The Problem With Charity

Having leveled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home. – Emily Bronte

How I stifled a revolution

The first time I heard someone say that social work played a distinct role in maintaining social inequality on oppressive political systems I got really angry. I felt personally insulted by the suggestion that social work could be seen as a form of control – as part of the force that keeps those who suffer worst from social injustice in check. “Why don’t you go piss someone off who deserves it?” I thought. “We’re only trying to help.”

That night I had a shift in the homeless shelter I worked. I worked with homeless men with drug abuse issues. People who are often considered the ‘underbelly of society’. As I settled down in my office one of the residents came in. He was obviously upset and angry about a visit to the local Job Centre that day. He had had an appointment with his caseworker and felt he had been treated disrespectfully. ”She treated me like scum.” He said. “If she talks to me like that again I will take her fucking computer screen and bash it in her face”. I talked to him for a while. I told him I understood how he felt. That I knew how unfair it was. But that this was just the way it was. And that he would just have to suck up to her and smile and nod, or he would be even worse off. He seemed calmer after we talked and went to bed after assuring me that he was not going to physically attack anyone. As I watched him walk away it dawned on me that I had just successfully stifled someone’s plan to resist being a victim of oppression.

This experience is not untypical. By sticking band aids onto the gaping wounds of social injustice we alleviate some of the most obvious symptoms of a systemic violence in our society. We become part of the problem while trying to be part of the solution. This conflict is made all the more difficult by the fact that we can’t just choose not to do what we do. I can’t pretend I believe I should have not tried to dissuade that young man from acting out his frustration by physically harming someone who was just as stuck in the system as he was. I can’t claim that I think homeless shelters shouldn’t exist because people who are at the bottom of the social ladder should be made to feel even worse than they already do so that they will start fighting back. But this episode does keeps bothering me.

The Big Knit: Anything but innocent

bigI feel a similar apprehension when I see all the charity appeals that seem to be everywhere since I moved to the UK. There are loads of cutesy, enthusiastic and motivational little pep talks that encourage me to do different things for charity. A great example is the “Innocent Big Knit”. Innocent, a company owned to 90% by Coca Cola, encourages consumers to knit little hats to put on their smoothies. These hats are then put on the smoothy bottles in supermarkets. For each sold bottle with a hat Innocent donates 25 pence to the charity Age UK to “keep older people across the UK warm and healthy during the chilly winter months”.

The Big Knit is tackling a very real problem. With rising fuel prices and cuts to benefits it is quite likely that some vulnerable people will not be able to afford heating their houses this winter. Wanting to help these people is a laudable goal. The Big Knit, however, has to be one of the most cynical things I have seen in a long time. Coca Cola is hardly known for its ethical conduct or their willingness to pay their fair share of taxes. In other words, Coca Cola are asking their customers to engage in free labour in order to alleviate some of the suffering they are responsible for. At the same time we are all to supposed keep it light and cute and friendly.

Capitalism and Charity

The Big Knit is only the tip of the iceberg of feel-good charity. Every day we are bombarded with appeals to show what save-the-tatas2good people we are. If we are not supposed to give money to a project directly we are supposed to spread awareness. People on Facebook ask me to write a status update on where I put my bra when I go to bed to raise awareness of breast cancer. Men don’t shave in November to raise awareness of cancer in general. Last year we were all asked to share a Youtube video to make others aware of the plight of child-soldiers in Uganda.

Awareness campaigns are interesting in themselves as they present awareness as some kind of magical formula by which we can solve all the world’s problems just by making other people aware of them. Interestingly, awareness campaigns are seldom used to make us aware of how we ourselves are profiting from global inequality and oppression. In so far as campaigns aim at changing our own behaviour they are most often calling for individualized and completely insufficient actions. There is also some evidence that awareness campaigns may sometimes do more harm then good. 

The problem with this form of charity or awareness raising is not just that it is insufficient. In “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” Slavoy Žižek describes the fundamental contradictions of charity within capitalism. Charity, he argues, does not only do nothing to challenge global injustice it serves the specific function of distracting us from these injustices. It thereby perpetuates these injustices. In an article on the Sociology Lens bschafer argues that:

Charity at its core reflects a symptomatic problem with capitalism. There are individuals throughout the world that are desperate for the most basic necessities in life and have to rely on the generosity of others. The very idea of needing charity is a reflection of a capitalist society that promotes an ‘everybody for themselves’ ethos, leaving many people to fight for scraps. Under our current global neoliberal model, more and more people are failing to secure financial stability and are in need of charity for survival. Rather than challenging the underlying structures,capitalism, that promote inequality and the need for charity, charitable practices become a form of fulfilment, self-deception, or perhaps a tax write-off.

Peter Buffet, son of Warren Buffet, made a similar point in an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year. In what he described the charitable-industrial complex Buffet argued that rich people use charity for the purpose of ‘conscious laundering’.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Philanthropic Colonialism

Buffet also argues against what he calls Philanthropic Colonialism in which people with a lot of money but little knowledge about local situations get to distribute money in ways that might make a situation even worse. Buffet speaks of well meaning people who are trying their best but just don’t have the skills and knowledge to effectively use their vast wealth effectively. He doesn’t mention that the way money is distributed through charity is mainly an issue of power.

Bono, hard at work making us feel better about ourselves

As the discussion about abstinence only sex education shows, the people who control charitable funds are not always those who should decide where money goes. By being charitable we get to dictate who is deserving of support and who isn’t. Charity doesn’t only help us convince ourselves we are good people, despite profiting from injustice, it also effectively helps us control those we are oppressing. To the same extent that it allows us to feel good about ourselves it humiliates those at the receiving end. Arundhati Roy points to this power imbalance when she describes the redistribution of government funds through NGO’s.

Most large, well-funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the United Nations and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place. NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right.

So now what?

Charities play an important part in alleviating the pain and suffering caused by austerity politics and social injustice more generally. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t give to charity. But we should be a bit more aware that the only reason it is even necessary is that we live in a very unjust world and if you’re reading this, chances are that you are on the winning side of this injustice. Maybe we shouldn’t be so cheerful about the fact that we are being given the chance to portray ourselves as ‘good people’ by giving a bit of our surplus wealth to those we deem as deserving. I don’t think I should have acted differently when talking to the man in the homeless shelter, when I convinced him not to vent his anger at a corrupt system by attacking a bureaucrat. I don’t think I should have encouraged him to attack his caseworker in the Job Centre. It would have resolved nothing. It wouldn’t have brought on a revolution. It would have just caused suffering for everyone involved. Similarly, I don’t want vulnerable people to go without food or heat this winter. But I can’t quite get over the fact that I receive several emails a week encouraging me to donate food or money to some cause or other and at how many of these emails include the word ‘yay’ and how few include the word ‘justice’.

This article was chrossposted at

3 thoughts on “The Problem With Charity

  1. AvatarDaniel Rose

    I like the quote and you’re most certainly an inspiration to many charities and charitable people. But I’d like to know more about what happens when charities and people go wrong, as there is so few organisations with powers to step in and correct them as charities seem protected beyond compare.

  2. AvatarJan

    “As I watched him walk away it dawned on me that I had just successfully stifled someone’s plan to resist being a victim of oppression.”

    That’s not what you did. He wasn’t planning an act of resistance, as a victim of oppression or otherwise. He was just expressing rage. Justified rage, but if he had acted on it, he would have been 100% in the wrong and it would NOT have been an act of resistance, it would have been an act of pointless violence that targeted an innocent person and also got him into far worse trouble.

    Framing it as having stifled an act of resistance is pointless and wrong.


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