Monday, February 02, 2009

The Question of Charity


The Question of Charity

About nine months ago it was suggested to me that I should write one of these columns on where socialists stand on the question of giving to charity. I never got round to it because there always seemed something more important or more pressing to write about. Right now in Britain, however, the question of one particular charity has suddenly become the hottest political topic of the day, and every socialist, every revolutionary – indeed more or less everyone engaged in politics – has had to take a position on it.

How this came about I shall deal with in a while, but the episode has convinced me that the issue of charity is worth visiting after all.

Posed in general terms the first point socialists have to make about charity is that, in most cases, it is manifestly unable to solve the very issues it is addressing. Take, for example, Oxfam, which aims to respond to world hunger and poverty. Oxfam is one the biggest, most successful and well known charities in Britain , if not the world. In the year 2007-8 it raised £299.7 million and spent £214.2 million. In itself this is quite a large sum but when it comes to solving world poverty it is no more than a drop in the ocean.

It is not that the problem of hunger is insoluble, or even very difficult to solve. It is well known that there is more than enough food in the world to provide a decent diet for everyone. It is just that when it is a matter of dealing with ANY major WORLD problem nothing is serious till we are talking about hundreds of billions not millions.

Children in Need, one of Britain’s best known charity events which receives a whole evening of BBC television coverage, raises about £20 million. The government bail-out for ONE bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, was £20 billion (1000 times as much as Children in Need). According to Barack Obama the bonuses paid to Wall St bankers at the end of 2008 came to $20 billion. World arms spending in 2008 was $1.47 trillion with $711 billion contributed by the US, and so on.

Of course the advocates of charity have an obvious answer to this. They can simply say we know we are not solving the problem but we are doing something – every little helps. Well yes…but we wouldn’t think much of a fire service that responded to blazing buildings with water pistols ( at least they’d be doing something) or tried to tackle a forest fire with watering cans and garden hoses. And the truth is that many charitable efforts, however well intentioned, are closer to the water pistol than to proper fire engine.

And this is by no means the end of the story for there is more wrong with charity than it just not being enough. We also have to consider its political and ideological role Charity can easily be used by our rulers either to suggest they are doing something about a problem when really they are not, or even when they are actively engaged in making the problem worse. For example, the British government, which has been craven in its support for the state of Israel in general and the assault on Gaza in particular, has pledged a pathetic £20 million (20 million again) in humanitarian aid.

Charitable and ‘voluntary’ efforts can be, and often are, used by governments to excuse their failure to meet their obligations in terms of education, health and welfare services. Every time I see a hospital launching an appeal for funds for some new piece of life saving equipment I find myself asking why the military don’t need to do this. How I wonder would the ‘Trident Appeal’ fare, with only £20 or so billion (billion again) needed to renew the nuclear submarine missile system?

Another problem with many charites is that they become businesses in their own right, involving substantial administrative overheads and supporting lucrative careers for many directors, fund raisers and marketing managers. Even where there is nothing strictly illegal or underhand going on, as there sometimes is, there something obnoxious about people on $100,000 salaries appealing for the poor and needy – America’s largest charity United Way is run by Brian Gallagher, salary $973.000 p.a. This problem becomes especially acute with NGOs operating in poor countries where the NGO agents receive incomes many hundreds of times greater than those of the local people they are supposed to be helping.

Then there are the fabulously wealthy celebrity charity merchants like Paul McCartney and Bono who stage concerts and suchlike urging ordinary people to give to good causes. For example Bono’s charity RED claims on its website to have raised $100 million for Aids in Africa in two years, but the truth is he could pay that out of his own pocket and still have more money than he could spend in a lifetime.

still the ideological problems inherent in its nature that it focuses on symptoms not causes of social and humanitarian issues and it tends to depict its beneficiaries as helpless passive victims, not people capable of resistance or self liberation. For Marxists and revolutionary socialists the conviction that the fundamental problems of poverty and human degradation can only be and will only be solved by the collective struggle of working people themselves is fundamental.

But despite the validity of all these criticisms this is not the end of the story, especially when we approach the question of charity not just in theory but as a matter of concrete day to day politics. For all its faults there is in the motivation that leads ordinary people to donate to charity an impulse socialists need to relate to and encourage and certainly not to dismiss or disparage. For example if someone comes round my canteen at work with a collecting tin for the homeless my inclination would be to make a small donation but combine it with a question about why we have homeless people in a rich country like Britain.

Then, of course, there are many individuals or groups who are not able to help themselves or to wage a collective struggle and many situations where people need emergency help. In such circumstances there is no Chinese Wall between charity or aid and solidarity, which socialists enthusiastically support; moreover the question of aid, or lack of it from governments, can become an issue of political solidarity.

Thus when the tsunami struck South East Asia in December 2004 the generous response from ordinary people {in Britain] embarrassed the British government into increasing its original miserly aid donation. Socialists needed to be part of that. Then with the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005, the appalling lack of help for the city’s black and poor, became a key event undermining the political credibility of George Bush.

Which brings me to the circumstance I referred to at the beginning of this column. It is hard to think of anyone in the world at this moment more in need of emergency aid than the besieged people of Gaza. Yet the BBC, obviously under direct Zionist influence, has refused to broadcast the (standard) Disaster Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. This blatant partiality, coming on the back of sustained pro- Israel, pro-Zionist reporting, has made aid to Gaza a matter of international solidarity of crucial political importance.

Two general points in conclusion: first socialists have and need general theory and principles but the application of those principles to immediate practice does not always follow in a simple straight line and for Marxists truth is ultimately concrete. Second in the course of the overall struggle revolutionaries have to relate both to working people’s anger and their humanity and provide a political focus for both.

John Molyneux

1 February 2009