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What's Wrong with Charity?

Most people would say that charity is always good, but not everyone. Some argue that charity is sometimes carried out badly - or less well than it should be - while others think that charity can bring bad results even when it is well implemented. The earlier arguments in this section are criticisms of the whole idea of charity and charitable giving. Later arguments focus on some aspects of charity that they claim are bad. Top

Thinking too small Charities often target symptoms, not causes The accusation is that charity helps the recipient with their problem, but it doesn't do much to deal with the causes of that problem. Particular aspects of this are dealt with in the next two topics. It certainly is true that some charities do stopgap or 'band-aid' work, either exclusively or some of the time. But in fact, a lot of charity work is devoted to dealing with the fundamental causes of problems: for example trying to reduce global poverty, or doing research into diseases like cancer. These two examples highlight very different problems. Combating cancer is a relatively simple scientific problem, while global poverty requires more than a scientific operation, or finding a better way to manage world resources. Combating poverty involves slow processes of political, cultural and social change, with many stakeholders, significant opposition and serious issues of self-determination and coercion to be navigated. And long-term campaigns pose another ethical problem: should we spend to make a better world in 10 years' time if that means that people who we could have fed starve to death tomorrow? The famous story of the boy and the starfish shows why using charity to fix individual problems can be very valuable. Once upon a time, a man walking along a beach saw a boy picking up starfish and throwing them into the sea. He asked the boy why he was throwing starfish into the sea. The boy replied, "The tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll dry up and die." The man smiled patronisingly and said, "But, there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish on every mile. You can't possibly make a difference!" The boy smiled, bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the sea. "Well," he said, "I made a difference for that one." Charity may become a substitute for real justice This is a particular slant on the topic above. The idea is that charity is wrong when it's used to patch up the effects of the fundamental injustices that are built into the structure and values of a society. Charity, from this viewpoint, can sometimes be seen as actually accepting the injustice itself, while trying to mitigate the consequences of the injustice. One person who wrote on this is the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. We have previously suggested that philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932 Niebuhr thought that a powerful person's donation to charity was a display of his power and an expression of his pity. And Niebuhr added His generous impulse freezes within him if his power is challenged or his generosities are accepted without suitable humility. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932 One example given by Niebuhr (who was writing in 1930s USA) was the way charitable help for black education didn't deal with the roots of the problem. His language is not in line with modern racial sensibilities, but the point is still of value. The Negro schools, conducted under the auspices of white philanthropy, encourage individual Negroes to higher forms of self-realisation; but they do not make a frontal attack upon the social injustices from which the Negro suffers. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932 Top

Failing to change society Charity may not provide the best solution to a problem Let's agree that the purpose of giving to charity is to solve particular problems and choose the problem of world poverty. Let's also agree that we want to do the most effective thing to help reduce world poverty. Charitable giving may not be the most effective way of solving world poverty. Indeed charitable giving may even distract from finding the best solution - which might involve a complex rethink of the way the world organises its economic relationships, and large-scale government initiatives to change people's conditions. If that is so, then the effort put into charity might be better devoted to pressuring governments to bring about needed change. And governments might be more likely to focus on dealing with poverty if they weren't being helped by charities. This isn't a new argument: It is more socially injurious for the millionaire to spend his surplus wealth in charity than in luxury. For by spending it on luxury, he chiefly injures himself and his immediate circle, but by spending it in charity he inflicts a graver injury upon society. For every act of charity, applied to heal suffering arising from defective arrangements of society, serves to weaken the personal springs of social reform, alike by the 'miraculous' relief it brings to the individual 'case' that is relieved, and by the softening influence it exercises on the hearts and heads of those who witness it. It substitutes the idea and the desire of individual reform for those of social reform, and so weakens the capacity for collective self-help in society. J A Hobson, Work and Wealth, 1914 But diverting resources away from famine relief may mean that millions will starve in the short-term, even if it brings about a long-term solution that saves many more people. And for most of the needy, a bird in the hand really is a lot better than two (perhaps improbable) birds in the bush. Charity may benefit the state rather than the needy Dr Neil Levy has argued that charity can be self-defeating if it allows the state to escape some of its responsibilities. Large-scale philanthropy to support 'essential services' is wrong: Charity to support essential services is bad because it switches provision from government to charity, rather than increasing benefits to the needy. ...large-scale philanthropic activity carries with it serious risks of changing the balance of funding from the public to the private sector, thereby exposing those most in need to the vicissitudes of the market. To the extent that private funding of essential services becomes the norm, the vulnerable become the recipients of (at best) uncertain aid, which is liable to fluctuations and constant reduction. Neil Levy, Against Philanthropy The argument goes something like this. If the charity sector increases spending in an area also funded by government then there is a risk that government will choose to spend less in that area with the result that governments save money, and extra benefits provided by the charity spend are reduced. Whether this is true is something that can be empirically tested - it either does happen or it doesn't. Dr Levy is in favour of redistributing resources from the rich towards the poor; his argument is with the method of doing this. I do not wish this redistribution of wealth to cease. Instead, I want it to be conducted by government. Rather than have the wealthy donate to charities, income and other taxes should generate the revenue to fund the services in question. Neil Levy, Against Philanthropy Another, and related, argument is that charities depend on the desires and incomes of unaccountable donors while the work of governments is subject, in many cases, to regular democratic or political review, and is thus more subject to public scrutiny and control. In fact, in many areas of essential services in the developed world, the government is by far the biggest spender, and charity spending is a small share and so won't make a significant difference to government commitments. Incidentally, if you go back a century or two, you'll discover that many of the essential services we now expect governments to provide were provided by charities or not at all. As the role of government increased, charities took on the role of supplementing the government spend, rather than provide the basic service. Top

Technicalities of giving Charity may lead to favouritism, not fairness The interests of all persons ought to count equally, and geographic location and citizenship make no intrinsic difference to the rights and obligations of individuals. Peter Singer Donors, not unreasonably, choose to give to causes that appeal to them. But these are not necessarily the causes where there is the greatest need. This quotation from a US anti-hunger campaigner provides an example. ...what we've really kind of devolved into is almost cause-of-the-year, what's popular, who has the best pitch. In the anti-hunger world in which I live, I hate to say this, but I have to compete sometimes with people who want to feed children [to the exclusion of others]. And I hate that. All hunger is wrong. Don't create this kind of caste system in which the public is given choices they don't have to make. The reality is there's more than enough food to feed everyone who's hungry. Look, I feed crack addicts, I feed prostitutes. Robert Egger, Founder of D C Central Kitchen, Washington Post, July 1, 2007 The relationship between charity and the tax system can do harm Professor Rob Reich has argued tax incentives for charitable giving can worsen social inequalities, by reducing the revenue that the state has available for social projects. Discussing the US context Prof Reich says that allowing tax deductions for donations to private schools, for instance, can indirectly reduce revenue for public schools and increase disparity. The tax regime for donations doesn't favour socially useful donations. Reich gave this example: $1,000 donation is valued the same whether it is for an art museum or for natural-disaster relief. Another problem arises from granting tax exempt status to charitable organisations, as this too reduces the revenue available for state projects. Both of these aspects of tax regimes are regarded by some people as a transfer of monies from an area that is politically accountable for its spending to an area where accountability is more variable. Our charitable giving is often inefficient A very closely related downside of the way we give is the way our own preferences reduce the benefits produced by our gifts. Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with $100 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the check. We don't. Instead, we give $5 for a LiveStrong bracelet, pledge $25 to Save the Children, another $25 to AIDS research, and so on. But $25 is not going to find a cure for AIDS. Either it's the best cause and deserves the entire $100, or it's not and some other cause does. The scattershot approach simply proves that we're more interested in feeling good than doing good. Charity Is Selfish Tim Harford, The economic case against philanthropy, Slate, Oct. 14, 2006 Top

What charities do with their funds Charities may not make best use of their funds The issue here is whether the charity we give to devotes a high enough proportion of its funds to the needy. Responsible charities make it very clear what proportion of contributions is spent on administration and fund-raising. Charities are often accountable to the givers not the receivers If the purpose of charity is to benefit the recipients, it seems obvious that those best able to say whether they are achieving this end are the recipients. But because the recipients of charity are often unorganised and the charity doesn't know their individual identities, it's often easier for charities to make their performance reports to the givers. This isn't much of an argument against charity - being accountable to the givers promotes further giving, and the givers are likely to assess charity performance by the impact on the recipients. Charities also take accountability to the recipients seriously and conduct research to tailor their actions more closely to the needs and preferences of their beneficiaries. Is it ethical to give with strings attached? Governments and some charities sometimes attach conditions to gifts of aid. Let us remember that the main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves. US President Richard Nixon, 1968 Donations sometimes impose obligations that are apparently uncontroversial - perhaps demanding democratic reforms - and sometimes more controversial - insisting that the institution receiving the gift stops giving out free condoms. Does it make a difference to the ethics of conditional giving if the conditions are imposed to ensure that the gift produces maximum benefit? Or if imposing the conditions on a chaotic or corrupt country is the only way that the poor will receive any benefit at all? The reasons most people give for objecting to conditional charity gifts are:

  • It interferes with the autonomy of the recipient

  • It's unethical to interfere in the self-determination of sovereign states

  • The conditions may be contrary to human rights

  • The conditions may be politically manipulative

Fundraising Some people question whether charities are ethical in how they raise money.



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