We wear yellow bracelets. We pin pink ribbons to our clothing. We run a marathon with the motivation that we’re helping a fellow human being in need. But how much do we help the cause when we do these things?

 *from http://ww3.tvo.org/video/183005/being-charitable-today

Thanks to a friend I was pointed toward an interesting episode on last week’s “The Agenda” on TVO where they explore charitable giving. The above is the show description.  As Han asked me to give my thoughts on it, and since it’s Thanksgiving, I thought it would make a good holiday themed write up.  Please feel free to leave your honest opinions below.  I intend to be honest with my opinions here.

It is a time to give thanks and to reflect on how best to help the less fortunate.  In doing this often we think about charity–but I don’t.

I don’t believe in charity.  In fact I am almost completely against it. 

Now let me be specific.  By this I am referring directly towards charity for the purpose of lifting people out of hardship (poverty, poor healthcare, poor educational possibilities, and other socioeconomic issues) through direct cash donation.

[Note: There is a small percentage of grass roots charities/NGOs that do their work knowing full well the systemic causes and are partners in changing the root causes—so I put this small note here so that I don’t paint all with the same brush. 

Charitable giving in response to immediate unforeseen problems (like disasters) I do support as a necessary response.  Charitable giving in response to scientific research I also have some limited support of, but I won’t go into that in this piece.]

I think this was an interesting episode more for what was not said than what was.  The show tackled the issue of how best to help the needy in the way we are allowed to in this society.  It is a sad fact of 21st century Western thought that we are no longer able to ask big questions, and thus, unable to think of big solutions.

The questions this episode, and us in general, ask are:

–       What forms of charitable giving are best?

–       Are secular or religious ideologies best for promoting charitable giving?

–       Which charities are best?

Charities and NGOs are our go-to answers to how to help, to how we can address the serious issues of inequality and injustice in the world today.  And with such a limited starting point, we are only able to put band-aids on serious wounds.

As I sit here in a 24 hour coffeeshop at 1am writing this I can think of three issues I have with charitable giving:

(1)  That the issues it is trying to address (poverty, etc) are systemic issues.  In other words, they are issues that are created by the socioeconomic conditions we created as a society.  As they are ‘natural’ side effects of our political systems, throwing money at it can only help a select few—and who selects who those few are?

(2)  That many modern forms of charity are not even the band-aid that it used to be.  Modern charity is often directly tied to maintaining the system that causes the problem in the first place.

(3)  The psychological underpinnings of effective charity campaigns are contrary to change.

Let’s go one by one.

(1)  Poverty (and other socioeconomic issues) are systemic.

I think a lot of us already recognize that extreme poverty is a result of our global economic system.  Let’s take the Philippines.  It is no accident that the Philippines is a significantly poorer country than Canada or the US.  If we don’t accept that there are outside factors to our poverty then we would be forced to conclude that our state is due to the citizenry being lazier, less-intelligent, or simply unwilling to work for a better standard of living.  Clearly (I hope) that is not the case.

Now a historical explanation of how poverty came to be, and how some countries were able to rise to the standard of living they have now would take more pages than I want to write tonight.  Instead let me summarize (I’ll do a longer piece on this one of these days).

We live in a capitalist economic system.  This is a system that demands constant growth, constant profits.  Social justice is not part of the system.  Poverty is.

One of the contradictions within this system is the interplay between profit and workers pay.  Clearly the lower the pay to the worker, the more profit is made.

That’s why so many industries have left the West for so-called “developing” countries.  This departure has a double positive effect [positive for capital].  (1) By moving to poor countries the companies get to pay significantly less wages.  And (2) in their “home” countries (like Canada) this exodus of industry also means more unemployed here, which drives down salaries (as competition for those fewer remaining jobs means that people will compete for less).

Poverty is good for business.  And thus the opposite, the lessening (or the ending) of poverty is bad for profits.

And so if poverty is built into the system, how can charities that exist within a capitalist system ever do more than help a few?

(2)  Much modern charity is tied to the system that creates the problem.

Charitable giving has changed in our lifetime (well my lifetime at least).  It used to be that life in capitalism was bi-polar.  We strove for personal material gain but felt guilty for having more than our sisters and brothers—so we gave to charity to relieve that guilt.  In that way at least charity was a way for us to recognize that the system was flawed, that our way of life contributed to suffering.

More and more today, that distinction is blurred.

In this episode of “The Agenda” they touch on it when they discuss the partnership between charity and corporations in Bono’s (Product) Red campaign.  This is a brand licensed to partner companies such as Nike, Apple Inc., Starbucks, Converse, Gap, and more.  It was founded in 2006 by to engage the private sector in raising awareness and funds to help eliminate AIDS in Africa.

As point #1 argues, it is the profit motive that causes socioeconomic problems.  And if that’s the case isn’t attaching “help for the needy” with corporations a bit oxymoronic?  Isn’t it a form of bargaining for a few more scraps with our tormentors?  And how much if any is actually being contributed (according to the episode, sometimes none at all).

(3)  The psychology of charitable giving.

Dave Toycen of World Vision Canada provided an interesting stat in the episode.  He states that charitable giving is based on roughly 60% based emotion, and 40% on thoughtfulness.  Further that the younger the giver, the more biased towards emotion.  If above is true then charitable giving is biased towards short term solutions that can’t challenge systemic issues, or worse, to feel good issues that barely help at all.

The example they provide is a good one: that of the viral video of bullied American school bus driver Karen Klein.  This sad video touched Canadian Max Sidorov to create a crowdfunding drive to give Karen a vacation.  He tried to raise $5000, he ended up with over $656,000.

Now bullying is a major problem.  But surely it is clear that 2/3rs of a million dollars for one bullied person is asymmetrical to other causes that through charity are financed much less.

I fear that this demonstrates the real reason charitable giving is so popular today.  Rather than efforts to change the system that creates the problem in the first place, the real draw to charity is not to fix problems, but to help givers feel better about themselves and their lives.  This is a major change in the culture of charitable giving.

It is a way to alleviate our own guilt because when we give we feel like we are helping.  We feel great about ourselves.  We feel like we are part of something bigger.  And we can convince ourselves that we feel ‘love’ for our fellow human beings.

We help one or two… yet all the while the majority still suffers and the system that maintains hardship is not only maintained, but propped up.

So what then?  Why be so depressing?

It’s a simple answer with difficult ramifications.  Do we want to help?  Then we have to help change the systemic underpinnings.  Otherwise all we’re doing is charitable masturbation.  A little effort for the purpose of personal pleasure.

Saying stuff like this gets weird responses though.  I hear stuff along the lines of “why are you always talking about depressing issues” often.  And I find that very sad. Because when I hear that what I hear is “don’t talk about it, I want to be happy and that upsets me, I like my life as is, so it’s too bad about them.”

And that’s depressing.

So on this Thanksgiving, I hope you all take some time to reflect on what you can do to actually make an impact—or at the very least, to be honest about the world you really want to live in.

–by alex felipe–

–7 oct 2012–

*the above began with a conversation on FB:  https://www.facebook.com/hpableo/posts/10151131075472885

**I may not believe in charity, but I do believe in advocacy.  If you are interested in learning more about Philippine advocacy please feel free to get in touch: anakbayan.toront@gmail.com / https://www.facebook.com/Anakbayan.Toronto