Charity is not a solution


In recent weeks, two events that appeared on the surface to be unrelated have put the role of charity in tackling global and domestic problems into the public mind in Ireland and Britain in two starkly different ways.

On Monday morning, 43-year-old homeless man Jonathan Corrie was found dead in a doorway just yards away from the gates of Dáil Éireann after years of sleeping rough in Dublin. Jonathan’s death was the inevitable result of a severe housing crisis that has gripped Ireland, particularly in the capital city. Fostered by years of austerity, vampire landlords charging ruinous rents and the government’s refusal to properly invest in social housing, this crisis has seen more than 400 Irish families losing their homes in the past year alone. This is the everyday structural violence of capitalism, rarely discussed in the corridors of power.

Last month, Band Aid 30 released an updated version of its 1984 single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be equally as awful as the original. The release of the single prompted an unintended, though much needed, debate about the role of charity, particularly the type championed by graceless pop stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof.

Just like the original “Do They Know Its Christmas” single, the lyrics depict Africa as a single homogenous place blighted by poverty, starvation and disease. As many have already pointed out, Africans are portrayed in the song as helpless victims who have had only minimal experience of culture and who need to be “saved” by the good will of middle class Europeans. The song’s title ignorantly asks if anyone in Africa – a continent that is home to 500 million Christians – knows it’s Christmas in December.

To people like Bono and Geldof, it is the role of the West to “develop” the Third World, regardless if the people there asked for it or not. This vision of “development”, naturally, corresponds with the neoliberal vision of an emaciated welfare state, privatised services, low tax rates for the rich, rampant consumerism, weak trade unions and soaring wealth inequality. A modern incarnation of the White Man’s Burden, Rudyard Kipling’s infamous 19th Century poem justifying the European colonisation of Africa as a “civilising” mission, this worldview sees “the poor” as a faceless, nameless mass begging for scraps from their betters. They are mere objects of “our” generous charity; not human beings who can collectively fight on their own behalf, pursue their own struggles or improve their own societies without Western interference

Much of this was discussed in depth by a number of newspapers, websites and independent blogs. No such honest debate took place in Ireland following the death of Jonathan Corrie, however. The solution put forward by politicians, commentators and much of the general public has been to call for further donations to charities providing services to the homeless. Ignoring the structural reasons for the outrageous levels of homelessness in Ireland, such as rip-off rents, lack of social housing, lousy wages, cuts to public services and the rolling back of the welfare state, many believe that a basic human right such as housing can be obtained by relying on the good will of other, slightly better off, individuals.

Ireland’s long infatuation with charity has its roots in the Great Hunger, but the central role charity plays in Irish society in delivering vital public services stems from the theocratic domination the Catholic Church had over the country after independence. Charity was a means of power for the clergy and had the effect of limiting Irish citizens’ expectations of what social rights they viewed they were entitled to. Hence, many Irish people don’t view housing as an inherent human right and the current government clearly doesn’t consider a functioning public water service as one either. Ireland’s dependence on charity was clear to be seen when Tánaiste Joan Burton, the leader of the country’s ostensibly social-democratic party, opened a food bank in Cork just days before the death of Jonathan Corrie. That the citizens of one of the richest nations on earth should have to rely on food banks to eat is rarely perceived in political discourse as the disgrace that it so obviously is.

It’s notable that in western nations charity as an institution is often above criticism, while many activists in the Third World are scornful of it. Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano spoke for millions of people long patronised as weak and helpless by Westerners when he wrote: “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from top to bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

Charity is seen as wholly acceptable and totally unquestionable. That’s why its seen as polite to fundraise for the homeless, research into various diseases and those caught up in war, but it’s not polite to question why a parasite class of landlords are allowed to destroy people’s lives by charging rip-off rents, it’s rude to point out the fact that David Cameron is privatizing the NHS and it’s utterly crazy to state that war and imperialism are inevitable outworkings of the capitalist system. Charity as a whole, excluding honourable exceptions such as War on Want, never challenges power. It fails to address the causes of poverty, war and disease and never mentions the political context in which these things occur. Therefore, Bono and Geldof never mention the role international capitalism has played since the 1970s in destroying public services and preventing progress in Third World countries. They never laud the achievements of great Third World leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara or Salvador Allende. Their idols are the war criminals of Washington and London.

Decades of neoliberal policies enforced on Africa, Latin America and Asia by the IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury, have stripped countless millions of people of basic services such as food, healthcare and education and condemned them to debt slavery. Years of cozying up to George Bush and Tony Blair and providing justifications for neo-liberal capitalism may have clouded the judgment of Bono and Geldof. Or maybe the explanation is more innocent. Perhaps it’s just that ‘IMF’, ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ and ‘Washington Consensus’ don’t make for good lyrics in a Christmas song.

In short, charity deals with symptoms and ignores the causes. As Richard McAleavey rightly said on his blog, Cunning Hired Knaves: “Charity seldom requires conflict with the established order. In many cases, charitable organisations serve to reinforce the established order. They dignify the rich, and the way the rich make their money, whilst condemning those people who end up having to depend on charity to a subaltern status.”

Charity is not a solution. That is not to belittle the genuine work many charity volunteers do, especially in times of unpredictable natural disasters. However, charitable giving is no substitute for properly funded public services, a fair tax system, equality, decent wages, the repudiation of all illegitimate debt, the right to decent housing, and free heath care.

The problem is not that working class people don’t give away enough of whatever little money they may have to satisfy the insatiable egos of people like Bob Geldof. The problem is the entire, rotten system.

This article was published in the Morning Star

  1. This is really good.

    I would add two points:

    First, in past ideological configurations, and under the current neo-liberal configuration of our State, the subcontracting out, or delegation of social services to private actors (such as the Catholic Church) and charities, suits the State. It limits the liability of the state for any wrongful action of a social service provider, and acts as an accountability shield for the state against an individual wronged by a social service provider.

    A clear example of how this works is the Louise O’Keeffe (O’Keeffe v. Hickey [2008] IESC 72) litigation history. In attempting to hold the State (who employed her abuser – a role which gave him the opportunity to abuse her as a child) to account for her horrific sexual abuse, the court, incredibly (but not surprisingly), found her abuser was not an employee of the State – the State, it claimed, merely funded the school (the abusers “real” employer), which was private – like all schools in this State. Though she succeeded in the European Court of Human Rights, the remedies available from it are extremely limited for Irish citizens.

    Additionally, this subcontracting out of social services suits the State as it limits the liability of the state to pay decent wages to those working for social service providers, and limits pension liabilities. Though the State has, due to decades of scandal, began to properly regulate the activities of these social service providers. Child and vulnerable adult protections in these organisations now normally meet or exceed international best practice.

    You should also bear in mind that many of these “charities” are only called this to exploit the important legal status of “charity” as a private organisation under the Charities Act. This status gives them a degree of freedom from the requirements of the Companies Acts, and limits their tax liabilities. Many of these so-called “charities” receive little or no money from the public through donations. A lot of their funding comes from the Exchequer. They are, after all, front-line social service providers (a good example of this type of private, charity, social service provider is the Brothers of Charity – yes Catholic, but they do excellent work). But, this detachment also allows the State with ease to dramatically defund these organisations when economic hard times come – as we have seen. These workers have little or no Trade Union protection – they don’t benefit from the strength of the Public Service Trade Unions – and the institutional separation of the provider from the State means the media show little interest when these providers are dramatically defunded.

    Second, and personally, I don’t think the independent private provider is necessarily a bad way to organise and provide essential and non-essential social services. This is quite normal in other, egalitarian northern-European States. Aside from the above issues – which, with political will, could easily be remedied – there are many benefits to having private, specialised, and locally-based actors providing such services. Their organisational size, structure and philosophy tends to encourage a better and more caring working environment for their dedicated workers. They are also far more sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of their locality or client group (I know, but that’s the language they use). They also benefit from additional insulation from the policy whims or ideological biases of whatever government is in power.

    Bit long, but needs to be said.

  2. roughan said:

    Some valid points but overall far too sweeping and simplistic. Some charities do challenge power and much of any progressive policy to tackle issues that have helped improve certain areas, such as aftercare bill and funding streams for supported housing in Ireland would have never happened without certain charities Advocacy work. We all know the system is wrong but do u work to change from within while not shying away from criticising Govt or do u take the grandstand seat and theorise waiting for the system to change by itself which it never will

  3. Too simplistic and sweeping statements. We all know the overall system is wrong but do you work to change things which directly impact on people’s lives and life chances or do u take a seat in the grandstand to theorise? It’s simply not true to say no charities challenge Govt or tackle root causes. The fact is any progressive policy to help people such as the aftercare bill or funding streams for supported housing would have never happened without certain charity’s Advocacy work. The focus on the current crisis would not be there either. Some charities work to support and also to change root cause and work towards a day where charity won’t be needed so don’t lump all together as it’s lazy and not reflective of the truth.

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