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Brave New Charitable World?

The outpouring of donations to tsunami victims have some heralding a new era of global progress. But charity rarely produces fair or just solutions.

Cam Sylvester 13 Jan
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"Justice has to do with fairness, with what people deserve. It results from social structures that guarantee moral rights. Charity has to do with benevolence or generosity. It results from people's good will and can be withdrawn whenever they choose."  Dr. David Hilfiker, founder of Joseph's House, a community of homeless men living with AIDS in Washington, D.C.

No, giving aid to the tsunami victims is not supposed to be some kind of winter Olympic competition, but have a look at this recent list of per capita donations.

1. Norway: $39.13 (Per capita GDP rank: 2)
2. Australia: $37.82 (14)
3. Qatar: $29.76 (36)
4. Denmark: $14.11 (8)
5. Switzerland: $13.00 (7)
6. Sweden: $8.33 (24)
7. Germany: $8.17 (21)
8. United Arab Emirates: $8.00 (32)
9. Kuwait: $4.35 (47)
10.  Japan: $3.91 (17)
11.  Finland: $3.12 (22)
12.  Taiwan: $2.21 (31)
13.  Netherlands: $2.09 (16)
14.  Canada: $2.06 (11)
15.  Spain: $1.69 (34)
16.  New Zealand: $1.68 (35)
17.  United Kingdom: $1.61 (19)
18.  European Union: $1.36 (26)
19.  United States: $1.19 (3)
20.  Saudi Arabia: $1.17 (69)
21.  France: $1.05 (20)
22.  China: $0.05 (120)

Like I say, not a bobsled race. But as usual, we find the Europeans, particularly the Nordic countries, well ahead.  Team USA's sled - the red, white and blue "Compassionate Conservative" - lags far behind after George Bush and his team stumbled out of the blocks.  (Too much testosterone?)  And while much was expected of team Canada, and despite a good second half of the run, pilot Paul Martin lost momentum flip-flopping through the early turns, leaving his sled well back in the middle of the pack.

"Enough, enough, enough," the editors of the Financial Times wrote about this race last week. "The competition between rich world governments to outdo each other in pledging aid to tsunami-stricken Asia is turning grotesque." Supplying much needed funding to grief-stricken and vulnerable people is hardly grotesque.  But the Times editors do have a point: charity - and that's what this outpouring of international aid is, charity - has its flaws.  And despite the pro-charity arguments of the neo-cons as a solution to poverty and all other inequalities, it is hardly the means to achieve a just society, either nationally or internationally.

So, if this event is a sign that we now live in the Global Village, as some commentators would have us believe, our village indeed has great capacity for benevolence and generosity: $7 billion has been pledged to help the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami so far.  But our village is hardly just. Nor does it presently have the capacity to become just. That's because the free market of charitable giving is no more capable of achieving justice than is the free market in goods and services.  In fact, unchecked, charity is a slippery slope to entrenching and even intensifying the present global inequality.

Charity is fickle

Here's a question: If the tsunami had not hit at Christmas time, a time when people are pickling in (among other things) the brine of benevolence; if the tsunami had merely hit the isolated, war-torn, western coast of Sumatra and not ripped into exotic, idyllic vacation spots like Phuket frequented by people we know; would the outpouring of international support would be as great?

History tells us no. The response to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China which killed over 240,000 people did not garner the response we've seen for the tsunami disaster.  You could argue that China was a closed communist country embroiled in the struggle to succeed a dying Mao Zedong at the time.  But that doesn't explain our response - or lack of response - in 1970 to the Bhola cyclone in what is now Bangladesh.  As many as 500,000 people died in the tidal surge created by that storm.  The crisis led in part to the civil war cleaving East Pakistan from West Pakistan.  But it didn't lead to anywhere near the $21 billion in aid one might expect in the rational terms of per capita aid - even in 1970s dollars.

Aid agencies have long recognized the fickleness of our generosity.  Some have even stooped to using doe-eyed, vulnerable children to turn our attention and wallets their way.  But if the poor depend on whether we are moved to give, then our global village is hardly just.

Charity can, in fact, contribute to further injustices.  Back in 2003 in their World Disasters Report, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned of the consequences of media-friendly crisis such as the Christmas tsunami: "Humanitarian aid tends to favour high-profile emergencies at the expense of more invisible suffering far from the media or political spotlight."  IFRC's president, Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro argued in the report: "We are facing a real inequality in global humanitarian practice, where many of the world's wars and disasters have become forgotten emergencies." 

Charity can camouflage

In Wednesday's editorial, the Vancouver Sun opined: "Individuals, while laudably responding to the need to help those less fortunate, should also remember that misfortune exists across the world, not just in places where unusual disaster has struck."  True enough.  But this compassionate conservative approach to fixing inequities in the charity market is about as naïve as urging people to diversify their purchases to correct monopolistic distortions in the market for goods and services: "It's good that you are buying Christmas presents at an unparalleled rate," The Sun's editorial board might as well be writing, "but don't just shop at Wal-Mart; spread your purchases around and support smaller but equally important stores.  They need our help too." 

Sure, the Sun's editorial board may get some people to consider momentarily the misfortunes of Africans and Bolivians.  But these urgings should not be mistaken as the solution to the present or future inequalities that result from charity alone, any more than a million individual choices will suddenly result in Microsoft relinquishing control of the software market.  Social justice is best achieved through establishing universal social programs: programs funded through predictable sources of revenue, such as taxes; programs funded over long periods of time, and not willy-nilly in response to this or that crisis, so they can achieve long term goals; programs independent of powerful individuals or specific interest groups so that favouritism and prejudice in all their guises are avoided as much as possible.  

As David Hilfiker points out in his article "Charity and Justice" in The Other Side Online: "Soup kitchens and shelters started as emergency responses to terrible problems - to help ensure that people do not starve, or die from the elements. No one, certainly not their founders, ever considered these services as appropriate permanent solutions to the problems. But soup kitchens and food pantries are now our standard response to hunger; cities see shelters as adequate housing for the homeless. Our church-sponsored shelters can camouflage the fact that charity has replaced an entitlement to housing that was lost when the federally subsidized housing program was gutted twenty years ago."  And gutting government social programs is precisely what's at the top of the agenda of the Fraser Institute, oft-quoted in The Sun, and by-the-by the former employer of The Sun's compassionate conservative Editorial Page Editor, Fazil Mihlar.

The Axis of "I will'

In 2000, Austen Davis, General Director of Medicins sans Frontieres in Holland, identified international aid's ugly underbelly - power politics: "Humanitarian action is supposed to be out of the power play between states…. [But] humanitarian action can be denied….; it can be manipulated to support political agendas; it may also be diverted to help powerful elites increase their wealth and power or forward their military strategies; or it can be used to hide a lack of political action."  Considering the political maneuvering of states that has gone on since the tsunami struck, Davis might just as well have written those words this afternoon.

Hungry for friends in the Muslim world after the debacle in Iraq, the U.S. has leaped into the fray, identifying itself as the world's aid leader (despite the paltry $1.19 per capita it has commitment to the region) and sidelining the UN yet again by convincing Australia to join an ad hoc "core group" in Jakarta: a coalition of the wallets, if you will; the axis of "I will." Fearing they may be outmaneuvered in precisely the area they have long yearned to project their power, Japan and India jettisoned their commitment to multilateralism and joined the crusaders. 

Then, conscious of how accepting aid might negatively impact their credit rating at Moody's, Thailand's leaders refused the aid offered them rather than watch the interest rate they pay on loans climb into the stratosphere. "Try as we might to make our programs humane," Hilfiker warns us about aid, "it is still we who are the givers and they who are the receivers. Charity thus 'acts out' inequality."  And power, the Thai leaders recognized correctly.  ''There is no innocence in the politics of humanitarian assistance," Sri Lankan political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda stated last week in Common Dreams.

Can't see the causes for the need

Germans (Number 7 on the aid per capita chart, with a bullet) have an old saying: charity sees the need, not the cause.  Does that mean that we stop being charitable, that we don't meet the needs of people in crisis?  Of course not. 

But we must be aware of the limits of our free-market benevolence.  Sociologist Janet Poppendieck, in her book Sweet Charity, concludes that charity acts as "a sort of a 'moral safety valve'; it reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action….It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [injustice]."

That's because charity cannot on its own change the underlying social, political, and economic structures that lead to inequality and injustice.  "Often we use the charity window to avoid recognising the problem and finding a solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility," warns Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the highly successful Grameen Bank which grants micro-loans to small farmers and entrepreneurs in developing countries.

So what then is our responsibility internationally?  In the absence of a governance system in our Global Village which can design and implement global social programs modeled on those few national ones that still remain intact, we are left with a few options to augment our charity, ameliorate its flaws, and work towards a just system:

1) Do our research.  Find out if the international NGOs we are supporting are committed to dealing with the causes, and not merely the short term needs, of the people with whom they are working.

 2) Demand that our governments, and all governments, meet their commitment of directing 0.7 percent of GNP to ODA and increase that commitment in the future.

3) Pressure our governments to keep ODA free of ties, preferably by channeling some of it through multilateral organizations where the "receiver" countries have at least an equal voice in developing policy as the "giver" nations, or, if necessary, create new organizations to achieve this goal.

4) If we find ourselves riding a bobsled, toboggan, or crazy carpet with anyone promoting the fallacy of compassionate conservatism, give them a good face wash at the bottom of the hill - all for the sake of global justice, of course.

In addition to tobogganing with friends and family of all political stripes, and teaching Political Studies at Capilano College , Cam Sylvester directs the Global Stewardship Program which works with first and second year students planning for a career in the not-for-profit sector.


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