Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Uncharitable Side of Charity

Recently a comment in a post made on UK writer Nicola Morgan's blog got me thinking. The post was about what seems to be a lovely book written by Ms Morgan's friend. Among the many things in this book is a bit about his trip to Botswana where he visited an orphanage. The thing that troubled me was this- "Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror."

I felt an immediate annoyance, but even as I write this I can't quite put my finger on the cause. Does this writer not have the right to visit an orphanage in Botswana and write about it? Of course he does. At the blog I wrote about how I'm sick of African countries forever being seen as unfixable basket cases full of unspeakable horrors. Botswana is far from that picture. Ms Morgan found my comments unjustified.

Why is it when a British writer comes to Botswana and visits an orphanage and writes of what he sees, it is different than a Motswana writer going to an orphanage in England and writing about what she sees? I don't know, but it is.

I feel, for reasons I can't quite articulate, that England will not be defined by the atrocities her orphans might endure, while Botswana will. There will be the impression that yes, these children have problems but England has the capacity to help them out and get them back on their feet- alone, while Botswana does not. Someone from outside must save them; it is the children's only hope.

The same thing applies to this business of celebrities adopting African children. Madonna adopting a child from Malawi is not the same as a Malawian pop star adopting a child from England. It sounds the same, but it is not. In one case, it is a child finding a new home, in the other it is a condemnation of a country.

This issue involves charity to some extent. My problem, I think, starts with the flaws in the whole concept of charity. It is charitable to visit an orphanage in Botswana and talk about the terrible lives the children have endured. It is charitable to adopt a child from Malawi. But charity has two aspects I find repugnant.

First, it assumes the recipient is unable to help themselves. It institutionalises helplessness. It, almost by definition, insists that the person first be helpless to receive the charity. Why couldn't the adults in Malawi help the child Madonna adopted? Of course they could, but she needed them to be thoroughly helpless to justify her charity. Why must the UK writer write of the terrible tragedies Batswana orphans endured? Is there no Motswana who is helping these children? Can Botswana not attend to its problems on its own?

Second, charity of all sorts helps the giver much more than the one receiving. The giver gets satisfaction in being defined as charitable- sometimes in big ways by announcing to the world what they have done, sometimes in small ways by just saying quietly to themselves "I am good, I've done a good thing". In either case, by whatever fraction of a degree, the charity benefits the giver, it is always at the expense of the receiver. The receiver must be found, identified as unable to sort themselves out, and then the giver must step in, wearing their glowing suit of armour and save the day. The handing over of money or food or clothes is a one off thing. We go back to giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him to fish or in many cases ( as in aid (charity) from many Western countries) allowing him to have a fair shot at selling the fish he has rotting in his basket. Charity makes people weaker and more helpless.

I grew up poor as many people who read this blog know. I wrote a story called "The Do Gooders" which was published some time ago in the UK journal Riptide based on a memory from my childhood when people from a nearby church brought food to our home for Thanksgiving. I've never in my life been more ashamed. I swore as I hid behind the curtain that I would never again be placed in a position where I would be the recipient of charity. Never. I'd rather die. Without a doubt this event taints much of my world view.

It is all of this which fuels my anger at the manner in which the world views Africa and my adopted country of Botswana. Charity, as history has proven on this continent over and over again, improves nothing and, I feel, only makes things much, much worse. Perhaps I am so far away from sense I cannot see reason, I'm not sure. My hope is my dear readers will sort me out.


Anonymous said...

Its all a sham. Nothing but tax deductible PR crap. Make the people love you. Take their money. Convince them that you're making the world a better place. Take more of their money. Be nothing but a greedy sell-out hypocrite pig with a fake commercial personality and a fake cause to pose for. Concentrate even more of the world's wealth and resources and lead the ignorant masses to believe that you're doing the opposite. I can't stop them and I can't punish them but I can tell you that their bogus promises to make the world a better place will not be kept. Any 'humanitarian' progress made in one area will always be lost in another with a net loss for the majority. There will be more poverty. More starvation. More conflict. Meanwhile the rich will keep getting richer and richer and richer. They will always dumb us down and divert our attention from one area to another. Just like they have been for at least 25 years. Ethipoia (still bad), Darfur (even worse), Malawi (still bad). As they concentrate more and more of the world's wealth and resources, they will cause more inflation, more poverty, more starvation, and more conflict on a global scale. In order to divert our attention, they will adopt another cause to pose for. and another. and another. and another. Each time, putting their fake humanitarian stamp on it and jet-setting the world in the name of 'humanity'. Actually charging their private jet rides and 5 star hotel accomodations to their own bogus 'foundations'. Pleading with us to buy more of their products and support more of their 'good will'. Taking more of our money and throwing a few crumbs back to the poor along the way. With another photo-op and worldwide publicity for each and every crumb. Like I said, its all a sham. Nothing but a giant marketing gimmick and a cheap excuse to keep getting richer and richer and richer. These people are actually causing the same problems they pretend to care about. It is the greatest scam of all time. I will not forgive them for it. I will expose as many as possible for the hypocrite pigs that they are. Thats my cause. Its the ugly truth. Someone has to tell it.

Lauri said...

Anonymous- I agree comepletely with what you're saying. My question to you is how does this play out on a more personal level? I somehow feel it is still the same thing. When a richer person packs up their old toys to take to the poor kids- is it still the same? When the generous foreigner visits the suffering poor Africans- is it still the same? I think that's where my confusion lies. Are charitable acts always wrong?

bonita said...

OUCH! I'm not sure I agree with the generalities you've articulated. I, too, grew up poor. One particular year the checkout ladies at the local supermarket knew that my father was deathly ill and my mother at loose ends on how to keep food on the table. They figured out where we lived, gathered some food and such from the store—and a great big doll—and brought them to our house Christmas eve. I missed the point about being humiliated. I was glad to have Christmas dinner and glad that those 'funny old ladies' at the store brought a doll for the little girl whose family life was clearly sub standard. (In point of fact I thought it was a relatively garish doll but that it was a gift made it special.) Even now, every Christmas I think about those ladies, now long gone, and hope they knew how much their charity was appreciated. Because I can never thank them, I make certain to contribute to local food banks, particularly now when unemployment is so very high.
I'm sure that there are instances when the given charity is self-serving, but I cannot condemn all charity on that account. There are those who claim that charity, particularly charity directed at 3rd world countries, is an institutionalized effort to maintain poverty rather than remedy it. There is a way around this problem. The Grameen Banks show that the best approach is development up from the bottom. It's taken a while to learn this... it may take even longer to put it in widespread practice.

Lauri said...

Bonita- I'm so happy to hear the story about your Christmas as a child. Part of the motivation for me writing this post is trying to figure out what I really, really feel about this issue.

Lately I've been trying to organise a woman's group in my village. Mostly it will be a social group but we wanted to also try to do something for our village. I can't find anyway to be charitable without shining light on ourselves. I've thought of some sort of secret way of giving to people. For example we wanted to buy nappies and baby clothes for newborns at the hosptial and give them to the hospital to give to mothers who don't have anything. But because of my problems with this issue I can't find a way to do it that is okay with my mind.

Off topic Bonita- I got your emails but for some reason all of my emails to you keep bouncing back. Funny the story about the science lesson. They do pay.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

My daughter and I were just talking about this exact subject yesterday. The very idea of Madonna adopting any child, let alone an African one, makes me want to vomit. I do believe charity can be a good thing. I give money to food banks regularily, believe it or not here in California we have super high unemployment and the food banks are in dire need of supplies this year. Many families have lost their homes and do not have enough to eat.

Bonita's story hit home. I have a brain-injured four year old grandchild, and without oodles of family members and friends chipping in for various treatments and needs that are not covered by traditional insurance and government programs, my little grandson would not be faring as well as he is.

I am so sick of do-gooder celebritiy elitists, they run around the planet acting as if they're the end all and be all, more often than not they attract the wrong kind of attention and don't really end up changing a damn thing.

karen said...

Hi Lauri. Very interesting point, and comments too! This is only my personal opinion here..I do agree that often the grander scale of "charity/Aid" or high profile charitableness can be problematic and wrongly implemented/motivated etc. Until all that changes, and the world becomes a better place, I just see that things are how they are - and there is always somebody less fortunate in need of some help, somewhere. On a personal level,when it comes down to humans showing a bit of love and compassion, I am all for it. (Yes, I, too have been on the receiving end of charitable activities!). I like to give or contribute in various ways too, and,yes, it does make me as a giver feel good but I don't think that's my primary motivation. Sometimes one feels so helpless in the face of everything, but for example when I see/feel the response of those little orphaned and vulnerable kids, to any form of genuine love, and attention... i just feel that it can't be wrong!

I might also be completely wrong and misguided about it all, and I've probably now veered a bit off your initial theme here, but I'm sure every little bit can help. I think your idea about the hospital newborns is great, too! Sometimes the world we live in just makes me want to jump right off the planet... thanks for such a thought provoking post!

Lauri said...

Bonita I went to the shop and thought more about our two experiences and wondered why we both reacted so differently. I remember there being kids from school in the crowd of church people. That really got me somehow. Maybe that's why I want to only give things secretly. No one should know that I've given to them and I'd rather not know who I've given to.

Karen- please I need everyone's opinion on this. I was shocked by Nicola's response on her blog and when I tried to sort out my feelings, step-by-step I couldn't do it but still, emotionally I felt the same. I need to know where my flaw is. Your comment is very helpful.

Elizabeth- When I was in Cape Town a maid at the hotel told my friend that her niece was in Oprah's school and they were banned from visiting her. The maid saw it as a prison, though she did accept that her niece would have a completely different life from hers. Will that life be better? By whose standards? So I think you're right, they think they're doing something but are they?

Anonymous said...

I have done a lot of work with charities in the past and have found there is an element of judgement with some of them. There can also be a skewed sense of expectation. For example, the adoption of African babies is seen as much more philanthropic than getting a crack addicted baby out of the foster care system in your own country. It is almost as if the expectation is greater that the African child will have a worse time of it if he stays in Africa and that somehow getting him out of the country is a grander gesture than saving a child on your own doorstep.

I don't know why it is the way it is. I suspect that most of these grand schemes come down to attracting big sponsors. The best charities I have ever worked with followed the tenet that 'charity begins at home.' I think that is very true.

Anonymous said...

Wow. There are some very sincere deep thinkers here. I didn't really expect that. I just found this random blog searching Madonna's name and decided to paste a comment. Every now and then, I save one just to gauge the response. Usually, its nothing but celebrity worship and half-wit BS about the rich creating wealth (without the slightest regard for the concentration of it).

I am sorry if it appeared that I was ripping on giving in general. I wasn't. I am truly inspired and humbled by actual sacrifice with no ulterior motives. But I have had it up to my eyeballs with so many of the richest, most powerful people in the world concentrating obscene levels of wealth (much more than they create), throwing a few crumbs back to the poor, and calling themselves 'humanitarians'. It has become the most disgusting exhibition of self-centered hypocrisy the world has ever seen. and its not even productive when you look at the big picture. Poverty has actually been getting worse for at least 13 years straight. This in spite of massive economic growth (until mid '07'), record setting profits, and so much supposed 'good will' on the part of EVERY SINGLE BIG CELEBRITY, BIG EXECUTIVE, AND BIG POLITICIAN ON THE PLANET. I've had it with every one of them. I don't care how much they 'give back'. THEY KEEP TOO MUCH. But my criticism was not of legitimate good will. Only the false heroes like Madonna and so many others.

Helen Ginger said...

I do think that when celebrities travel to Africa and adopt children, they are doing it for the publicity. There are plenty of babies who need adopting in their own country, whether that be the US, England, or wherever. They go elsewhere to get the publicity or to make themselves feel righteous. But I don't think all charity is bad or wrong. There is poverty and need. Sometimes a town floods and people lose their homes. The people of the town and elsewhere chip in and rebuild and take care of each other. This is charitable. There are kids who will have no Christmas presents and others donate toys and money, anonymously. They seek no attention. There are people who are poor and jobless and someone teaches them a skill so they can get a job.

I grew up poor so I know there is poverty here in the U.S. I don't know Africa, but I'm learning from you.

Straight From Hel

Lauri said...

Helen- There is, of course, poverty here in Botswana. But too I think it is a bit like money exchange. If I say I earn P2000 in a month, it's a pretty good wage, not great but I can manage. but when I change it to US dollars it's about $333 which I'm sure for a monthly salary in USA seems very small. This is why direct conversions don't work.

When someone from outside sees people in Botswana living in a mud hut and cooking outside they jump to conclusions about poverty. It doesn't convert properly.

Miriam said...

This discussion has affected me greatly and, like you, I'm confused. I think that, for me, it's not so much the charity issue as the idea of people coming from outside and, without seeing the whole picture or understanding anything, say, "You don't know how to manage your affairs. We're going to take that responsibilty away from you and deal with things in our own way."

It's as if someone had decided I wasn't a good enough mother and, rather than working with me and helping me to improve, had taken my children away.

Lauri said...

Miriam sorry that this has affected you so.

"It's as if someone had decided I wasn't a good enough mother and, rather than working with me and helping me to improve, had taken my children away."

With this there is also the issue of even if they teach you how to be a better mother- the question remains defined by whom?