New Internationalist

A Guide To Giving

Issue 148

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VOLUNTARY AID [image, unknown] Choosing a charity

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A guide to giving
You have cash to spare and you want to help people in the Third World.
Fine, but how do you choose who to give it to? Here’s a New Internationalist
guide to some of the possibilities.

The generalists

Who they are Agencies like Oxfam in the UK. CORSO in New Zealand, or Community Aid Abroad in Australia, which raise funds from the general public and place fewest restrictions on the way the money is used. There are similar (but independent) members of the Oxfamfamily in other countries.

What they do They do not generally operate their own projects but finance those of Third World organizations. Oxfam is a strange animal. Its supporters (many of them running second-hand clothes shops) are often conservative. Its UK staff is liberal-left and some of its projects overseas can verge on the marxist. New Director and ex-Overseas Aid Minister of State Frank Judd has the job of keeping this productive coalition together.

International relations between the various Oxfams have often been fraught, with Oxfam-Canada a particular thorn in the British flesh. Third World governments naturally (but wrongly) assume that organizations with the same name belong to the same group. So when Oxfam-Canada sounds off on a Third World political issue, the UK operation which (being bigger, has much more to lose) gets nervous that its programmes in that country may be jeopardised.

The smaller agencies generally make the more radical noises. War on Want in the UK has a fairly abrasive style and more of a campaigning history than most. It has been a front-runner in the struggles with British charity law, whose stipulations on what an aid agency can do are so archaic (16th century) as to proscribe almost anything. Oxfam-America has been providing useful ammunition for opposition to US governments policy in Central America.

NI verdict Your aid portfolio should include one of these kinds of organizations if you want to see your money used to best effect. Which you choose is probably not that significant since the projects they support are very similar (and sometimes the same) even when their public statements are quite different.


Human rights

Who they are Amnesty International is the first name that springs to mind when you talk about human rights. But in the same category you could include many of the ‘solidarity groups which have links with particular countries such as the Anti-Apartheid movements.

What they do Concern here is not with the direct funding of projects but with the political climate in which they operate. Indeed it may not be possible to give direct aid at all. For example, the scale of repression in Guatemala has forced many foreign agencies to withdraw. A support group which draws public and political attention to Guatemalan issues is one of the few options left.

Because such operations seem more difficult - and they are - they do not attract much casual public support. They also seem to demand active commitment as well as money. Often this is seen as a drawback. Supporters get regular supplies of literature and requests to attend meetings. It would be a pity if you let the prospect of demands on your time discourage you from the demands on your pocket. You can certainly help with your time – but no-one will mind too much if all you can give is money.

Generally speaking the solidarity groups like the Philippines Action Support Groups in Australia, want to keep the actions of repressive right-wing regimes in the public eye. Amnesty International does not care whether the repression comes from right of left and is a respected and effective international voice. You only have to hear the public protestations of innocence on the part of the accused governments to know that the message is hitting home.

NI verdict Try to include at least one of these groups on your list – whether you consider yourself and activist or not. If the political pressure which the group creates makes life even marginally more difficult for a dubious governmnet that could mean that a few less people are arrested, tortured, or killed.


The educators

Who they are ‘Development education is a rather strange notion to those who have never heard of it. But there are Development Education Centres in several countries, notably Canada and the UK.

What they do These were originally offshoots of the voluntary aid agencies themselves. The central idea is that people will be prepared to be more generous and understanding of Third World issues if they knew more about them - the New Internationalist itself was born out of this conviction. The aid agencies obviously have an interest in this since an educated public would broaden their constituency. So they often have education departments themselves which prepared materials for schools.

However there are also independent groups which provide a valuable service and are worth supporting. They include the Learner Centres in Canada the Development Education Centres in the UK and Action for World Development in Australia. In something of the same vein is third World Publications in the UK which stocks an almost unique collection of educational and other books about the Third World

NI verdict If you take a longer term view of development aid then you might think of targeting your cash in this less popular direction. Anyone (well, almost anyone) can be persuaded to give money for starving children. You could leave that to others and perhaps make an even more productive investment in development education.


The church channels

Who they are Most Christian churches have an ‘aid’ branch which uses contributions of their members for Third World development projects. Some like Christian Aid in the UK or the Australian Council of Churches also make substantial appeals to the public.

What they do The origins of this kind of aid lie back in the missionary past and much of the money raised is still spent through local branches of Third World churches. This can be no bad thing even if you have no religious beliefs since the local priest is often the only person of any official stature who identifies strongly with the poor. Risks of corruption are also likely to be lower too. The generalist agencies also channel money through Third World religious groups because, in Latin America in particular, the church may well be the only institution to stand up to a repressive government.

But be careful about which church you choose. Oddly it is the more established ones which are the better bet. For all Pope John Paul’s conservatism, the Catholics in the aid field, like Development and Peace in Canada. Are among the most progressive – as are the Protestant denominations linked through the World Council of Churches. Indeed almost any church grouping which has been accused – usually wrongly – of being communist-inspired is probably under attack precisely because it is achieving something.

The newer evangelical groups are more risky propositions. Their commitment to support in Latin America. often in alliance with military dictatorships. One of their number, Rios Montt, was for a time President of Guatemala.

World Vision is the largest of the right-wing evangelical organizations. For many years it was something of a pariah amongst the aid agencies with slick fundraising methods, heavy-handed proselytising and dubious political connections which put people off. But it seems to have been reformed in recent years and there is an acceptance that this is an efficient operator.

NI Verdict The established church agencies like Christian Aid or Australian Catholic Relief are an effective route whether you are religious or not. They don’t spend all of their money through churches by any means - and you’ll probably find yourself supporting similar projects to those of the generalists, Donors with particular problems about family planning or abortion would be well advised to stick to Catholic organizations.


The traders

Who they are Organizations such as Trade Aid in New Zealand which sell handicrafts and other Third World products.

What they do The aim is to give a more respectful form of help by buying and marketing produce from the Third World. This should be different from normal trading because more will be bought from small producers, bypassing the multinational middle-men. That’s the theory at least.

The products that small and deserving co-operatives make, however, may not be what the Western consumer wants to buy - either in terms of style or quality. And supplies can be erratic. So there is a temptation only to deal with the larger and more reliable suppliers who may not be the best employer. And many of the ‘ethnic’ products have to be specially designed for the West with an eye to what can be sold in bulk. Traidcraft in the UK are one of the more principled buyers and worth supporting.

As well as handicrafts you can also buy commodities like tea or coffee in this way. Bridgehead in Canada the World Development Tea Co-operative in Australia are sources of tea from Sri Lanka.

NI verdict This is a useful kind of support – and needn’t cost you anything if you would otherwise have had to buy commercial products. But since the company will be trading on your sympathy you can legitimately demand to know more about who produces the goods, and under what conditions.


The childminders

Who they are Organizations which exist specifically to help children such as Save the Children, Foster Parents Plan, Action Aid and UNICEF.

What they do They collect funds to help children - probably the easiest task for any aid organization. Children don’t raise any hackles for potential givers: they are innocent and cannot be held responsible for their condition; starving or smiling they always have donor appeal.

All this is rather dubious since children live in the same world as their parents and the same things which make their parents poor make the children poor. But since children at least appear to be above (or below) politics they are an attractive marketing proposition for organizations which want to help in the Third World without dirtying their hands with local politics.

The child sponsorship agencies take this proposition to its logical conclusion and virtually offer to ‘sell’ donors a sanitized Third World child f their very own. This is fine for the donor but of less help to the child who will wonder who this strange foreign person is to whom they display gratitude.

Save the Children (SCF) raises some of its funds in this way but it is also very experienced at running technically good programmes. SCFs in different countries are independent, however, and Cansave, the Canadian equivalent, has in fact been one of the first sponsorship agencies to have taken the courageous step of abandoning this form of fundraising.

Most of the other agencies like Action Aid in the UK and World Vision and Foster Parents Plan at the international level are persisting with sponsorship although trying to combine it with ‘community development’

UNICEF is actually an agency of the United Nations but it does get support from individual donations through national committees. The UN connection ties its hands as far as issues of social justice are concerned – it always has to work closely in co-operation with the local government. So its intervention has to be seen to be technical rather than political. But it has not held back on criticising large corporations and played a significant role in the campaign against bottle-feeding.

NI verdict All aid agencies help children so sticktly there should be no need to go to one specifically set up for that purpose. But if you do want to exclude adults you should resist the temptation to sponsor a child.


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