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Is all charity good charity?

NGOs
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Steven Depolo under a Creative Commons Licence

Despite the wide-held belief that giving to charity is always good, we should perhaps think a little bit more before dashing off a direct debit every month.

There are a number of stances one could take when debating philanthropy.

You may side with Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, and think that capitalistic altruism is mainly conducted to appease guilt, that charity is just ‘aggravating the difficulty’ and that, far from giving rise to a solution, it prolongs suffering and calms a much-needed call to action. Perhaps you believe that.

Some of you may even believe charity is an annoyance; it’s unjust that by not being charitable, you are made to feel socially and morally abhorrent.

On the other hand, you may think donating time and money is effective; you see positive changes to individuals or groups. You see progress.

Regardless of your stance, the evolution of a philanthropic society isn’t here yet. In the first world, charity is merged almost seamlessly with our cultural capitalistic tendencies. Even simple purchases of chocolate, coffee or toilet roll can be made on the basis of the producers’ ecological or charitable promises. And in our information-rich era, the endless wave of atrocities of which we are constantly made aware culminates in a society seemingly flooded by need.

Even in our own societies in the developed West, we see the evils of poverty, distributive injustice and social illness; yet with more than a billion people around the world living on barely a dollar per day, British-focused charities are not the only ones fighting for a spot at the watering hole.

We give limited thought to which charities we give to, assuming all are worthy causes. The great irony being that when we give thought to others, we really give very little thought at all. You may argue that any donation ‘makes a difference’, but who actually thinks about the opposite scenario? Who actually thinks, ‘what if I didn’t give?’

Suppose a charity runs a large campaign. Since, here in Britain, we are in the middle of winter, let’s say it’s to help the homeless across London. The campaign is a huge success and raises millions of pounds for the cause: a huge achievement. However, what would have happened if the charity hadn’t run the campaign? Most would give money anyway, and the majority would have given money to other charities instead.

People give more or less the same amount to charity every year: The average in Britain hovers around £30 ($45). So, if you give a large amount to one charity, you are generally less inclined to give to another. We can safely say that many charity drives are not raising ‘new’ money.

Instead, the collective mass of money, estimated at £10.4 billion ($15.8 billion) in 2012/13, is just shifting from campaign to campaign, from charity to charity, from crisis to crisis.

Furthermore, not all charities are as effective as others; many have high overheads, are unsustainable, or don’t have the structure in place to get the most ‘good’ out of donations.

Some fundraisers are making things worse, taking money away from more effective charities and reducing the overall amount of ‘good’ done. So, despite giving what you perceive as aid, you could be harming others simply by ‘misdirecting’ your money.

With all the charities operating around the world, there is a lack of information and guidance on which charities are best to support. We are left to guess; to make snap judgements based upon personal preference, ending up sloshing funds from one charity to the next, only to damage the impact we wish to have.

I personally have no idea of the good that some charities do. Although I am aware of the extent of need in the world, I am left only to make decisions based upon who supplies the most emotive imagery or case study.

Some of the most successful charities look to educate the public, raise awareness and push policymakers into advocating actions that have a wider benefit.

Although this may be something we should be giving more attention to, perhaps we really are just doing what Zizek suggests: prolonging aggravation by forever sticking plasters on a gushing wound, waiting until we realize the urgency of much-needed social change.

For more on the divisive nature of charitable giving, read our latest issue on NGOs and their ability to do good, here

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