In these increasingly hard times, charities have taken control where the government has failed to provide necessary support, but even here not all is justice and equality
I was out of pasta. Although I knew they were out there, I needed to go and hunt my daily meal. I had no choice. Power walking through the rainy High Street I was nearly stopped by one of them. I avoided eye contact and walked briskly by, cursing God and Darwin that I had forgotten my headphones. Thankfully, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA) forbids fundraisers to follow targets for more than three steps, and this volunteer had been briefed.
In the next corner a girl with a collection tin for a cancer charity was standing outside in what was now a light drizzle. My wallet remained as cold as a stone. Then – in the midst of lonely shoppers – I was caught off guard by a fundraiser looking like that Van Morrison song.
She asked my name and I introduced myself. ‘Arthur?’ she tried to clarify. I don’t know how she misheard it, but I decided to roll with it. After her lengthy monologue I politely rejected a membership and monthly donation scheme for deaf children. She asked for reasoning.
Charities are problematic. On the one hand, they raise awareness and give people a chance to help or work for something they truly believe in. Yet, on the other hand, charities grant us a pseudo-selfless way to boost our own egos by doing something we like to believe is important and helpful but in reality is only a scratch on the surface. At worst, donating to charity is like voodoo or shamanism – you can believe in it as much as you want, but it won’t be the remedy that heals the sick.
It seems charities are there to help to alleviate symptoms without mending the cause. Night shelters and homelessness, charities certainly do important work in assisting the increasing number of homeless people around the UK (from 1,768 rough sleepers in 2010 to 2,744 in 2014), but without tackling the structural sources of homelessness, such as the widening wealth inequality and lack of affordable housing, those charities will only be increasingly burdened.
It is easy to feel good when presented with a Cinderella story of a disabled veteran given a second chance on television. However, while we are able to see one disabled war vet as a tragedy, we often see a thousand disabled veterans as nothing else but a statistic. Whereas one homeless person with a name and a face makes our hearts wrench, a hundred faceless people without a home are seen as waste and pushed out of sight with spikes – lazy and marginalised by choice until proven otherwise.
Worth repeating is that charities provide an extremely important job by providing a voice and lobbying for those least heard in our society, such as the disabled and the homeless. After all, these are the people the recent governments have been happy to cut from.
Yet, we cannot accept a situation where volunteer organisations step in and fill a void just because the country happens to have a government that simply doesn’t care about all of its citizens. It is not just the rising use of food banks, which the SNP MP Mhairi Black went after in her maiden speech, but the increasing need for charities in general that symbolise the fall of the welfare state.
Belonging to Robert Nozick’s dystopia, a society relying on charity and people’s moody egos will put causes in need against one another in the marketplace of goodwill. Donations follow the cause that happens to be the trendiest at any given time, which often is the one with the most effective media campaign (remember pouring a bucket full of ice-cold water?).
The popularity issue is present within a number of competing causes. Last year a charity called Pancreatic Cancer Action launched a campaign attacking the disproportionate attention breast cancer gets over other types of cancer, even the much more deadlier ones like pancreatic cancer. But you can’t promote any other cancers with breasts, can you now?
Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen working to provide food to those who can’t afford it, claimed in an interview with the Washington Post that there is a caste system of charitable causes where children are ‘overemphasised’.
And then there is the classic: Pandas – the poster children for all things cute and fluffy. This conservation symbol for all endangered species as well as the World Wildlife Fund was argued to be a waste of ‘millions of pounds’ by television presenter and naturalist Chris Packham in 2013. Surely the money donated to save the thousands of endangered species could be better used based on their importance for the biosphere and chances of survival rather than their charisma?
There just are some things that should not be turned into a competition. Should we have charities running the repairment of infrastructure and the maintenance of prisons? Who would donate? We take bridges for granted and think prisons are only for brutal punishment anyway. Helping children’s hospitals and donating to the Arts Council would dominate the less glamorous options in a world without taxpayers.
Rather than just concentrating on shining our own shields, we should recognise the realities lying behind these issues, which is more than often something else than the lack of money or goodwill.
In the end, what does it matter if Shell has a foundation that supports sustainable development when the company has spent the last 60 years polluting the Niger Delta? It’s practically just buying indulgences to avoid the public purgatory. I’d like to know what Ken Saro-Wiwa would have to say about this.
However, maybe there’s no return from this path.
Which is why, following the recent developments in the area of student rents, I suggested a charity be founded to help this particular demographic without a loud enough voice in society. Seeing that as much as half of the students in Britain find it hard to pay their rent in the increasingly more expensive rental market, and given that the government is increasingly concerned about making money from young people, a charity would be a sign of the times.
And as a result everybody’s happy – granted that those who have the wealth to provide that aid voluntarily want that to be the case. In that race, however, pandas, children and breast cancer might still outdo the students.
P.S. Dear Sir Bob, they do know it’s Christmas.