Redefining Charity


Image: MindfulOne on Flickr

I have recently had the pleasure of receiving a very interesting email from Catherine Blampied (who blogs here) that has prompted me to do a follow up of my post from the 19th of December which was on how the public engages with aid/charitable organisations – people tend to be much more interested in giving (usually monetary giving) than the actual process of development and all the complexities that comes with that. Catherine put it like this:

I strongly believe that one of the most important ways to improve public understandings of development, and thus development itself, will be to get this part of the industry to be much more self-critical, theoretically-engaged and able to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term progression. I know there has been much more work over the last 10 years in this vein (VSO etc), but regressive/offensive/superficial images and narratives of aid, philanthropy and development still seem to the norm amongst many charities and NGOs.  I really think this is one area where the industry taking on board insights and new ways of thinking from academic discourse analysis and cultural politics could be so useful.

The ongoing increased complexity of the world today – from globalised economic systems to the birth of citizen journalism to the computers we use everyday – means we have to work much harder to change the image of the third sector than previously: complexity means specialization, which means a degree of tunnel-vision. Just to get someone’s attention is a difficult thing, to do so away from the traditional discourses of charity is even harder. This is why, as Catherine notes, images of starving African children set to weepy piano music remain most people’s instant association when the word ‘charity’ is mentioned.

These images, besides being exploitative, lead to the general public becoming what Leigh Daynes of Plan UK described as “saturated with suffering”. It is not enough to expect people to continue to be moved, largely by guilt, to send money to starving orphans. There comes a point where people start to wonder what has happened to all that money – why do we still have to give at all? Every year, the third sector receives very substantial amounts of money (in the UK, tens of billions of pounds) and has done for decades. If ‘just £2 a month’ can, as we are told over and over,  make such a huge difference, why have people been giving this much for thirty years or more?

There are other narratives of development. There are those who advocate for baseline human rights, or those that stress the importance of infrastructure/capacity building programs. Even within the traditional, top-down aid framework, there are those that stress the transparency and effectiveness of aid.

The problem, as Catherine pointed out, is that development is dominated by superficial narratives that go out of their way to simplify incredibly complex issues into bite-sized chunks that your average, busy person will be able to accept and act on without giving it to much thought. While, for now, this keeps donations very high it doesn’t help the third sector itself – simplifying everything down to ‘stick children with flies in their eyes’ means that charities that want to deal with something deeper than humanitarian disasters are marginalised which means humanitarian disasters are dealt with but not prevented. With this model, the third sector becomes both sustainable and unending: they know how to raise money but only for the treatment, not prevention, of crises.

The ultimate aim of giving should be to end the necessity of giving. It is up to all of us to make sure we get charity/development doing what it should be doing – academics, third sector professionals, major and minor donors, schools organizing cake sales, individuals with direct debits, everyone.

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2 thoughts on “Redefining Charity

  1. I do like a bit of Aidnography…

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