations with individual behaviour. In those cases, we are all called upon to help. But the help should be provided, in my mind, by (local) government, not by individual charity.

The situation of a child (or adult for that matter) in a village in Uganda is considerably different. It's position vis-a-vis opportunities is hampered by ineffective or non-existent government services in the first place, due to state failure or corruption. Here it does not matter whether or not anybody accepts responsibility for their own future. The barriers are simply too great to overcome. Charity in this context is mitigating state failures to ensure that they do not translate into personal tragedies.

I acknowledge that there are structural injustices in both contexts which conspire to hold people back. Yet, the fundamental difference remains: where states function well, opportunities, however small, exist. None of this means that we should be heartless or cold towards personal suffering wherever it occurs. It does however tell us something about our own agency and how we behave in the face of need. In the UK, as largely in the Western world, we mitigate need through government and its myriad organisations, stressing the sense of personal responsibility. In the developing world we recognise that the failure of government itself is the main cause of poverty and the lack of opportunities. Personal responsibility does not take you far where state institutions have broken down and do not provide the basic infrastructure to allow you to thrive as a human being. It's there that we are all called upon to help.

No comments:

Post a Comment