The Problem with Thinking Charitably

February 2, 2010
in Category: Articles, Economics, Media, Society
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The Problem with Thinking Charitably

Sometimes charities don’t educate us about the broader political context, and we prefer it that way.


What’s a good charity? Malalai Joya gave an interesting answer.

Joya is the female politician dubiously ousted from the male-dominated Afghan Parliament in 2007. She was promoting her book, A Woman Among Warlords, last November at the University of Victoria. An audience member asked if a particular Afghan charity was worth supporting. Joya didn’t know the charity, but dispensed general advice: Examine the charity’s political positions.

Essentially, Joya argued, if the charity isn’t protesting the NATO military occupation of Afghanistan, then it’s likely not empowering ordinary Afghans so much as furthering the agendas of foreign powers.

Joya’s not alone in recognizing broader political context as crucial to evaluating charitable activities. The World Bank notoriously provides “aid” benefiting multinationals and rich nations more than the poor. And though many donors are unaware, international charities run from political right to left, and often take sides. For example, OXFAM provided aid in Eritrea throughout the region’s two-decade independence struggle, while CARE didn’t start helping in Eritrea until its 2000 peace accord with Ethiopia.

I was still pondering this when Canadian media’s December outpouring of heartstring-plucking human interest features began.

A front-page story in our local daily caught my eye. A family had recently had quadruplets. Then, the husband became unemployed when he’d unexpectedly become incapacitated by an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. With the wife’s maternity leave ending, the possibility of the middle class family plunging into abject poverty was becoming all too real. The article ended with contact information for donations.

This type of coverage spikes in December for understandable reasons: Many charities receive most of their donations near Christmas, and media often want to help, or at least promote themselves as caring community participants during the season of festive giving.

Nevertheless, something important was missing from that article: political context.

There was no mention of Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals. No mention of cuts eroding already indecent welfare levels, nor of the gutting of legal requirements to justify rent increases, nor of dying commitments to affordable housing. No mention of BC’s child poverty being the worst in Canada, nor of cuts to family bonuses, child care and non-profit family services. Et cetera.

One article can’t include every relevant issue; however, there was also not one political comment on following pages covering BC Transit’s “Stuff-the-Bus” campaign to gather gifts for needy local families, Market Square’s ginger bread house collection for food banks, and school children wrapping toys for deprived kids.

Yet, if we all knew poor families would be falling onto a strong social safety net into a decent standard of living, then our emotions wouldn’t be tugged so powerfully, right? So BC’s political context was the crucial backdrop that made these stories heart-rending or inspiring. But instead of discussing politics, poverty was implicitly presented as a natural, if tragic, accident of personal fate, rectifiable only through other people’s acts of beneficent pity.

And that’s common in charity appeals, isn’t it? That’s why charity, as an institutional response to poverty, is dangerous: It frequently downplays political contexts.

Charities themselves often don’t want to risk alienating potential donors by sounding politically partisan. It’s much easier to appeal to (or exploit) the nearly universal human reaction to simply help in emergencies (e.g. we aren’t hearing many charities discussing right now Canada’s significant role helping foster recent military coups, political corruption and impoverishment in Haiti.)

And as naïve donors, we can congratulate ourselves for our show of compassion, without feeling guilt for possibly having helped create the political situation causing people’s problems in the first place, right?

Notably, the suspect impacts of this whole way of thinking were driven home to me especially strongly when, just before New Years, Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang was killed in Afghanistan along with four Cana­dian soldiers.

Media nation-wide filled with self-aggrandizing odes to the noble role of war-time journalists. Herald colleagues fawned that Lang’s articles “were all about the good – Christmas in a war zone for a husband and wife serving together, soldiers savouring gifts from home, a memorial written on Boxing Day about Lt. Andrew Richard Nuttall of Victoria…” (also pet dogs and the soldiers’ hairstylist) The Globe and Mail‘s Christie Blatchford called Lang’s voluntary posting “unselfishness on a grand scale” and compared it to Canadian soldiers’ “nobility”.

Basically, Lang and Canada’s army were exalted as being engaged in just one gigantic, loving act of admirably charitable giving in Afghanistan.

Yet what was purged from discussion to advance that perspective? Well, we couldn’t mention that Lang’s two weeks embedded with the army produced superficial stories rousing the sympathies of Canadians for their own­ soldiers that looked more like one-sided propaganda than journalism. We also couldn’t mention the decades of conflict and devastation western nations have helped wreak in Afghanistan.­ Nor could we mention Malalai Joya and other Afghanis’ pleas to remove our troops. In summary, we had to purge any serious discussion of political facts, lest it muss our picture of our own noble charitableness.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving to charity, but this exemplifies why we must remind ourselves of its dangers. Charity, as idea and institutional response to social problems, often simply traffics on pity for victims of political policies, instead of fostering reasoned analysis, personal change, and well-informed protests against the perpetrators of those policies. Charities may even worsen situations, as Joya pointed out, by naïvely or deliberately assisting repressive governments.

Conversely, if we educate ourselves politically, then we sometimes discover our desire to help is not so much a noble act of compassion, as a vigorous duty born from a wrong—a wrong we may have helped perpetrate.



Originally published in Focus, February 2010.

1 comment on “The Problem with Thinking Charitably”

  1. Jedi Mission says:

    Thanks for clearing that up Rob! I for one am embarrassed to admit, that I never clicked on how charities fit into the whole messy system.
    A logical progression of evils connecting the dots that lead right back to our own personal responsibility to seek understanding and take appropriate action. Put this way, it really is personally empowering because it can be easy to think that things are so bad that what we do couldn’t possibly matter. One shift and everything changes, we just all need to make them in the right direction.
    When are you running for Prime Minister? I vote for Rob!

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