Friday, 23 April 2010

Charity…what’s the point?

I’ve been writing this post for over 10 days now. Every time I sit down to write it I end up missing the point, confusing the issues and creating something which is more self-righteous than any other post I have written here. I don’t want to belittle the fantastic efforts and work being done by people all over the world in charitable organization all over the world. I have no right to do so and in fact know that my post and thoughts are not about that. So, after over 20pages of writing, here goes:

I received an email from a friend the other day. WOW…an email…a friend…yes you guessed it there’s a tad more to it than that. My mate is a very well meaning and deep thinking guy and in this email I found a person living quite the good life but at the same time, struggling to get his head around the immense inequalities between the lives and lifestyles of people in different parts of the world. He was questioning whether it was right to blow €150 on a night out or €100 on a nice lunch while knowing that homeless people beg for the price of a cup of coffee or the majority of people in countries like Bangladesh struggle through life on less that a dollar a day. He didn’t really answer the question but instead talked first about respecting the position in which he finds himself and secondly volunteering to help out those in need.

The email got me thinking a lot about charity or volunteering or whatever you want to call it. Most people get involved in such activities or donate large amounts of money because they believe perhaps subconsciously that firstly, deep down there’s something wrong with a world which just accepts major inequalities as a given and, secondly, that because of their status and moral or religious beliefs they have to give something back to humanity…I suppose it’s a kind of balancing of the scales if you wish.

But to me, charity work rarely balances the scales; certainly not the scales of justice. I am not criticising charity workers nor am I even questioning the freedom of people to do as they wish with their money but what I am questioning is the thinking behind charity, a thinking which leaves charity workers implementing programmes which rarely do more that address the immediate concerns of their beneficiaries and a thinking which refuses to allocate responsibility for wrongs committed. Ultimately I am questioning the choice upon which charity is based.

Charity is based on need and uses funds given voluntarily by the general public or governments to meet those needs. It therefore sees kind people (donors) and unfortunate people (the needy). When the massive earthquake hit Haiti recently, a tremendous flow of cash was sent its way through charities and state development agencies. To me, aside from concerns about corruption and waste, this was a purpose for which charity should be used – an emergency during which millions died and many more would go the same way but for the arrival of aid.

So when people are dying en masse because of an earthquake, people react as if overcome by an obligation to intervene, but when people are continuously dying or, for me at a similar level of importance, continuously living in undignified poverty, because of underdevelopment, persecution, corruption and exploitation, any sense of obligation is greatly disputed.

Why does society (individual, and collective, local, national, international) recognize an obligation to people who suffer incredible pain from a natural disaster (ignoring for a moment poor building standards etc) but yet refuse to recognize an obligation for those whose pain has been caused by the actions of others? In development circles this argument is known as charity versus justice argument and often gets swallowed up by the following statements:
1) We cannot be held liable for the actions of our fore-fathers
2) We cannot be responsible for people who live millions of miles away.
3) We cannot be held responsible when these people slaughter themselves or destroy any chance of escaping poverty because of laziness, corruption and continuous warfare.

So what is the relationship between these three statements and charity? Well, if we are not to blame for any of this, but feel we must fulfil some sort of an obligation imposed on us by our moral or religious codes, we resort to charity. We build roads. We set up orphanages. We send bicycles, old clothes and food………

But, we do not ask questions. We do not admit that our forefathers have plundered these lands and that our superior standards of living are DIRECTLY linked to those actions. We ignore the state in which colonists left countries while criticising them for failing to calm ethnic tensions. We do not admit that western states sponsored wars in developing countries during the Cold War. We do not admit that imposed Western neo-liberal policies actually caused more poverty than it eradicated in the 80’s and early 90’s. We ignore the fact that Western companies are often as guilty if not more of corruption as the developing country officials. We refuse to accept that international trade policies give developed countries unfair advantages in global trade especially agriculture. We mock those who claim that the laws protecting the intellectually property rights of western pharmaceuticals prevent developing countries from accessing life saving medicines! We reluctantly accept that Western countries have created climate change yet refuse to actually do anything about because the major effects are happening elsewhere. We ignore the contradictory nature of our policies by criticizing the human rights and democracy records of developing countries while allowing American Fighter jets use our countries to refuel or conduct rendition flights to wage internationally recognized ILLEGAL wars in Iraq, Somalia etc. And while some progress has been made on these issues over the past 10years, this was because of pressure and not because of an acknowledgement of our obligations.

So instead of giving that extra ten euros to charity, how about we demand that our governments actually deliver on the funds they are obliged to deliver on our behalf (compensation)? How about we demand that our governments hold our TNCs to account for illegal acts in developing countries? How about we ensure that our national and international policies do not harm developing countries?

I’ve been told since primary school that it is good to make a reference to the introduction in the conclusion, so to finish I guess I should come back to my friend’s email.

He volunteers to help homeless people and I have two questions about that: Firstly, does a person becomes homeless all by her/himself, independent of society or the actions or omissions of others? If not then who else was responsible and what is being done to actually deal with that. Secondly, is it right to leave the dignity of our fellow human beings dependent on the good nature of another? I certainly don’t think so and I’m sure that there are about a billion people living in perpetual poverty in developing countries alone who would agree.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Photo of the week: The condom contest!

There are so many inappropriate things I could say about this photo, but of course as they are inappropriate I'll keep them to myself. The two girls are the final two contestants in the battle to burst the blown up condoms (or balloon in Bangla). I think it's incredibly Bangladeshi not to see the irony behind this yet there is also something incredibly irish in me that for a second, I felt almost embarassed when they offered me a few blown up ones for myself. Oh and yes, this is how we celebrate the new year in Bangladesh...1417 is gunna be a good one! More photos from this wacky and enjoyable day in the sidebar.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Photo of the week: Firoz and twins

I was walking around the side roads on my own for the first time since I arrived in Satlhkira. It was a Friday afternoon, the sun was cooling off and the place was for once pretty quiet. I spotted two little boys down a sideroad and they willfully posed for the camera...but being a crap photographer, the shot was pretty crap! Suddenly Papa comes out and when he sees me he hails me to come to him. At first I was thinking 'Shit' but then I said to myself no it'll be fine he looks friendly. Of course, when I came closer I realised there was never gunna be a problem as the papa was our organization's accountant and a guy who I am now pretty good friends with.

He was more than happy to pose for a shot with his bewildered twins.

Photo of the week: And you thought Ireland was green