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The trouble with charity

By: | July 18, 2014

Giving and generosity may reduce the burden of immediate suffering and desperation, but if we’re serious about finding long term solutions we can begin by questioning why some have so much while others have so little

Robin Whitaker
Gadfly asks pesky political and social questions, on the principle that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr Commons.

A new local organization, 100 Men Who Give a Damn, was recently in the news with its first big accomplishment: a $10,600 donation to Young Adult Cancer Canada. The group’s approach is simple: 100+ “guy(s) who care about [their] local community” get together every three months. Three randomly chosen members make a pitch for their charity of choice, after which the entire group votes. Everyone writes a $100 cheque to the winner. In return they get a tax receipt, the satisfaction of doing “great things within our community” and “the chance to network” – all in one conveniently short meeting.

A women’s group, 100 Women Who Care, which has donated tens of thousands of dollars to local charities using the same concept since 2013, provided inspiration: “The ladies were very welcoming and gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves; we then laid down the gauntlet and challenged them to see who can raise the most funds going forward.”

This “anything girls can do boys can do better” rivalry (with branding to match) is a rousing gimmick, but it’s got nothing on the “Turkey Drive,” a Stuart McLeanesque campaign staged every December by our local CBC station. Replete with goofy theme songs, turkey suits and local celebrities, the CBC’s charity drive rallies people to donate “gobble gobbles” so that “every family in Newfoundland & Labrador can enjoy a delicious turkey dinner for the holidays.” The campaign is enormously popular and inspires donors to holiday high jinks and hilarity. Last year’s “turkey tally” surpassed 9,300: nearly enough to hand a turkey to one in every 20 families in Newfoundland and Labrador.

We can only celebrate such generosity.

But that’s part of the problem with charity. It’s easier to admire beneficence than to analyze it, much as it’s easier “to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought,” as Oscar Wilde remarks in The Soul of Man under Socialism, an essay given new life by Slavoj Zizek. Yet, philanthropy demands a response more critical than the usual galas and honorary degrees.

When Wilde says charity merely aggravates the problems it tries to solve, he is not proposing to educate people out of “dependency” per the “give a man a fish” cliché (Newfoundlanders, of all people, should get the flaw in that logic). Nor is he calling for home economics lessons: “to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.” His point is that philanthropists all too often labour under the illusion that the way to end poverty is to improve poor people.

Likewise Peter Buffett, son of Warren, reflects on the absurdity of high-powered meetings where the great and the good sit “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left” – said otherwise: rich people “giving back” what they took in the first place.

Anti-politics

Similarly, we might ask why the enthusiasm for the CBC’s turkey drive is not matched by outraged demands as to why so many families here need a donated turkey.

For registered charities, the right to hand out tax receipts depends on not asking that question – at least not asking it in a way deemed partisan or excessively “political” by the Canada Revenue Agency. Since 2012, Stephen Harper’s government has ratcheted up audits of whether specific charities are violating CRA rules. The same year, the CRA removed the charitable status of Physicians for Global Survival (PGS), saying its objectives were “inherently political.” PGS lobbies against nuclear weapons and for nonviolent conflict resolution.

By their own admission, ongoing audits are blunting organizations’ critical edge even where advocacy is legitimate – as well as diverting resources to legal bills. Unsurprisingly, many groups targeted for audits focus on environmental and human rights issues – among others, the David Suzuki Foundation, Amnesty International and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

A column in the Toronto Sun by Canada’s answer to Glenn Beck exemplifies the anti-political implications of this logic. Removing charitable status from environmental organizations is wholly justified, Ezra Levant argues. “Anti-oilsands activism is one side of a debate. … It’s not something we all agree on. So it’s not something we subsidize through tax-free status.” In contrast, he says, “there is no ‘other side of the debate’ with a food bank or an orphanage.” These are things “we all agree on as a society.” Hardly. The “other side of the debate” is the question of why, in a country as wealthy as Canada, some people are compelled to rely on the patronage of others to eat.

Anti-democracy

If organizations with vital contributions to public debate and policy-making must dance around CRA rules, philanthropy sometimes becomes anti-democratic in a more straightforward way. Thus, as I noted here, Paul Johnson derailed City Hall’s original cycling strategy when he insisted there would be no bikes on Johnson Family Foundation-funded trails in St. John’s.

Likewise, university campuses are tattooed with donor names that mark the increasing corporatization of academia – Memorial’s Suncour Energy Music Hall and Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, to name but two. But sometimes donations go beyond buying goodwill to infringe on academic autonomy.

As for tax receipts, they offer a lifeline to organizations, which is why the threat of losing charitable status is such an effective frightener. Paradoxically, they also make a very significant dent in public revenues available for the very problems many charities address.

The neoliberal answer is that this is OK: “big society” can deliver social services more effectively and efficiently than “big government.” Yet, as a means of redistributing resources, charity is a pretty flawed instrument.

Philanthropists all too often labour under the illusion that the way to end poverty is to improve poor people.

First, in Canada, as in the U.S., the richest 20 per cent donate a smaller proportion of their income than the poorest. Given intense inequality in both countries, that still means the wealthiest donate more total dollars, with tax deductions to match. But when large donations go to elite universities or opera houses, as they often do in the U.S., resources are redistributed among the wealthy rather than across society. (In Canada, medical charities benefit most from wealthy donors.)

Second, it might seem unquestionably good that private wealth go to tackling social problems. But no one can vote the likes of Bill Gates out of office if they don’t like his approach to higher education or disease eradication, and there is evidence enough that such concentrated financial wealth effectively mutes public debate.

Charity’s moral script

Finally, Lawrence Scanlan prefaces his account of a year of volunteering with a quote from August Strindberg: “All charity is humiliating.” Over the course of the year, Scanlan develops “an antipathy to the word charity … I came to understand the anger and resentment that recipients of charity, especially chronic charity, sometimes feel.” Nevertheless, Scanlan concludes that Strindberg’s view is too sweeping.

I am not so sure. Charity is intrinsically a relationship of inequality: paternalism on the one side, supplication on the other. Rather than self-satisfaction – “conscience laundering” is Peter Buffett’s term – charitable giving should engender deep uneasiness about a system that enables some to give and compels others to receive.

I don’t want to go too far. In a world that doesn’t give us the luxury of “no piecemeal solutions,” generosity today is better than nothing. But if a donation to Medical Aid for Palestine seems like the best we can do this week, the very reason it’s needed is a bloody reminder that, over the long run, it is futile to give a charitable answer to a political problem.


Robin Whitaker teaches political anthropology at Memorial University. She finds herself increasingly disgruntled.

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