Charity Nation

Have you noticed the remarkable increase in charity appeals for a whole range of ‘good causes’ – medical, social and environmental? It would be hard to miss them I guess given that the BBC seems to have become the State collection box for a good number of these events. There are plenty of people who would argue that it’s churlish to criticise the generosity of those who give their time to these fund-raising events or those who donate their hard-earned cash – they are, after all, doing their best to make the lives of the poor and vulnerable that bit better. But I want to give you some reasons why all this charity makes me feel distinctly uneasy and why it’s time to start saying this is no way to fund essential services.

It might help more if you just paid more tax……..

It’s notable how often those who can’t wait to get sponsored for a charitable attempt at something idiotic and pointless (Sitting in a bath of beans? Bungee jumping? Ridiculous facial hair?) are the very same people who bridle at the notion of paying more tax – or even their due tax – to ensure that the poor and vulnerable have no need of charity. It’s ok to try and dodge the taxman but when it comes to charitable compassion you have to be seen to be there – just ask Gary Barlow or any of the numerous others who can’t wait to parade their social consciences on television while slyly wriggling out of paying tax.

So why is it that paying a bit more tax raises hackles but sloshing money into the charity collection kitty is so acceptable? It’s surely one of the great triumphs of neo-liberalism to reinvigorate the idea of the deserving and the undeserving poor and to convince you that your taxes are spent incompetently on the undeserving poor and your donations are so much more wisely spent because you’ve chosen who gets it. So, instead of a democratic community redistributing its resources on the basis of discussion and debate we end up with a kind of Dutch auction on misery conducted by charities. Give us your money because we can tug your heart-strings a little more than someone else – we are the deserving ones, we are the custodians of conscience. Just turn on your television and pretty much any day you’ll see starving children of Africa competing with abused children of Britain for your donations. In this obscene scramble for resources based on sentiment and vulnerability we shouldn’t be surprised that animal charities often out-perform those that seek help for those people on the margins. After all who wants to give money to help the likes of prisoners’ families, asylum seekers and refugees, traveller communities when you can save a dog or a snow leopard or an African child.

Look at me, look at me, look at me…..

It’s also clear that it’s not enough to donate to charity if you’re not seen to be donating and reaping the public approval for that. So, you have to be sponsored to do something. And is that something ever truly useful? Rarely. Why is the willingness to give money to any cause seemingly contingent on someone performing some utterly pointless task or – as seems to be the most popular default activity – running. If you feel the need to run, fine; if you feel the need to donate, fine. Why do the two have to be linked? The answer is obvious of course – because the person doing the collecting has to be seen to be doing something different or sacrificial because without that their superior status as a concern citizen will not be suitably acknowledged.

This desire to be looked at while you’re being charitable reaches its zenith with the celebrity events. These are the people who are desperate to justify their enormous rewards by showing their compassion through taking on personal challenges they can share with a viewing audience. They could, of course, much more usefully just put their hands in their pockets and stump up more money than can ever be raised by the much less wealthy average member of the public.

If the rich and famous want to inspire us to be better they should forget climbing mountains or despoiling rain forests and advocate that we all pay more tax – a good, progressive means of wealth redistribution – to make sure we don’t need charity. Hell, they should at least just pay their tax!

Oh, yes, and all you runners and jumpers and climbers. Next time you’re thinking of charity and you’ve got some energy to spare why don’t you stop doing things that are about your own personal glory and do something socially useful. There are plenty of people out there who need their garden dug, their fences repaired, their cold and damp houses fixed, their shopping done……but there’s not much glory in that is there?

All from the comfort of the sofa

And of course the great thing about donating to charity events is that we don’t have to think about why it’s happening. Open your wallet, give some money and leave the thinking and the doing to someone else – charity as entertainment. The perfect activity for the 21st century citizen.

There is no charity that exists that doesn’t have its roots in politics. Poverty and deprivation might be presented in charity world as if they were a series of natural disasters visited on people and over which we have no control but that just isn’t true. They have been created and perpetuated by the people we vote into power and who help sustain the grotesque inequalities of wealth distribution that see multi-millionaires on our televisions asking people with modest incomes to give a bigger share of their own meagre resources to those even poorer than themselves.

Let’s ditch the charity in favour of action on equality and human rights. Let’s stop giving money and start asking questions – why is this happening, why do we have children in need, why do we need sport (or any other) relief? – and lets start doing something. And it’s not enough to do something on-line. This isn’t about the virtual world and no amount of e-petitions will make a difference. Get out there, get involved, meet the people you want to help and understand what’s happening to them. There is no entertainment or glory in helping solve injustices and inequalities and you’re unlikely to get on television or get a note of thanks from Gary Barlow; but you will find there are people out there who think like you and who have turned that into life-changing and socially useful action.

Terry Potter
Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People & Families, Newman University (originally posted June 2014)

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