Looking Beyond Charity to a System of Justice

March 21, 2017


For millennia, charity has played a massive role in the functioning of societies around the world. It has been responsible for saving countless lives and improving the quality of life for millions.


Giving is also an important way for people to cultivate compassion and a sense of social justice. Many of our shared values are grounded in generosity and communal responsibility, and charity has always given us a way to practice this. However, the system of charity, far from benevolent, can also act as a trap that prevents progress, perpetuates injustice and cultivates impunity.


Without privilege, charity doesn’t work. In its simplest terms, charity is a process whereby the privileged give time, money or other resources to the under-privileged. For this system to function, you need two classes of people: those who have and those who don’t, landowners and land lovers, the powerful and the disenfranchised, rich and poor.


Charity thrives within capitalism. In a society where everyone has all they need, charity would be unnecessary. An ever-expanding gap between rich and poor in the world today has us looking to the rich for solutions to our problems. Their ‘philanthropy’ keeps them immune to discourse about inequality and privilege, and their handouts become part of the anticipated ‘trickle down’ effect of the rich getting richer. But of course, rather than all society benefitting from accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, inequality continues to grow. The ‘invisible hand’ that Adam Smith had hoped would benefit all society has waved goodbye.


Not only is charity built on the premise that people are inherently unequal, but it is also driven by the donor. It is a market driven by supply rather than demand and comes with built-in interests from those who can give. From individuals donating to their chosen causes to governments funding huge development initiatives, the decisions being made by the donor are defining what issues are being addressed as opposed to those decisions being driven by the people affected by (and better informed about) the world’s most pressing issues. As US President Richard Nixon said in 1968, “Let us remember that the main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves.”


Power will always remain with those who are choosing to give as long as their giving is voluntary (as opposed to a tax, for example). The act of giving always comes with certain motivations and interests that vary from altruistic, well-intentioned or misguided to dodgy, dangerous or deadly. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Taking away the agency of those affected by the injustice of the world is an injustice in itself and dehumanizes the existence of those in need.


Too often, charity acts to address merely the symptoms of underlying systems of political and economic injustice. Through covering up injustice, charity becomes a part of the problem, no longer impartial but complicit. By tackling problems as though they are natural misfortunes rather than highly political miscarriages of justice, we are letting those responsible off the hook. We are depoliticizing injustice rather than confronting its causes – and in doing so we add to the impunity of those in power.


Every time we fund an essential service that addresses someone’s human rights, we are taking away the responsibility of governments to do so. As the legal duty bearers of all their citizens, states are mandated to ensure their citizens’ rights. Charities can fill the gaps if and when states are unable to do so, but the goal should always be for the states to take over what is actually their responsibility.


As an example, the influx of NGOs to occupied Palestine from 1967, while a humanitarian imperative at the time, allowed Israel to totally ignore its legal obligation to provide services for the occupied population. This continues to this day, and Israel is not alone. Many other countries rely on aid in order to fund basic services such as education or healthcare, allowing them to use their funds elsewhere. Charity may at times enable states to get off the hook.


There’s a strong argument that development funding is not only adding to or even creating state impunity, but also that it wouldn’t even be needed if debts were cancelled, one-sided trade restrictions and unfair subsidies were lifted and capital flight was ended. Reform of international trade and financial institutions could improve more lives globally than charity, but it seems that the public, governments and corporations would prefer to continue to benefit from giving to the poor.


Charity has been central to humanitarian aid, community development and national development initiatives for as long as these concepts have existed. A great deal of progress has been made in these areas, and accountability and effectiveness seem to be genuinely on the rise. Without disparaging the inspiring organisations and individuals working within the charity sector or those dedicating their lives to philanthropy, we need to recognize that it is time to start looking for alternatives to a system that is broken. Alternatives can be political such as reform of taxation, national services and international and national financial institutions. They can be economic models built to serve their users and shift towards mutual aid. Strengthening human rights through national and international legal structures and brave accountability mechanisms could immediately shift responsibility back onto states when it comes to ensuring the rights of all their citizens.


As we set up United Edge, we quickly realized that becoming a registered charity would not help us in achieving our goals. We would need to find a different structure or organisation that would allow us to step outside of the sector. We toyed with the idea of a collective, a cooperative, a non-profit company. In the end, we felt that a Social Enterprise best describes our work, and we’ll write more about this soon.


The key lesson for us was that we cannot try to fix the world’s problems through systems and institutions that are themselves broken. If we want change, we have to be brave and step outside of the problem to build a new way of working that has its foundation in justice, dignity and compassion. That’s the only way systemic change is possible.


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