The poverty of charity

I think this world/society fetishises charity. I won’t deny that charity is good for people, that it has stopped people from death, hunger, and disease, and that it helps funds some good causes like cancer research and redevelopment projects in disaster-stricken countries. What does worry me is that as a society we rely too much on charity to fix our social problems, and here’s why I think that’s bad.

To quote a friend of mine: ‘charity is the privatisation of what government should do.’ It appeals to the right because it apparently showcases the goodness of the human spirit when given freedom and how choice can lead to good outcomes. It also means lower taxes. This is why in debates people loving bringing up examples of, say, rich people giving $billions to charity or churches being amongst the most charitable in the country.

And while good outcomes do occur, it is far too dangerous to rely on charity to fix social problems. This is because it is basically relying on the whims of the rich and those with free time. And because a propensity to give charity only exists in times of wealth and prosperity, it means that the economy/society is not designed to give people financial security during the bad times. So when things go awry, charity stops. This is why a lot of activists, social democrats, and socialists etc. aren’t seen helping out with charities or promoting them. Instead, they believe that we should build a society where we don’t need to rely on the goodwill of the rich, that society should be structured around dignity, security, and welfare.

This goes on to another point about volunteerism. I’m involved in my university’s student organisation, and post-VSU there seems to be a trend of thinking of student politics/activism as volunteer work, like you do with a charity. However, this is the wrong way of looking at it. Back in the 19th century, the Chartist movement won the right of parliamentarians to be paid. This was so poor people could get involved in politics without worrying about their family not being fed and dying, because instead of giving up their old job to help society, helping society would become their new job. And beyond the in-fighting and backstabbing, student politics is about helping others (…I promise…maybe).

A lot of people respond to this by saying ‘why is it just about the money? This is fallacious. It isn’t just about the money, but money is important, especially for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from rural and regional areas, from Indigenous communities, and for er students. Why should we base our organisations on the hope that enough people who can afford to give their time away for free will be heading our activism/lobbying/organising? This is why I think it’s a bit silly that people have to fund their own campaigns when they run for positions on campus or off.

Charity also creates a hierarchy between the giver and the taker. This isn’t always intentional, and am by no means suggesting that people that give charity are bad people. But it’s pretty clear that when someone goes into a community to help out or they donate charity via the mail or whatever, there’s a clear disparity between the person that can leave and the person that can’t (say at an Indigenous community) and the person that has the ability to give $10 and the person who’s relying on a consistent sum of money to keep them going. It creates a dependency from one person on to another, on to someone who is not obliged to keep helping. This ensures that self-empowerment doesn’t occur.

I’m not saying stop giving charity, but what I am saying is that we should find a way forward where charity becomes irrelevant because people are well-off and secure.




  1. Timothy Scriven

    Giving to 95% of charities is pointless. You’d be better off giving to Grassroots political groups.

  2. jazzcriminal

    Agreed; this is pretty much the foundation of left wing politics. Charity is inevitably flawed, and even if one believes one should have equality of opportunity without equality of outcomes, it is clear that unless everyone starts from the same basis, and there is a security net for everyone involved, power structures and class mobility are just going to be entrenched. This is why universal public health care, education and the provision of all public necessities are so important.

    Not to mention government projects are far more efficient and less prone to corruption than charity. People don’t realise how some systems are flooded with charities but not with funding.

  3. Aimee

    Zizek – First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

    I know this thing went viral, but just in case you haven’t seen it…

  4. Aimee

    I’ve been looking for a really well researched critique of the ‘live below the line’ campaign, but haven’t yet found one. I’d like to know what sort of projects they’re financing. If it’s anything like Aus aid, then we’re in trouble

    The problem that I have with ethical consumption and charity is that political demands for equality, democracy and self determination in the majority world are translated into a discourse of personal morality in the minority world – “I’m not implicated in this because I’ve done my bit’. Charity drives like ‘live below the line’ put the blame on ordinary people in the developed world, and claim that we can redeem ourselves through a patronising stunt which raises money for various charities. We also reinforce a White Knight view of poverty relief, where social change in the Majority world is somehow dependent on us ’empathising’ and chucking over some scraps.

    The real dupes seem to be the crusading knights. We should not be taking responsibility for this a) because it’s not our fault, and b) by deflecting blame away from the real culprits (blah blah neo colonialism blah blah IMF WTO) and by patronising the grassroots demands of majority world social movements, we’re basically ensuring that social change won’t happen. Not only is it freakin rude, it’s also unstrategic…

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